Did Rwanda’s Paul Kagame trigger the genocide of his own people?
Millions of lives were lost in the ethnic and political violence that embroiled Rwanda in the 1990s. Rwanda’s current president Paul Kagame was initially hailed as a hero for stopping the genocide, but, as Canadian journalist Judi Rever reveals in her new book, the truth is much darker
By JUDI REVER Excerpted from In Praise of Blood: The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, as published by The Toronto Star 9:00 AM, Sun., April 8, 2018
By April 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) decided to go for broke by killing Rwanda’s president, Juvénal Habyarimana. His assassination set the stage for a level of mass killings that Rwanda has not yet recovered from. It was the catalyst that effectively destroyed the old order and changed the course of central African history. Which is what [RPF leader Paul] Kagame and the RPF were aiming for all along, while paying lip service to the UN, to the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) and to the peace process.
The following account of the shooting down of Habyarimana’s plane is based on separate testimonies from former RPF to the 2006 French inquiry under Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
Kagame and his inner military circle held a series of three meetings in late 1993 and early 1994 to plan to shoot down the plane. The commanders present at the meetings were Col. Kayumba Nyamwasa, Col. Steven Ndugute, Col. Sam Kaka, Lt.-Col. James Kabarebe and Maj. Jack Nziza. The RPF agreed to train a team to handle two surface-to-air missiles that the RPF had secured from its ally Uganda. This team brought the weapons from northern Rwanda into the capital to a farm in Masaka. On the night of April 6, after attending a summit in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, along with key members of the Rwandan military, boarded a French-piloted Falcon 50 jet and headed to Kigali. At 7 p.m., RPF Col. Charles Kayonga told his battalion at the Centre Nationale de Developpement (CND) to be on “stand by one” — in full battle dress and ready for an attack. By 8 p.m., the missile team in Masaka was in place, waiting for the plane to arrive. The first missile was launched but missed the plane as it approached the airport. A second missile, fired by Sgt. Frank Nziza, hit the mark, damaging the aircraft’s wing and fuselage.
The jet exploded, killing all 12 individuals on board, including the two heads of state and the three French crew members. Most of the plane’s debris landed in the backyard of Habyarimana’s presidential home.
Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana seen in 1975. His assassination in 1994 set up Rwanda’s genocide.
Luc Marchal, the Belgian contingent commander and the Kigali section commander with UNAMIR, was astounded at how fast RPF forces — between 25,000 and 30,000 troops — moved into position after the plane was shot down. “The RPF launched a major offensive, which would have required weeks of preparation,” he told me. To undertake such an immediate, large-scale offensive, the RPF would have had to formulate orders, issue those orders, and ensure that the military leadership transmitted the orders to troops so that soldiers got into position fast. He points out: “They launched a systematic attack and had enough ammunition and other supplies — including equipment and food — to fight immediately. They had [already] brought it over from Uganda. The downing of the presidential plane was directly related to the RPF’s military offensive. You cannot improvise such matters. It is impossible.”
A day after the president was killed, all hell broke loose. Hutu soldiers assassinated Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana and her husband and then kidnapped the Belgian peacekeepers who had been sent to protect her, taking them back to the main military barracks, where they lynched them. Tutsis living in Hutu-controlled zones were targeted and slain, but also, while that was going on, Hutus living in RPF-controlled areas were tracked down and slaughtered.
The skulls and bones of Rwandan genocide victims, laid out as a memorial in 2014 on the 20-year anniversary of the massacre. More than 800,000 ethnic Tutsi and moderate Hutus were slaughtered over a 100-day period.
By April 12, only six days into the large-scale slaughter, Marchal saw at least four RPF battalions in Kigali. He believes that with such military capacity the RPF could have easily organized security zones inside the capital where Tutsis could have sought refuge. But they never created safe havens for Tutsis. Instead, they told the Belgian, Italian and French troops to get out of the country. The Italian and French troops were part of a coalition of elite paratroopers and special forces sent to evacuate foreign nationals. The same day, April 12, a dozen senior Hutu officers from the Rwandan armed forces formally requested the RPF join forces with them in a bid to stop the carnage. The Hutu officers called for an immediate ceasefire. But the RPF would not agree to it. Three days earlier, on April 9, the RPF had issued an ultimatum to the UN’s Ghanaian contingent: get out of the demilitarized zone in the north or your soldiers will face artillery fire. “Not only did the RPF not show the slightest interest in protecting Tutsis, it fuelled the chaos,” Marchal said. And he is unequivocal about Kagame’s intentions: “The RPF had one objective. It was to seize power and use the massacres as stock in trade to justify its military operations. This is what I saw.”
The carnage and human suffering from the genocide brought about a new political era. Rwanda was no longer a Hutu nation; the country would be run, as it had been before independence, by a Tutsi minority.
Excerpted from In Praise of Blood: The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front by Judi Rever. Copyright © 2018 Judi Rever. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.