The 1990-94 struggle to liberate Rwanda, launched by the Rwanda Patriotic Army, a military wing of the RPF-Inkotanyi, was characterised by many tribulations, with the killing of top commanders–including the first Chairman of the High Command–in the early days of the attack, and the prowess exhibited by his successor, Paul Kagame, who successfully commanded the front to the end.
Capt (Rtd) Logan Ndahiro, who was part of the struggle, gives his personal account in these serialized articles in the run up to October 1, when the struggle was launched:
On 1st October 1990, the RPA-Inkotanyi entered Rwanda via Kagitumba border post, now in Nyagatare District of the Eastern Province. The area is commonly known as Umutara, made up of Nyagatare, Gatsibo and part of Kayonza districts.
It is a plain savannah, semi-arid with short withered shrubs that can hardly give any cover to an ordinary man let alone a fighting force intending to attack or even withdraw from the pursuing enemy. The fighting under such terrain was so suicidal and costly in terms of loss of both human and war materials. All this was due to inappropriate military strategy that cost us even top commanders.
As earlier mentioned, after the loss of the late Chairman of the High Command, the RPA forces, some of them with new arrivals and inexperienced fighters were scattered in the whole of Umutara, including the Akagera National Park where they were fighting running battles here and there with very scarce, scanty and scattered commanders to coordinate the war.
It was around this desperate and total confusion that then Major Paul Kagame arrived at the front line. He immediately set to analyse the situation, discussing with the handful of commanders he could lay hands on and inspected the injured. He saw and heard all there was to hear and see.
Changing military strategy, to get the RPA out of misery and shame of loss and in coordination, the newly appointed Chairman of the High Command (Kagame) set to overhaul the whole strategy and changed the military tactics, by first pulling back all the scattered forces and launching the Guerilla tactics type of warfare.
As earlier mentioned, after the change of strategy and tactics of the war, the Chairman of the High Command commissioned the attack of Gatuna (November 1990), followed by Rwempasha one and two in December 1990.
While these two Rwempasha attacks were taking place, the Chairman had simultaneously approved the attacks of Nkana, Kaniga and Kiyombe all taking place in December 1990.
As earlier mentioned, due to his visionary strategy, his military perfectionism and always concerned with the wellbeing of his force, the ordering of such coordinated attacks had a reason behind. His intention was to hoodwink and disorganise the enemy forces while planning for another important assignment.
It was during these attacks, which left the enemy forces confused and nursing wounds, that the Chairman planned the deployment of forces to Virunga Mountains. Early January 1991, he convened a meeting of his senior military commanders and gave final instructions of deployment of forces to Virunga mountains of Gahinga, Muhabura and Sabyinyo.
Judging from such haste of attacks, as mentioned above, he was diverting the enemy attention to afford safe passage to his forces while deploying in the mountains.
We climbed and arrived in the mountains at around 5th January 1991. All the forces settled at Gahinga Mountain together with our Chairman of the High Command. This was a major boost to our morale and it was at this time that romours circulated amongst us that he was planning something big ahead for us.
But when we arrived in the mountains, life was so difficult. The freezing temperatures, the constant rainfall that would leave hailstones (Urubura) for weeks before melting, the shortage of food and medicine. The Chairman inspected us always and would see and hear firsthand all these problems from us.
Sensing and analysing these problems as a real threat to his forces, he mobilised RPF cadres who mobilised members wherever they were to procure us food, medicine and some warm clothing.
I never forget how we used to bask (warm) ourselves on fire at night. When you are warming the front part, the back would be freezing and you would switch yourself back and forth until you go to rest on a frozen ground.
But while the above mentioned problems were getting slowly resolved, under the canopy of the bamboos we felt safe from any enemy reconnaissance, be it by planes or foot patrols as was the case in Umutara. The cooking of the food was easier since no smoke would be detected due to fog over the mountains. The military drills or movement were done under bamboo cover.
As we got used to this situation, the Chairman called for a meeting on January 20, 1991 of senior commanders that decided on the attack on Ruhengeri town. The following day, the Chairman briefed us about the assignment and which battalions to take part.
After an early morning brief by the Chairman, all tasked commanding officers started briefing their rank and file about troop movements towards their objectives on that very day, effectively starting on 21st of January 1991.
On January 22 at dawn, the battalions assigned to block Cyanika –Ruhegeri road and to clear any other military obstacle went ahead and accomplished their task.
However, for the battalions to attack Ruhengeri town and tasked to release prisoners, the passage to the objective was not a bonanza. We set off from Gahinga at 10am, cutting, clearing, crisscrossing rivers and marshlands and bamboo thickets as we moved from Gahinga towards Sabyinyo. This was on January 21 1991.
When we arrived at Sabyinyo through the large valley between the two mountains, it was pitch dark under the bamboo canopy. We tried to keep moving in order to meet the deadline of attacking Ruhengeri on January 22 as other units would attack their targets, but this was never to be. By 8 pm at night, it was obvious that we could not make it to Ruhengeri town for any surprise dawn attack.
Our linear movement had started to break up due to darkness under the bamboo canopy, we even tried to hold onto each other’s shirts in order to keep the linear movement, but this too proved very difficult and each time the line broke, we had to halt and start whistling to re-locate each other.
The Chairman of the High Command, as usual, following our movement and all the obstacles we were through, ordered the halt of our advance to the objective. He had correctly calculated the risk that would be involved if we continued. By the time we would reach Ruhengeri, it would be broad day. This would make a surprise attack almost impossible.
Thus we stayed put on Sabyinyo but overlooking the lights of Ruhengeri town below. This improved our moral as we were being shown our destination.
We stayed on Sabyinyo the whole day of 22nd and the Chairman of the High Command instructed commanders to start off towards our objective at midnight on January 23. We quickly crossed the bamboo canopy into habitable areas with hostile wanainchi, who started sounding alarms about our movement, with curses and throwing stones at us as we run downhill to Kinigi Commune.
We reached Kiningi at about 5.30 am and as we dashed towards our objectives, we met an obstacle: A military vehicle was coming from Ruhengeri, heading towards Kinigi with military personnel in it. Crouching low on the ground, we destroyed it along with its occupants.
Of course the sound of our guns were heard by camp Muhoza, the Gendarmerie camp, the Nyamagumba prison protection unit and the Mubona hill overlooking Ruhengeri as you enter the town from Kigali.
Realising that time itself doesn’t have time, we rushed up to Camp Muhoza, which was on the way and attacked and overran it.
The Gendarmerie (the equivalent of national police) camp, directly opposite the prison was also attacked and overwhelmed.
Then my battalion dashed to the prison only to be halted in our pants by three factors;-
1- When we arrived at the main gates to men’s and women’s wings of the prison, the huge padlocks would not open even when one of our comrades tried to shoot them (padlock) with a pistol. He was actually hurt by the bounced bullet.
2- Nyamagumba, the prison protection unit, just across on a hill overlooking the prison in about 100 metres was still firing at us despite sustained fire from our forces. It made our movement limited.
3- The Gendarme unit that was also so close to the prison just adjacent to a nursing school behind the Ruhengeri Hospital, which was another source of danger to us.
Realising time was not on our side, the CO quickly dispatched a company to attack Nyamagumba which was quickly silenced. Another coy (company) attacked the Gendarmerie unit nearby and dispersed it.
Nearby the prison, there is a nursing school which was also in panic and when the students saw us they started yelling saying “please don’t kill us, but who are you”? We told them we were Inkotanyi.
“But you don’t have tails! They tell us that Inyenzi -Inkotanyi have tails”!
We asked them to stay indoors lest they get caught up in the crossfire, an advice they took seriously.
Now our real dilemma was where to get the keys to the prison itself. Already common prisoners were up and about and restless inside the prison because they had sensed our intention to set them free. In that frustration one of our comrades suggested firing the huge padlock using RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade). This idea was resisted due to havoc and casualties it would cause, especially to the prisoners inside.
Lastly, rushing against time, we snatched one of the prison guards to take us where the director of prison’s residence was. He tried to resist but we persuaded him into accepting though he remained afraid.
Quaking and trembling, we half pulled and half lifted him to the house of the prison director, only to find he had run away in underpants on hearing the first bullets. Convinced that he would survive, the guard instead directed us to the house of a wardress, a woman who stayed close to the prison quarters whom we gave unconditional orders to get all the keys to the prison both for women and men wings, including the death row cells.
By the time we opened the prison, all guns had fallen silent, except the Muhora area which was not a threat. The women’s wing was the first to be opened, followed by men’s ward in which there were 19 metallic cages for the politically condemned prisoners.
Each cell was supposed to have one inmate, but as it turned out, each contained more than one, some up to four! In all a total of about 1,600 inmates were released.
By the time the wardress had opened the last metallic cell, the prison was empty of all other inmates who took off in different directions.
Moving back up to Sabyinyo, along with the hitherto condemned political prisoners, that included Major Theoneste Lizinde, Commander Leonidas Biseruka, Muvunanyambo and others, we climbed with much pride, having achieved our objective. Throughout our 10 or more hours of siege on Ruhengeri, no military attack from the Ex-FAR side came from Cyanika, Kigali or Gisenyi. In any case we had already tactically laid ambushes and cut off those roads.
I wish to reiterate the fact that, the Chairman of the High Command's architecture of the whole military strategy, his meticulous planning, his attention to every detail of each obtaining situation, military or otherwise and his closeness to his forces is highly remarkable and appreciated.
Even this attack on Ruhengeri was no exception, for he constantly gave instructions, advice and guidance here and there at every stage of our assignment.
I have a personal feeling that due to the success of this operation and an intense national and international remorse and shame, Habyarimana tactfully initiated and requested for negotiations. He was trying to halt the RPA- Inkotanyi’s momentum than hoping for any meaningful outcome of the talks.
It was at this time that the Ns’ele negotiations, that would be chaired by none other than his comrade and friend President Joseph Desire Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku dendo WaZabanga, were planned. The RPF/RPA- INKOTANYI sent representatives to these negotiations.
To be continued…