Rwanda: Time for the international community to face its “gacaca”

What did we know before April 1994? And when we knew, what did we do? What did we say? Where were we? Twenty years after the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, questions are still tumbling out within the “international community”  – a generic term for ambassadors in Rwanda at the time, member states, permanent or not, of the Security Council, States that contributed to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, international officials, humanitarians, journalists.
General Dallaire, head of military operations of the Unamir.
General Dallaire, head of military operations of the Unamir.

Last month, The Hague hosted an international dialogue dubbed; “A Conversation on Rwanda”. Belgian journalist Colette Braeckman revisited the forum in a piece published in Le Soir, a French language Belgian daily. Below is the English version of the article:

What did we know before April 1994? And when we knew, what did we do? What did we say? Where were we? Twenty years after the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, questions are still tumbling out within the “international community”  – a generic term for ambassadors in Rwanda at the time, member states, permanent or not, of the Security Council, States that contributed to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, international officials, humanitarians, journalists. Never before had 50 representatives of the so-called “international community” come together for two days in a closed session to practice some kind of exercise which involves reinterpretation of the facts, group therapy and search for the truth by confronting witnesses…

At the initiative of the American foundation “United States Holocaust Memorial Museum”, located in Washington, and the “Institute for Global Justice”, located at The Hague, an exceptional meeting was held in The Netherlands, which could, on an international level, be compared to the Gacaca Courts in Rwanda, where victims and genocidaires confronted each other under the gaze of the whole community. 

How to hide from those who were there, at the same time as you? At The Hague, the initial discussions revolved around the promises and the perils of the Arusha Peace Agreement, signed in August 1993. “We always wanted to have a balanced approach, we bet on the “moderates”, explained the Belgian ambassador in Kigali, Johann Swinnen. “We thought that there was no alternative to the Arusha Peace Agreement, we were “believers”…”

“We, too, believed in the Arusha Agreement,” recalls one of the chief negotiators of the Rwanda Patriotic Front, Patrick Mazimpaka, “because the situation in Rwanda had become unbearable and the public was exhausted…”

Former Rwandan Minister for Defence James Gasana, notes however that “discussions only concerned the elites of the parties and their factions; the peasantry and the youth who constituted the majority of the population of the country were not represented…”

As for Ambassador Jean-Christophe Belliard, who represented France in Arusha, he insists: “We wanted to open, make way for the democratisation, and force the president to share power…”

A unanimity, therefore, but the means to implement that peace in which everyone wanted to believe were oddly lacking: “It was a bargain, ‘on the cheap’, recalls General Dallaire, head of military operations of the Unamir: “While I was asking for 5,000 men, I only received 2,500 and New York wanted to reduce that number at the slightest opportunity.

Iqbal Riza, who, at the time, was head of the DPKO (Department for Peacekeeping Operations, created in 1992), stresses that Rwanda was not the only one on the agenda: “At that time, we were only 45 professionals… Responsible for managing 16 or 17 peacekeeping operations in Bosnia, Angola, Mozambique, and Cambodia, we were working 16 hours a day … Having no direct access to the Security Council, we absolutely had  to go through the Secretary-General Boutros-Boutros Ghali, who compiled the information… And in April 1994, Boutros Ghali was unaccessible, because he was traveling…”

In the eyes of the Clinton administration, after the disastrous intervention in Somalia, Rwanda was not on top of the list. “What mattered was to pass the reform of the healthcare system and to avoid further engagements overseas, particularly in Africa,” explains the former American diplomat in Rwanda, Michael Barnett. 

She adds:“Moreover, the United States at the time was working towards weakening the United Nations.”

And Prudence Bushnell, who managed the Rwandan crisis within the State Department, confirms: “Clinton did not have interest in Africa and he wanted to reduce the number of peacekeeping operations on the continent, especially after the debacle suffered in Somalia…”

The New Zealand Ambassador, Colin Keating, who was at the time head of the Security Council, repeats: “The United States kept insisting that Unamir was fragile, that it could be cancelled anytime and that they were opposed to any change of the mandate…”

In such a climate, while Rwanda appeared at the very bottom of the priority list, how could the policy makers draw the consequences from the fax sent in January to New York by General Romeo Dallaire (Commander, Unamir) passing on the revelations of the informant “Jean-Pierre” who described the stockpile of weapons intended for the Interahamwe militiamen?

The reminder of the memories looks like a game of ping pong: “I was not even allowed to get my informant out of the country” accuses Dallaire. “We spent hours discussing the resolution’s Chapter 6, which was not even allowing us to protect people,” recalls Iqbal Riza and “against our 2,500 Blue helmets, we were faced with an army of 40,000 to 50,000 men…” With hindsight, he admits that “perhaps we should have talked directly to the Security Council, bypass the ‘38th floor’, the Secretary-General’s floor…”

Faced with this onslaught of ignorance, Hubert Védrine, former Secretary-General of the Élysée, explains that “President Mitterrand had understood from the beginning, that is to say from the RPF attack in 1990, the risk of civil war and of the massacres that would follow.

So he thought that the cycle had to be stopped. For me, it is also clear that without the pressure, and not just the support of France, the protagonists would not have not yielded to the Arusha Peace Agreement (in fact nobody wanted power sharing and for the RPF, the electoral prospects were uncertain).

“France had put pressure on President Habyarimana to share power. She encouraged an interim government including opponents of the regime. In any case, she did not “support” the regime, it is more complicated than that…”

The former Secretary-General of the Élysée continues: “When we were informed of the attack on April 6, President Mitterand came to my office saying: ‘This is terrible, they will kill each other.Everything we have done since 1990 is now meaningless.’” The only one worrying about Rwanda, to commit herself, to convince the United

Nations to get involved, to return in 1994 to try “to do something”, after having, for a long time, tried to convince President Habyarimana to share power, it is France, which, according to Hubert Védrine, “has nothing to be ashamed of… except for having failed.”

Confident, keeping a stiff upper lip, he denies supplies of ammunition to the government forces, witnessed in April 1994 by Colonel Marchal (Dallaire’s subordinate), he minimises the testimony of the journalist

Patrick de Saint-Exupéry, who witnessed the massacre of the Tutsi in Bisesero. “I am sure he witnessed unbearable things and I respect his distraught reaction. But I totally deny what he writes on France’ foreign policy in Rwanda. I believe he is totally wrong and that his relentless hate towards the French army or François Mitterrand is not rational…” Similarly, M. Vedrine refuses to comment on the meeting held on May 9, in Paris, between Rwandan envoy, Colonel Rwabalinda and General Huchon who, at the time, was head of the military cooperation where was discussed, among other things, the delivery of weapons and communication equipment.

Polite, the assistance keeps a diplomatic silence. Prudence Bushnell is the only one to question the close friendship and the personal interests of Mitterrand’s family in Rwanda, while General Dallaire broke protocol: “I knew Kouchner since his first visit in May, when he wanted to help us evacuate the orphans. But on his second visit, he explained to me that he was in my office on behalf of President Mitterrand to plan the Operation Turquoise. It surprised me a lot… In April already, the French troops had taken vehicles from my mission to evacuate white expatriates.

If France is lightly criticised, on the other hand Belgium is being accused of having withdrawn 50 (sic) Blue Helmets and encouraged other nations to follow suit. The Ghanaian Major-General Henry Anyidoho, Unamir’s chief of staff, insists that his country did not fail: “Despite the decision of the Security Council, our battalion of 700 men was not willing to leave Rwanda…” The Nigerian Ambassador Ibrahim Gambari confirms: “Opposed to the order to withdraw the troops, the Ghanaian contingent managed to save 5,000 people…”  Wanting to keep the facts straight, General Dallaire emphasises that in May 1994, while the Security Council was discussing sending more troops for a new mission, the RPF was against it. Officers in the US military were also against my plans…”

Amid those friendly exchanges, Jean-Hervé Bradol, who in 1994 ran the mission of MSF in Rwanda, and the journalist Jean-Philippe Ceppi, who was, at the time, a special correspondent for Libération and was going around waving his Swiss passport, suddenly brought the harsh reality:

“On April 9”, said Bradol, “we were receiving the wounded at Centre Hospitalier de Kigali, but on the 10th, we realised that the hospital was also used as a slaughterhouse. All the Tutsi were killed… The Red Cross ambulances were attacked and the militiamen killed the wounded who were there.”

Ceppi confirms: “The morgue was becoming too small, I counted more than 400 bodies.” Bradol continues: “While the ICRC field hospital where MSF used to work in Kigali was able to function, in Butare, on April 24, the whole staff of the hospital and all the wounded who were there were killed, without exception. In Tanzania, we found 200,000 Hutu fleeing, led by the very same people who committed the Genocide.

They were recreating their forces and the HCR had transferred to the militiamen the responsibility to run the camps…”

“While the massacres had begun on Wednesday, from Sunday night,” remembers Ceppi, “I did not hesitate to use the word genocide, as perceived by us, journalists, beyond any legal or political considerations. At one point, I called a Rwandan journalist, trapped with his family at home, by Interahamwe. I asked him what I could do for him. He told me that I could only attest to the fact that they would die because they were Tutsi…”

After listening to the humanitarian and the journalist, the American Joyce Leader, Deputy Chief of Mission in Kigali at the time, is on the verge of tears and abstains from commenting.  Rwanda, it was 20 years ago. It is today. The “Conversation on Rwanda” initiated at The Hague should be the beginning of a truth exercise at the highest level…

The original article was in French.