France and the troubles in Rwanda

Questions remain about the role played by the French. Did French troops facilitate the 1994 slaughter of some 800,000 Rwandans?

Questions remain about the role played by the French. Did French troops facilitate the 1994 slaughter of some 800,000 Rwandans?

On April 6, 1994, as the Falcon 50 jet carrying the President of Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana, and his Burundi counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira, began its descent towards Kigali Airport, two ground-to-air missiles fired from the nearby hill of Masaka streaked across the late evening sky.

The first hit a wing.

The second slammed into the main body of the aircraft, which exploded in mid-air killing the two Presidents, their aides, and their four-member French crew.

Within hours the Rwandan Genocide, which was to claim an astonishing 800,000 to a million victims in the space of three short months, most of them ethnic Tutsi or moderate Hutu, got under way.

Thirty minutes after the crash Radio Mille Collines, a station owned by the family of President Habyarimana, was calling for the mass slaughter of Tutsis. Rwanda’s hate media incited the Hutus to kill, their eternal enemies.

The 100 days

The killings began that same night, carried out by the Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) and two extremist Hutu militia groups the Interahamwe and the Impuzamugambi.

During a hundred days of bloodthirsty madness and at a speed never equalled before, not even during the worst Nazi atrocities of the Second World War, Tutsis and moderate Hutus were systematically hunted down — hacked to pieces with machetes, stoned, killed with spears and guns, burnt alive wherever they had sought shelter.

Terrified Tutsis on the run from killer mobs were caught and cut down at massive road blocks erected across main and small roads. The massacres were well-planned in advance and the downing of the plane acted as a signal for the Hutu-dominated Rwandan government to give the order to attack.

In 1993, for instance, the Rwandan government had imported arms estimated at $83 million including $750,000 worth of machetes from China, enough to arm one Hutu in three.

The international community did nothing to stop the massacres. Four days after the killings began on April 11, 1994, France and Belgium sent troops to rescue their citizens.

American civilians were also airlifted out. However, no Rwandans were rescued, not even Rwandans employed by Western governments in their embassies or consulates.

On April 21, two weeks into the Genocide with the Red Cross estimating that hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were already dead, the U.N. Security Council unanimously voted to withdraw most of the 2,500 troops that made up the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) reducing its force to 270.

On April 30, 1994, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution condemning the killing, but omitting the word “genocide.” Had the term been used, the U.N. would have been legally obliged to act to “prevent and punish” the perpetrators.

Tens of thousands of refugees fled into Tanzania, Burundi, and Zaire. In one day, 250,000 Rwandans, mainly Hutus fleeing the advance of the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), crossed the border into Tanzania.

The bloodletting finally stopped after Paul Kagame and his fighters from the RPF, which had for years been waging a war against the Hutu-dominated dictatorship of President Habyarimana, captured Kigali.

Twisting fate

On November 20, 2006, France’s top anti-terrorism judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, recommended that Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame be tried for war crimes and produced before an international court of justice.

In a report to the French government, the judge accused Mr. Kagame of “suspected involvement” in the downing of President Habyarimana’s plane.

French courts also called for international arrest warrants to be served against nine of Mr. Kagame’s aides in relation to the plane attack, including against James Kabarebe, a senior officer in the Rwandan army. Kigali’s response was swift.

On November 24, President Kagame recalled his Ambassador to Paris and cut off diplomatic ties with France.

The Kagame Government has accused France of complicity in the genocide saying French troops deployed in Rwanda at the height of the massacres trained and armed the Interahamwe. Rwanda has since established its own inquiry panel to prove those claims.

Questions remain about the role played by the French. Did French troops facilitate the 1994 slaughter of some 800,000 Rwandans?

French diplomats and officials posted in Rwanda have now left the country leaving behind some 270 French citizens, mostly catholic missionaries and businessmen who are living in fear of reprisals from Kigali.

“France has evidently decided that attack is the best form of defence. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Tanzania is currently hearing the case of several former high-ranking Rwandan army officers accused of Genocide during the 100 days of carnage that followed.

The question of French complicity is bound to come up during their questioning. Over a decade after the Genocide France still has difficulty owning up to its responsibility in the tragedy. This camouflage is not innocent.

It aims at hiding France’s close links to extremist Hutu clans which Paris saw, especially in the period leading up to the tragedy, as a defence against Anglo-Saxon influence coming from Uganda,” said Patrick de Saint-Exupery, the Africa correspondent of Le Figaro.

His accusations against the French role in Rwanda led to a parliamentary enquiry. Today the journalist is vilified by the French armed forces. The International Criminal Tribunal recently rejected a request to take into account an earlier account from Judge Bruguiere into the killing of Habyarimana, which reportedly named Mr. Kagame as the brain behind the April 6, 1994, attack.

To understand the history

To understand the current crisis between France and Rwanda, it is important to go back to Rwanda’s recent history. Ethnic tensions in this landlocked country now member to the East African Community are nothing new.

There have always been disagreements between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis, but the animosity has grown substantially since the colonial period.

As a result of the Berlin Conference on the partitioning of Africa among the colonial powers, Rwanda and Burundi were given to the Germans. The country became a Belgian protectorate after the First World War.

The Belgian colonists considered the Tutsis superior to the Hutus. For the next 20 years they enjoyed better jobs and educational opportunities. But the wheel soon turned. Independence in 1962 brought power to the majority that is to the Hutus and the discrimination against the often better educated Tutsis began.

France, since the early 1970s sided with the Hutu government in power, maintaining close economic and political ties with Kigali. Thousands of Tutsis fled to neighbouring Uganda or Congo as a result of Hutu discrimination and Mr. Kagame was one of them.

He met Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni when both of them were rebels fighting dictatorial regimes in Kampala and Kigali. Later, Mr. Museveni as Ugandan President would help his old friend fight the Hutus and wage a civil war in Rwanda.

Tutsi refugees in Uganda — supported by some moderate Hutus — formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Their aim was to overthrow President Habyarimana and secure their right to return to their homeland.

He chose to exploit this threat as a way to bring dissident Hutus back to his side, and Tutsis inside Rwanda were accused of being RPF collaborators.

Most of the allegations made by the present Rwandan President refer to the training the French gave militias who engaged in the killing.

From October 1990 to December 1993, the French army, operating under a Franco Rwandan defence pact led “Operation Noroit,” which many Rwandans saw as backing the Habyarimana Government against the Tutsi-led RPF rebels.

Kigali also accuses France of standing aside and giving the killers access to their victims. The most shocking claim, however, is that French helicopters specifically airlifted several influential Hutus responsible for the massacres to safety outside the country.

France intervened in Rwanda three times between 1990 and 1994, and each time was accused of complicity in events of the Genocide or those leading up to it.

Journalists who witnessed

Collette Braekmann, a highly respected journalist writing for Le Soir in Brussels, said: “I was in Rwanda in 1994 during the massacres. I agree with Kagame’s accusations.

But I shall not condemn France as such; I would condemn certain elements from the French army. I personally witnessed these events and I can say that Rwandan military officials and killers from the Interahamwe were protected by French army units, probably with the blessing of then President Mitterrand.

As for the missile attack on the presidential plane, I can only say that there has been no neutral, impartial international enquiry. Since day one Judge Bruguiere has said he was attempting to prove the guilt of the RPF.

Now I too have led my own modest enquiry and I find that several of the witnesses cited by the French judge are most unreliable. They are lying.”

One can always ask the question: Why did France continue to support such a detestable regime?

The answer would be: for the same reasons that the U.S. continued to support bloody dictatorships across Latin America in the 1960s and the 1970s — for power and regional influence.

Rwanda and Burundi lie on the borders of the East-West divide of Africa between Anglo-Saxon and Francophone colonial powers.

France feared losing influence in Rwanda because Mr. Kagame and his men had trained, re-grouped, and received support from Uganda, seen as being clearly in the Anglo-Saxon camp.


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