The 600: A review of The Soldiers’ Story

African social media influencers at the premiere of The 600. / Courtesy

The 600: The Soldiers’ Story is a story about people, leadership, and the triumph of humanity over the extreme evil of genocide.

The RPA high command carefully analyzed and planned for the environment into which they were sending the third battalion.

This can be inferred from what Brigadier-General Vincent Nyakarundi, Major-General Charles Karamba, and Major-General (Rtd) Sam Kaka, who appear several times in the documentary, say about the environment in which the 600 were to be deployed.

Even though they would go as part of a peace accord, only the best could be sent into this dangerous and unpredictable terrain after careful selection and additional training.

After all, the RPA command knew very well that the establishment of the broad-based transitional government (BBTG) could be frustrated by Habyarimana and his extremist allies who adamantly opposed the Arusha agreement.

Some of the operational assumptions and risks that the RPA command probably identified included:

The probability of Hutu extremists continuing to oppose the agreement and seeking an open conflict with the RPA.

The unabated spread of the extremist ideology of Tutsi extermination, which was tested several times since October 1990 on the Tutsi population in the northwest of the country (in the former provinces of Ruhengeri and Gisenyi), in Bugesera, and other places.

Richard Hall (R), executive producer of The 600 , with Annette Uwizeye, co-producer. / Courtesy

The small number of RPA troops in the Parliamentary building, who were mostly allowed light weapons, would be considered an easy target.

Non-state actors such as the pro-government militia Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi would support the genocide project of the government. The French military would continue to support the Habyarimana regime.

The possibility of more chaos should the implementation of the Arusha agreement fail. The likelihood of genocide against the Tutsi, which had already been planned., probably since 1992.

When the genocide against the Tutsi started on the evening of April 6, 1994, the “peace” environment of the Arusha accord quickly turned into an open conflict with all the ingredients described above. The 600 were surrounded on all sides by 10,000 government soldiers, including the elite presidential guard literally hundreds of meters from their base of operation. 

Hundreds of thousands of pro-government militia and a big part of the population that had embraced the government ideology of exterminating the Tutsi added to this complex, hostile and dangerous environment.

The media (including the national radio and the infamous RTLM) were continuously spewing messages of anti-Tutsi hatred, praising and encouraging the on-going slaughter of innocent people.

Roadblocks in many neighborhoods manned 24/7 by Hutu militia armed with machetes, clubs, and sometimes guns were sites of unspeakable massacres. 

Targeted for annihilation, the Tutsi were trapped in their homes or had assembled in stadiums, places of worship, and schools. The interim government had made it a state project to exterminate the Tutsi.

The people

In this challenging environment, the 600 were ordered to get out of their base in small groups, engage the surrounding forces, and save as many lives as possible.

The strategy, as reflected in the documentary, is, above all, about saving the lives of the population targeted for extermination.

The film foregrounds the genocide against the Tutsi and invokes some of the manners in which they were murdered: shot, cut with machetes, thrown into open latrines, and other unspeakable ways. 

In the prelude, statements from genocide survivors express gratitude to the 600 Rwandan Patriotic soldiers who saved them “from the lion’s mouth,” as one survivor puts it.

Saving people inspires determination, creative resourcefulness, and the will and strength to act even as outnumbered and in a very hostile environment. 

Much of the documentary recounts the daring missions undertaken by small groups of  RPA soldiers to rescue people from various parts of Kigali, including the Amahoro national stadium, St Paul Center in central Kigali, a Nyamirambo neighborhood, and St Andre School also in Nyamirambo.

Each individual rescue mission could be a documentary on its own, but the common thread is a strong sense of adaptive determination and emotional resilience.

Faithful to the genre, the documentary recreates these missions through reenactments and testimonials from survivors and RPA soldiers who were involved in the action. 

The rescue missions constitute the heart of the film for several reasons. First, the government soldiers and militia were heavily invested in the extermination of the Tutsi, who were being killed everywhere including at the many roadblocks erected through Kigali and in places such as churches that had been safe during anti-Tutsi pogroms between the 1959 and 1994. 

Second, in the face of abandonment by the international community, including the United Nations forces still in Rwanda, members of the RPA’s third battalion were the only hope left for those waiting for certain death.

Third, seeing survivors talking about their resilience and their rescuers brings back the humanity that the genocidaires were trying to destroy. One warring side was trying its vilest to destroy lives, and the other was courageously striving to restore humanity by saving as many lives as possible. The juxtaposition of rescuers’ and survivors’ voices gives credence to accounts on both sides.

Leadership

The 600: The Soldiers’ Story is also the story of the 1990-1994 liberation war. The movie reflects a culture of leadership, purpose, and determination modeled at the top of the RPA command. 

In interviews with François Soudan (Paul Kagame; Conversations with the President of Rwanda (Enigma, 2015)), the Rwanda Defence Forces Commander-in-Chief recounts how he had to bring in “organization and thorough thinking” (p. 48) to the liberation war after the initial success was followed by defeat. 

He reshaped the demoralized and depleted troops in the cold terrain and mountains of the north with limited food and medical supplies, battled an army several times its size also supported by the French military and forced the Habyarimana government and his larger army into peace negotiations. 

He achieved this feat through discipline, determination, and resilience but mostly through the power of a higher purpose and a resolute sense of sacrifice. These values epitomize the essence of legends such as David defeating Goliath (1 Samuel 17)  and the 300 Spartans making the ultimate sacrifice but holding hundreds of thousands of Xerxes’s Persian soldiers.

This is the leadership culture that sustained the RPA during the liberation war. When the surrounded 600 were attacked starting with the evening of April 6, 1994, they had been tested by three years of guerilla strategies and had a model of leadership and sacrifice to follow.

The 600 showed that leadership is about having a purpose, the will to act, the determination, the tenacity, and the resourcefulness that the RPA showed in defeating a much larger army. Their resilience and bravery belong to the realm of mythology.

An army of exiles and return to the motherland

Like many other stories, The 600: The Soldiers’ Story starts in media res.  A sequence of historical events preceded the arrival of the 600 Rwandan Patriotic Front soldiers in Kigali.

There was the political ideology of exclusion contained in the 1957 Bahutu Manifesto, the Hutu revolt of 1959, the birth of a republic in 1962 based on the same value system of discrimination, and anti-Tutsi pogroms from 1959 to 1964 that forced thousands of Tutsi into exile in neighboring countries and beyond. 

There were other anti-Tutsi attacks in 1973, leading to more Tutsi in exile. The two successive republics under Kayibanda (1962-1973) and Habyarimana (1973-1994) adamantly refused the return of Tutsi refugees.

The two regimes claimed that Rwanda was too small to accommodate its citizens in exile.

The song in the early part of the documentary, as the RPF leaders and the RPA battalion, enter Kigali to jubilant crowds along the streets, conveys the joy of homecoming after years of forced exile. The return of refugees languishing in camps for three decades was one of the objectives of the liberation war.

So the buses pulling into Kigali to the cheers of the population is highly symbolic but momentous even though the RPF leaders and the 600 soldiers of the 3rd battalion know the danger awaiting them at the Parliamentary building.  

The gift of forgiveness

During the 25th anniversary of the genocide against the Tutsi on April 7, 2019, President Paul Kagame recounted the story of survivors who had asked him why the country had put forgiveness on their shoulders. 

His answer was that survivors were the only ones left with something to give after the genocide against the Tutsi. In spite of pain and trauma, survivors gave the gift of forgiveness, which contributed a great deal to the quest for unity and reconciliation, sine qua non for national rebuilding. 

The survivors featured in the documentary talk about the need to forgive for themselves but also for the country.

When all is said and done, the post-genocide government’s ability to bring back a sense of unity where total annihilation took roots in 100 days will probably remain its most remarkable achievement. 

In fact, without people’s unity and reconciliation, there would be no talk of liberation today. Yes, liberation occurred when the RPA stopped the genocide, but it was a bittersweet victory as more than a million Tutsi had been murdered in the most gruesome ways.

Piecing the national fabric back together was a daunting task in the face of the apocalyptic devastation of 1994.

Nevertheless, there were survivors who owed their lives to the resilience of their rescuers. Their testimonies reflected the triumph of humanity over extreme evil.

The same principles of resolute leadership, purpose, determination, resilience, resourcefulness, and tenacity that accompanied the 1990-1994 liberation war inspired the 600’s rescue missions. The same values underpinned the reconstruction of Rwanda and continue to spearhead its economic transformation.

In a meaningful way, The 600: The Soldiers’ Story is at the same time a celebration of those principles, a work of memory of the genocide against the Tutsi for the present and the future generations, a reminder that the liberation continues for a better Rwanda, and an invitation to Rwandans to seek to do more with less. 

Above all, it is a serious statement that liberation is all about people. The story implicitly calls on Rwandan leaders at all levels to be servant leaders who view the people as the center of their decisions and actions. 

It was thus fitting that the premiere of The 600: The Soldiers’ Story happened the day before twenty-fifth anniversary of the liberation in the presence of the man, President Paul Kagame, who embodies the resilient, Level 5 leadership of the liberation war and the authentic and transformational leadership that has taken Rwanda to where it is today and promises to take the nation to new heights.

In 118 minutes, writer and producer Richard Hall (Great Blue Productions) and co-producer Annette Uwizeye (A Wize Media) have given the Rwandan and international audiences a movie about extreme violence and evil of genocide but also the ultimate triumph of sacrifice and humanity. 

In emotional distress, a soldier buries his mother killed by the genocide forces. Afterward, however, like his comrades who have lost family members, he stays focused on the mission to save other human lives targeted for annihilation.

This emotional resilience in the service of something larger than the individual will profoundly touch and inspire audiences.

This moment is the hallmark of leadership, sacrifice, and commitment to humanity, notions that make The 600: The Soldiers’ Story an inspiring, commendable if heart-rending movie to watch.