Behind enemy lines: RPF’s ‘crazy’ operations

TWENTY FIVE years have passed since the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF-Inkotanyi) was formed. It has been a long and tough journey since then, but worth every kilometre.

Many did not make it as they sacrificed their lives on the altar of freedom, and those who did, owe their good fortune to RPF’s organisation and daring.

Some of their operations were so spectacular that it is surprising Hollywood has not come knocking for its next epic movie.

18 years ago at the height of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, the then RPA rebels carried out a couple of dramatic raids right in the middle of the enemy’s camp.

Their mission? To rescue hundreds of people who had taken refuge at St. Famille church and the adjacent St. Paul. The refugees had been the targets of raids by Interahamwe militia and government soldiers, who, on their daily visits to the place of refugee, selected men to kill and women to rape.

To add salt to injury, it is reported that the chaplain of St. Famille, Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, worked in cahoots with the raiders and regularly abducted young girls to rape in his private chambers. He could be seen strutting around wearing a camouflaged flak jacket and a pistol tucked in his belt.

A lot has been written and said about the priest, who now lives peacefully in France, but as the saying goes; every dog has its day, and for sure the pistol-totting pseudo priest’s day of reckoning will come.

The successful lightening rescue by the RPF was one of the last nail in the enemy’s coffin, sapping the little morale they had left, and for once realizing that time was up; it was better to design an escape route out of the “unsafe” capital.

Though the St. Paul raid got its fare share of publicity, few seem not to know that more audacious but low key operations had taken place a week after the Genocide, even deeper beyond enemy lines.

As had been the pattern all over the country, refugees had been given the false assurance that they would be safe in religious compounds; that the attackers would not dare desecrate holy places by attacking them.

The same went for Tutsis in Nyamirambo, deep, deep behind enemy lines. Hundreds had gathered at St. Andre College and the neighbouring Josephite Monastery.Both places came under attack and hundreds were massacred.

By then the RPF had occupied Rebero Hill that overlooks Nyamirambo. Word got through that there were survivors around Nyamirambo and Nyakabanda areas whose lives were in danger.

A small expeditionary force of about 20 men was sent – under the cover of darkness – to try and extract the remaining survivors. They managed to gather about 200 people and began the long hazardous match to safety.

The original plan was to take them to Rebero, but the sheer numbers would not make it practical. First; the hill was under constant bombardment. And secondly, there would not be enough water to go round.

An audacious decision was reached; take them to CND, the current parliamentary building that was home to the RPF 3rd Battalion, the famous “Rukaga”.

Not only was it a crazy idea, it was seemingly impossible, but as it was with the RPF, the word ‘impossible’ did not exist in their vocabulary.

At around 11PM, the long silent trek began. The old and the young alike trudged along, only their muffled footsteps could be heard. Heavy loads were discarded as they would have held back the rest of the group, but the injured, the old and weary were carried in shifts.

The babies did not even cry, it was if they sensed the danger and judged it prudent to keep their little whining voices to themselves. That saved lives, as it would have alerted the many roadblocks along the way.

A couple of the commandos would go a few hundred metres ahead to reconnoitre the area while the refugees lay low, when the path was deemed to be clear, they were signalled to move on.

Roadblocks were circumvented as the long line dodged between houses, going through alleys. From the swamps of Rwampara, they swiftly slithered up the hill towards Gikondo, the most dangerous part of the journey.

Gikondo, especially Nyenyeri Gatenga and Sagm, was home to the most vicious Interahamwe militia. Now and again the alarm would be raised and bullets would start flying towards the group, but thanks to the darkness, there were few casualties.

From Gatenga, the group went past Magerwa and joined the tarmac road towards Kicukiro, branched off left at Chez John and poured into Kimihurura Valley, right under the nose of the presidential guards’ headquarters!

At last, at around five in the morning, they arrived, weary but jubilant, at the gates of CND, Gishushu to be exact. Little did they know that their tribulations were not yet over.

Food was hurriedly sought as some had not eaten anything for days and it was a surprise they had managed to survive the five-hour marathon. The sick and wounded received treatment and families that had separated within the last few days were reunited.

That was the end of the honeymoon.

By now Gishushu was teeming with thousands of refugees and the handful of officers the RPF could spare worked overtime to meet their needs. And for their own safety, the refugees were first instructed to build foxholes, commonly known as “Indaki” in Nkotanyi lingo.

The daring raid did not go unnoticed by the enemy, and it would be interesting to know the fate of the commanders under whose operational areas the refugees passed. The embarrassment and the seething anger by the presidential guards did not take long to be felt.

Now that they were under the protection of their saviours, the refugees settled back to their daily lives; they washed and hang out their clothes — some very bright — and lit many fires to cook their first meal in days.

The billowing smoke and the colourful clothes that could be seen from miles, gave them away. Then all hell broke loose. Katyushas and all calibres of artillery pieces started raining on the refugees.

The RPF’s foresight of building ‘Indakis’ saved the lives of many as the enemy did not let go until late evening. That was when another decision was made: the refugees would be moved 100 kilometres further north to Byumba – on foot.

The Nyamirambo and St. Famille operations were not the only messages to the former government army, the ex-FAR, that the RPF could strike anywhere anytime

Another operation, not as daring and dangerous as the previous ones, but a masterstroke all the same, caused goose pimples among the genocidal government who decided to flee to Gisenyi.

The reason? A surgical strike on one of their key instrumental weapons, Radio Television Libre de Mille Collines (RTLM, the hate radio that helped fan hatred and rallied support for the Genocide.

The station was tucked away in what was considered the safest place in town; right next to the abandoned President’s Office, midway between Bank de Kigali and Radio Rwanda and opposite the Intelligence Services headquarters.

At that time, one of RTLM’s most virulent broadcasters, Noel Hitimana, was on air praising the killers and urging them on. Suddenly the Radio went silent. One single well aimed rocket had found Hitimana in his studio and he lost a leg.

The accuracy of the hit struck fear in the hearts of the masterminds of the Genocide, the RPF were everywhere; nowhere was safe apart from Gisenyi.

It was a matter time before the whole government army called it quits and decided to vote with their feet, towards the Democratic Republic of Congo where many still live today.

These are some of RPF’s annals that helped shape it to what it is today, a never-say-die attitude, even in the face of adversity.

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