“One day you’ll return to your valleys and your farms, and you’ll no longer burn to be brothers-in-arms.” – Dire Straits
The immediately aftermath of the 1994 war was a hollow feeling; a genocide against the Tutsi had taken place making the brilliant military almost an afterthought.
Yet we must acknowledge the tactical brilliance of the RPF in defeating an enemy with superior arms, numbers, better home terrain knowledge, as well as the support of France and Belgium.
Certain moments stand out; such as the breakout at the Parliament, the taking of Kanombe barracks, pushing the French out of Zone-Turquoise but one has to understand the humble beginnings of the RPA in order to understand the enormity of it.
Most of the fighters were barely men; with the blind trust of youth. People from varied backgrounds had to be moulded into a cohesive fighting force; cattle-herders from Ankole fought next to doctors from Bujumbura , or a bio-chemist from Lumumbashi.
They all had the same dream of making it back to their homeland and restoring their rights as human beings. The first wave who invaded Rwanda in 1990 had initial success but were badly pushed back when French and Belgians came to Habyarimana’s aid.
When you wonder what advantage the RPA eventually had, you realise it was superior morale and purpose; they had to steal their arms, go for days without eating, months without washing and years without seeing their families.
The recollections are varied; some vividly remember every moment, for others it is a blur. “It was boring; most people think war is exciting, but it is waiting, waiting and more waiting.
Then you can have a skirmish for 10 minutes and it’s all over. Other times it can be grindingly slow, both sides run out of bullets and soon it is hand to hand with bayonets.
You can spend days just trying to take a corner or a post, at the end of it you are just tired, I don’t remember celebrating.” said one former soldier to me.
The RPA had to fight the dual war of fighting the Interahamwe militias as well as the FAR, often they had to change their military strategy just to save a nearby village from death.
Yet still these boys did it, some were hardened fighters from the Uganda civil war, some just herdsmen from villages glad for some adventure, some were ideologically indoctrinated others were just fighting because their friends were doing it.
Thank God they did; for whatever reason they did it for we should be grateful because we wouldn’t have a homeland.
“I promised my Grandfather that I would bury him in Rwanda , he died in 1992 and we just covered him in lime, we never buried him. That’s when I walked from Burundi to Uganda , walking at night until I got to Mbarara. I was asking around bars where to join RPF but nobody told me how, until I was approached by an old lady. We buried him in Rwanda .” Another veteran said this to me, his story is quite common; wanting to do it for the older generation, parents wanted to do it for the younger generation.
I remember the deepest moment I have had in Rwanda; watching my 3 year-old cousin who is Anglophone talking to her francophone best friend in perfect Kinyarwanda.
These children speak better Kinyarwanda than their parents who grew up in exile speaking strange tongues to survive in strange countries.
For all our gratitude and respect for veterans it is not enough; too many veterans face daily hardship. We all owe a moral and financial debt to our veterans; our government tries to support them but it falls on all our shoulders to give them the kind of life we deserved.
Every soldier who fought in the liberation of this country deserves a portion of land, a pension, and our undying respect. To quote Winston Churchill “Never before have so few, been owed so much by so many.”