An Easter that was pregnant with death

3rd March 1994 was Easter Sunday but the atmosphere in Rwanda and Kigali in particular was ominous.  Many people expected something to happen but could not tell what it was. The implementation of resolutions of the Arusha peace talks stalled due to the ruling party’s buying off opposition parties’ members to fight for positions amongst themselves and the continuously altered nominations of opposition politicians for cabinet positions from opposition members,

3rd March 1994 was Easter Sunday but the atmosphere in Rwanda and Kigali in particular was ominous.  Many people expected something to happen but could not tell what it was.

The implementation of resolutions of the Arusha peace talks stalled due to the ruling party’s buying off opposition parties’ members to fight for positions amongst themselves and the continuously altered nominations of opposition politicians for cabinet positions from opposition members, were set to resume a regional summit in Arusha in the next week.

Major General Roméo Dallaire, the UNAMIR Commander, through Prime Minister designate Faustin Twagiramungu,  had on 11th  January sent his infamous ‘genocide fax’ to UN headquarters in New York after discussing  with a senior level Interahamwe informant ‘Jean-Pierre,’ reporting that the informant , [under  the orders of  Mathieu Ngirumpatse]  “has been ordered to register all Tutsi in Kigali. He suspects it is for their extermination.

Example he gave was that in 20 minutes his personnel could kill up to 1,000 Tutsi.”  Dallaire’s bosses at the UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations had replied with the instructions that he informs the president and take no further action.

Habyarimana had been informed but he seemed to have been surprised that Dallaire had got the information than that a section of the people he led, were marked for death because of their ethnicity.

MRND president Mathieu Ngirumpatse had visited Dallaire hoping to influence him on the Arusha negotiations to favour the ruling party’s demand for more ministerial positions.

He had argued that that the RPF with the portfolio of internal affairs would investigate their crimes, PL with justice portfolio would condemn them and they would die in prison The Special Representative on the UN Secretary General Cameroonian Jacques-Roger Booh Booh had a soft side for the ‘Fracophone’ruling regime, thanks in part to the influence of his assistant Mamadou Kane whose disdain for the RPF was no secret.

At a recent party attended by Kigali’s “A social class”, diplomats and representatives of International organizations, a political debate had ensued particularly Landouald Ndasingwa the leader of the Liberal Party and Col. Theonest Bagosora the retired Chief of Cabinet in the ministry of defense. Bagosora retorted that the solution to Rwanda’s problems was to kill all Tutsis.

In a letter dated 3 December last year (1993), by some military officers to the UNAMIR Commander and all ministers, a plan by military officers from the northwest of Rwanda to oppose the Arusha peace process by killing all Tutsis and the names of opposition politicians to be killed had been revealed.

Indeed lists of Tutsi in schools, places of work and places of residence had been made and submitted to authorities and kept by the Centre for criminal Investigation and Documentation (CRCD) on the advice of Gen. Jean Varret, head of the French interventionist force in Rwanda. On 20th February, Chief of Staff Deogratias Nsabimana had showed his cousin Jean Berchmans Birara a list of 1500 Tutsi to be killed which the latter took to western missions including the French.  

Death of the Tutsi in big numbers was nothing new; they had been massacred in 1959-63, as reported by Giles-Denis Vuillemin, a Swiss professor who was in Rwanda during the pogroms.

He noted, “Dr. Hendersen tells me that the hill of Kigeme was spared because of the influence of the director of schools, a respected member of Parmehutu. On the other hand, trucks are preventing access to the hospital.

Dr. Hendersen estimates a total of 5,000 dead in the region. From Kigeme, I go to Cyanaka. The mission is full of refugees (1,500 to 2,000).

The Fathers there are clearly talking about genocide; in their opinion, only international pressure could prompt authorities to change their policy. In the long term, they say, Rwandan Batutsi are doomed.

They would have to be provided with another country, under international control and assistance.” In the préfecture of Gikongoro alone, it was estimated that between 5,000 and 8,000 Tutsi were killed; “that is, about 10-20% of the total Tutsi population of the préfecture.”

In 1963, 20,000 Tutsis were killed after the attack by refugees in Bugesera, the 1973 massacres, the 8 October 1990 massacre of between 800 Bahima in Umutara province, the mid-October 1990 and March 1992 massacres in Kibilira commune which killed 1,000 people, the March 1991Massacres of 1000 Bagogwe civilians by soldiers from Bigogwe camp, March 1992 Massacre of at least 5,000 Tutsis in Bugesera led by Rwambuka the mayor of Kanzenze.

In March 1992, after learning of the Bugesera massacres, a group of Western diplomats confronted Habyarimana with their concerns. French ambassador Georges Martres refused to join them and dismissed the international commission of inquiry’s findings on the killings in the northwest as ‘just rumours’.

When French cooperation minister Marcel Deberge visited Kigali in 28 February 1993, he had urged opposition parties to forge a common front with President Habyarimana against the RPF.

Felicien Kabuga, Ferdinand Nahimana, Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, Hassan Ngeze, Frodould Karamira, Major Ntilikina, Joseph Serugendo, Major Thadee Bagaragaza and others had launched on 8 July, 1993 the FM Radio-Télévision Libre des MilleCollines (RTLM). Known for playing the latest Lingala and South African music listenesr had casually been told “something small” would happen on 6th April but few people had taken note. With a circulation of 25 radios per 100 people, radio was an important tool of communication.

Kantano Habimana, Valérie Bemeriki, Nkomati, Gaspard Gahigi, Ananie Nkurunziza, a former intelligence officer, Noël Hitimana, Emmanuel Rucogoza, Phillipe Mbilizi, Georges Ruggiu and Jean Baptiste Bamwanga were the presenters though Kantano was by far the most listened to presenter thanks to his virulent anti-Tutsi outbursts for example on 21 January 1994 he had told his listeners that ‘Masses, be vigilant ... Your property is being taken away.

What you fought for in ‘59 is being taken away’ and “The proof that we will exterminate them (Tutsis) is that they represent only one ethnic group. Look at one person, at his height and physical features, look closely at his cute little nose and then break it.”

In the coming weeks RTLM would tell killers to go and “work” or “clear the bushes” meaning kill people, direct killers to where refugees are hiding, cheer and thank the killers and mention names to be killed.

Since their creation in 1993 the youth-wingers of the ruling MRND and the allied CDR-Power, Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi respectively were known for dancing or riding dangerously on pickup trucks thorough city suburbs. 

They were known as hooligans possibly high on substances. Starting in June 1993 Interahamwe had been incorporated in the Administrative structures particularly prefectures with Pauline Nyiramasuhuko active in Butare and Joseph Nzirorera in Ruhengeri.

They had been given military training in the military Barracks of Gako, Gabiro, Mukamira and Bigogwe by French military instructors.

Nzirorera had visited these trainees at different times encouraging them, while Andre Ntagerura as minister for transport and communications had availed ONATRACOM buses to transport them.  There were of course other secret groups of killers: the ‘death squads’, ‘Network Zero’ and the military ‘Amasasu’. 

They could take over sections of the city of Kigali causing mayhem, burning used car tyres and with Presidential Guard soldiers mingling among the shouting hooligans could taunt and dare RPA troops at CND.

Gunfire and grenade blasts could occasionally be heard at night with reports of the dead seeping through in the morning. “Abakombozi” of PSD, “AbaJDR” and “Amajyojyi” of MDR and other smaller parties could mount their own shouting marathons through city suburbs.

In the coming weeks their role changed dramatically influencing a whole generation. Indeed many people today say they were not Interahamwe, they were young, or they were in hiding. Journalist Nick Hughes’ report gives a glimpse into what happened in the week after Easter 1994: 

“I was in a building of the French School, in central Kigali. …I could see piles of bodies… they were slowly beaten to death, tortured.

I could see two women among one pile of bodies...Both women were kneeling. One was begging, arms outstretched … the killers would come over and beat the men who were dying in front of these two women, then stroll away… people were going about their business, not paying attention…I saw quite clearly another woman who apparently lived next door; she was very much at home.

She put her head around the door to see what was happening to her neighbour – to watch her neighbours being murdered in the street…Finally, a man came across the street and hit one woman on the head with such a force that he broke the stick he was using. She fell back.

She put her arm up to ward off the blow, and he must have broken it. The second blow hit her on the side of her head and neck. I could see her head jerk away... In the space of about 100 metres, there were eleven, maybe twelve, bodies on the street…Eventually; someone killed the two women with severe blows.”