On a Tuesday, December 28, 1993 at around 11am in Mulindi, near the Rwanda-Uganda border, a battalion of 600 battle-hardened soldiers chanted as they waited for their military escort that was to be provided by Unamir (the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda) to Kigali.
The battalion was under the command of current Rwandan ambassador to China, Lt. Gen. Charles Kayonga, who at the time, held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
These soldiers were part of the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA), the military wing of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF- Inkotanyi) which invaded Rwanda in 1990 and after successive victories on the battle field, the then government agreed to a truce that would ensure the creation of a broad-based Transitional Government in which the RPF would be represented at 40 per cent.
The truce, dubbed the Arusha Peace Accords, was signed in Tanzania on August 4, 1993.
The transitional government was initially about the Government and Parliament. The military merger would come later.
But for the RPF politicians to be integrated in the transitional government and be able to move around Kigali, they needed a security detail that they could trust and this was the new assignment of the 600 soldiers (the third battalion).
These soldiers, together with the politicians stayed at the current Parliamentary Buildings, then known as Centre Nationale de Developpement (CND) in Kimihurura.
Four months after they arrived in Kigali, and before the transitional government could take oath, on April 6, the President at the time, Juvenal Habyarimana had his plane shot down, and immediately, an all out genocide started, beginning from Kigali on that very night.
This battalion found itself at crossroads, and their mission changed from offering protection to the politicians to help stop the genocide that was claiming thousands of Tutsi every day.
Brig Gen Charles Karamba, who held the rank of Captain at the time, was the head of intelligence in the battalion. In an exclusive interview, Gen Karamba narrated to The New Times’ Edwin Musoni about life at CND and how they left the confines of CND to help stop the genocide. He narrates the story.
“The background of the deployment is that, there was a peace agreement between the government of Rwanda at that time and the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF). Within that agreement, there was a provision for RPF to appoint people to serve as ministers in what was termed as BBTG (Broad-Based Transitional Government) and members of Parliament.
So, there was a need for those RPF politicians to be protected in Kigali as preparation of formation of government took shape. It is in that same vein that the 600 were deployed to Kigali.
There was a preparatory phase which was to put in place that force; our military leaders did that and I happened to be one of the officers among the 600 troops.
In the preparatory phase, of course, we had to do some training to make us ready for the new mission.
We came in with the politicians and installed ourselves and we did what was required in as far as protection was concerned. So there were several activities that we had to carry out to ensure that we were in the state of readiness.
We boarded buses provided by UN and, of course, the government of Rwanda at the time, and we were escorted in by UN forces but what is interesting is how we were welcomed when we entered Kigali – large crowds lined up the streets to welcome us as we were driving in entering through Gatsata and finally to CND. I think it was an exciting welcome for us.
This was a decision by our High Command following a RECCE mission (RECCE is a military term used to the operation of gathering information and ascertain strategic features) that was sent to Kigali with the agreement of the government of Rwanda at that time.
Our Commander in Chief sent a RECCE party to come and identify, among other places that were given to us, the best option.
There were about three choices, the RECCE party came up with a report and the Commander in Chief decided that we should occupy CND — the other two options were Kami Barracks and Mburabuturo (the current headquarters of University of Rwanda, formerly the School of Finance and Banking) but, finally, our leadership chose that the 3rd Battalion occupy CND.
CND is an imposing land feature and at that time, our commanding officer was Lt Col Charles Kayonga who would later rise through the RDF ranks to become Chief of Defence Forces and he is currently our Ambassador to China.
Immediately upon arrival at CND, he met us, we assessed the terrain and deployed accordingly. The politicians were inside the building and the soldiers were deployed outside and as, a contingency plan, we dug trenches to prepare for any eventualities – because that’s what happens when you occupy a position as a force.
I remember we came in with our chairman at that time – The Chairman of RPF, Col Alexis Kanyarengwe (RIP), Tito Rutaremera, Patrick Mpazimhaka and several others.
The mission was clear, it was to come in with our politicians and ensure that they are fully protected as the process of installing a transitional government takes shape, our politicians had to be protected – protected within CND and protected whenever they wanted to go out for several meetings.
Inside CND, we had our lines of communication fully connected to Mulindi (RPA headquarters) and we regularly got our logistical requirements from Mulindi. We had food, fuel and everything.
The peace agreement provided that we should have free movement between our position at CND and our headquarters in Mulindi but that is not what happened.
FAR (Force Armee Rwandais) had many roadblocks along the way which made our movement very uncomfortable.
One day we were ambushed in Gatsata and fired at and we even lost one of our comrades, but our force from CND came in to rescue the party that had been ambushed and recovered the body.
Life in CND
The life we led at CND kept changing because the situation also changed several times. We certainly had our own meetings with commanders and troops to ensure that we remained alert because we could hear reports of preparations to kill the Tutsi people. In fact, some people were being killed already.
It was clear that there was a deliberate plan to obstruct the formation of a transitional government and the number of people that were being killed and the reports we were getting indicated that the peace process was collapsing.
So as a military force we knew that if the peace process collapsed, we are target number one – target number one to eliminate the RPF politicians and the 3rd Battalian that was charged with their security.
That’s why we kept analysing the situation and ready for any eventualities, especially since we were a small force. By that time, I was a battalion Intelligence Officer (IO) and my job was to understand the enemy and analyse them correctly.
We had a way of gathering our own intelligence; we knew the enemy and had to find a way of getting what were our enemy’s intentions.
We were just one battalion against something called OPs Kigali-Ville, garde presidentielle (an equivalent of Republican Guard), para battalion (of commandos), RECCE battalion and the Groupe Mobile d’Intervention (a mobile force) – so that was a huge force that surrounded us.
But not only that, there were others like OPs Rulindo and OPs Byumba; basically we were in the middle of the enemy.
Firing at CND
Firing direct at us started at around 8:30pm on the night of April 6. They immediately started targeting the building and all our positions around the building. There are activities that had to be done to ensure that we are protected in case we are to be shot at.
When the firing started we took our positions and politicians were taken to some safe place inside the building. We were 600 all throughout but we were reinforced when the shooting started.
We didn’t get out of the building that night. In fact the Parliament remained our headquarters but there was a breakout which was tactical which we had to carry out. The breakout was meant to create a bigger perimeter and be able to stop the enemy before advancing to CND.
Part of the force was ordered by the battalion commander to get out and wait for the enemy from afar. In the process, we created space and time as we were waiting for reinforcement which had been ordered by the Commander in Chief.
We broke out on April 7, some of our forces went and captured and rescued so many people from the Amahoro National Stadium; the other force went as far as Kacyiru; the other force went to the current Ministry of Justice, giving us a bigger perimeter to protect our base.
Garde Presidentielle was a major source of fire shooting at us; another major source of firepower was Kanombe where the enemy mounted his heavy artillery at the end of the airport runway which offered a strategic view of our positions and another at Mount Rebero. We were receiving both direct and indirect fire from the enemy position all around Kigali.
The 12.7 mm anti-aircraft gun we had in Kimihurura was helpful because it could neutralise the direct weapons which were within its range. It was used to counter and neutralise the enemy weapon that was firing at us. But, of course, a gun engages a gun of the same caliber or of that that is lower but some of the weapons used on us were of a bigger caliber.
This battalion’s strength had been determined by the peace agreement so the arsenal we had was relatively light because we were meant to be a protection force.
What kept the 600 alive
We were a very well trained force, well commanded both at the level of the High Command and the battalion level and there was motivation, but again we had no option but to survive.
We were not an isolated force; we were a force that was part of a bigger RPA so when the genocide started the most important thing was, as we are told, the rest of the force was to quickly link up with the 3rd Battalion, rescue the targets of genocide and subsequently defeat the genocidal forces.
We were monitoring and in constant communication with the force that had been ordered by the Commander in Chief to link up with us. We knew their axis and we were monitoring them but at the same time engaging the enemy but aware that our reinforcement was coming.
Apart from the 3rd battalion, the rest of RPA units were called combined mobile forces and we aware that Alpha, Bravo and 59 Combined Mobile Forces were on their way. Alpha Combined Mobile Force arrived first on April 11.
When all this started, for us the end state was a situation where by victims of Genocide are rescued and genocidal forces are decisively defeated but that was not easy. As 3rd Battalion, we had to carry out possible operations within the perimeter that we had created and of course carry out raids to save civilians whenever we got information of their location.
My strongest memories that I can’t easily forget is the loss of comrades. We came in with good friends of ours that we had lived together before but war is war, naturally some of our colleagues paid the ultimate price.
The other is the mission we had, protecting politicians, protecting ourselves and the most important one of rescuing survivors of the Genocide.
So there are people that we knew, who used to come visit us when we had just arrived in Kigali, there were incidents in Nyanza-Kicukiro when our soldiers arrived there and saw faces of people we knew lying down, they had been killed. You can imagine how that can be.
Fall of Kigali
The fall of Kigali was a very good thing because we knew that the genocidal force had been defeated and the seat of power captured, but at the same time, one cannot forget to say that the celebrations were not as one would have expected because we had lost so many of our people.
The loss of people undermined the celebrations but most importantly, the Genocide had been stopped and that was worth celebrating because the enemy wanted to eliminate everybody.
The struggle continues because the genocide ideology is still alive but at the same time I want to mention that the same people who defeated the genocidal forces still carry the same spirit and this time round stronger than ever.”