Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

New Controversy Over Rwandan Genocide

French judge stirs intense passions by accusing Rwandan president of triggering the 1994 massacres.
By Stephanie Nieuwoudt
French judge Jean-Louis Bruguière has stirred a hornet's nest of controversy with his call for the prosecution of President Paul Kagame of Rwanda for actions alleged to have triggered his country's 1994 genocide.



Bruguière said in November that Kagame, whose Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front, RPF, took control of the country after the 100-day genocide that saw the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, should stand trial at the United Nations' International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, ICTR.



Bruguière wants Kagame charged with bringing down the plane of former Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana with ground-to-air missiles on April 6, 1994. Bruguière is acting for the three French crew who died with Habyarimana aboard his Falcon jet, a present from former French president Francois Mitterrand, together with the then new president of neighbouring Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamire, and seven senior Rwandan government members.



Within minutes of the crash at the airport in Kigali, Rwanda's capital, Hutu extremists blamed Kagame and the RPF for the murder of Habyarimana. The RPF blamed Hutu extremists.



News of Habyarimana's death was broadcast by Radio Mille Collines, the Hutu-controlled station that described Tutsis as “inyenzi” (cockroaches). The killing began, and Mille Collines agitated for mass murder, urging Hutus to wipe out their fellow Tutsi countrymen. "Let's exterminate them all," exhorted the radio station. "The graves are not yet quite full."



Kagame swiftly reacted to Bruguière's call for him to be put on trial by accusing France of complicity in the genocide. He severed diplomatic ties with Paris and ordered the closure of all French institutions in the country, including the French lycée, and stopped all French humanitarian activities in the central African country. The French ambassador to Rwanda and all embassy personnel had to leave in a hurry. Radio France Internationale was instructed to stop its FM broadcasts in Rwanda.



"The French know who shot down the plane," said the Rwandan president. "It must be them who are responsible."



The Bruguière-Kagame confrontation leaves the world little nearer the truth of who brought down Habyarimana's personal jet more than twelve years ago, with devastating consequences.



In Arusha, the northern Tanzanian town where the ICTR is located, the court’s Association of Defence Lawyers, Adad, welcomed Bruguière’s report. In a statement, Adad lawyers said numerous witnesses in a trial of former Rwandan military leaders have testified that during the negotiation and implementation of the 1993 Arusha Accords - designed to establish an interim government between Habyarimana and Kagame's RPF, pending democratic elections - Kagame, in rear bases in Uganda, actively prepared for a military offensive to seize power.



The Adad statement further alleges the witnesses said the RPF blocked the implementation of the Arusha Accords in late March 1994 when it became clear that it lacked sufficient political support to come to power through democratic means. The plan, said the witnesses, was to assassinate Habyarimana on April 5, but technical difficulties meant it happened a day later.



Adad continued, “Perhaps the most shocking recent revelation is that former lawyers and investigators in the ICTR prosecutor’s office had enough evidence to indict Paul Kagame for the assassination of the presidents of both Rwanda and Burundi as early as 1997, but the prosecution was blocked by the [then] chief prosecutor, Louise Arbour, for reasons unknown”.



Arbour, 59, was chief prosecutor of the ICTR and simultaneously also of the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia from 1996 to 1999. At the latter, in The Hague, she indicted former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. In 1996, she became a Supreme Court judge in her native Canada before being appointed the UN's current High Commissioner for Human Rights, succeeding Sergio Vieira de Mello who was killed in the bombing of the UN's Baghdad headquarters in August 2003.



The Adad lawyers said they have asked the court's prosecutor-general to prepare charges against President Kagame and arrest him. They argued that Kagame would not enjoy immunity if arrested by the Rwanda tribunal.



ICTR spokesman Everard O’Donnell responded by saying that irrespective of who was responsible for the downing of the plane, the ensuing genocide was a different issue which called for “a specific judicial response”.



A former senior foreign correspondent for an international news agency who reported from Rwanda throughout the 100-day genocide spoke to IWPR about the insights he has gained. Pleading anonymity because of a sensitive post he now holds, he argued that Kagame could not have had a hand in the attack on Habyarimana’s plane.



“It is convenient to point a finger at Kagame," said the former foreign correspondent. "It is well-known that he never really liked the French. In fact, he resisted all things French. While many of the leaders of the RPF spoke French, Kagame [who spent many years in exile in English-speaking Uganda] steadfastly refused to learn the language.”



The IWPR source said he believes Hutu extremists brought down the Falcon.



“These hardliners were getting edgy about Habyarimana who they saw as taking a more moderate stance. They wanted to get rid of the Tutsis once and for all.



"By shooting down the plane they could trigger the genocide. In this way they would obtain two goals: getting rid of their ‘sell-out’ president and the chance to kill their enemies ... It seems feasible that the planners were looking for a trigger.”



Published accounts tell of how the genocide, which began within hours of Habyarimana's aircraft plunging to the ground, was well planned. As evidence, they cite the fact that millions of machetes and hoes were imported over a long time beforehand. These agricultural tools - along with firearms - were widely distributed to the civilian Hutu population and used in the killings.



Jason Stearns, a Nairobi-based senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organisation, said, “Before the plane was shot down, there was already a well-oiled machine in place with well-planned command structures to execute the genocide.”



In his best-selling book, “Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda” (Random House, 2003), Canadian General Roméo Dallaire, commander of a small UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda who warned headquarters in New York of the coming killings, said he received intelligence as early as January 1994 that the Hutu nationalist Interahamwe civilian militias were preparing for mass killing of Tutsis.



As well as the Interahamwe's traditional spears, clubs and machetes, the Hutu-dominated Rwandan army "had recently transferred four large shipments of AK-47s, ammunition and grenades to the militia", writes Dallaire. "These weapons were stored in four separate arms caches in Kigali."



Dallaire's intelligence source said the army was training the Interahamwe and that lists of Tutsis were being compiled so that "when the time came … 'cockroaches' could easily be rounded up and exterminated". The army trainers "placed special emphasis on killing techniques. Then the young men were returned to their communes and ordered to await the call to arms".



The then UN head of peacekeeping in New York, current Secretary-General Kofi Annan, ignored Dallaire's warning of impending mass killings by the Interahamwe.



Judge Bruguière was unable to indict Kagame because under French law sitting heads of state enjoy immunity from prosecution. However, he said he would write to Annan to ask that Kagame be brought before the ICTR. Bruguière did issue arrest warrants for nine of Kagama's top aides. They are James Kabarebe, military chief of staff; Charles Kayonga, army chief of staff; Faustin Jyamwasa-Kayumba, ambassador to India; Jackson Nkurunziza, a Ugandan working for the Rwandan presidential guard; Samuel Kajnyamera, an RPF parliamentary deputy; Jacob Tumwime, an army officer; Franck Nziza, a Presidential Guard officer; Eric Hakizimana, an intelligence officer; and Rose Kabuye, director general of state protocol.



France had half a parachute battalion in Rwanda in the run-up to the genocide involved in training major units of the Hutu-dominated Rwandese Government Forces. The French had a relationship with the Habyarimana regime that stretched back to the mid-Seventies. President Mitterrand had close ties to the Habyarimana family and one of the French leader's sons had serious business interests inside Rwanda. As well as supplying the Hutu-dominated government with arms and military expertise, French support escalated to outright military intervention against Kagama's RPF insurgents in October 1990 and again in February 1993 before Dallaire's small UN peacekeeping force arrived.



Andrew Wallis, the author of “Silent Accomplice: The Untold Story of France’s Role in the Rwandan Genocide” [I.B. Tauris, 2006], is convinced of French complicity in Habyarimana's death. He claimed, in a recent interview with The Times of London, that French troops trained their Rwandan allies in how to “dismember bodies, fire its new heavy artillery and use Gazelle attack helicopters … It’s [France's] ministers [who] constantly repeat the ‘double genocide’ myth, which alleged that while Hutu killed Tutsi, the Tutsi also killed Hutu. It is akin to claiming that Holocaust victims were also mass murderers”.



Wallis alleged that Paul Dijoud, African affairs director at the French foreign ministry, warned Kagame that if he did not withdraw his RPF insurgents from Rwanda "you will not see your brothers and your family again, because they will all have to be massacred".



In Kigali, thousands of Rwandans protested in December against France following Bruguière's demand for the prosecution of Kagame. The Rwandan leader, who became president after the last Hutu strongholds fell in July 1994, denounced France on international television networks.



He said France is harbouring former Hutu government officials who masterminded the slaughter of Tutsis. “The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has information pointing to people who were responsible for gunning down Habyarimana’s plane and these are Hutu extremists including senior commanders at the time of that government with the support of France,” he said.



He alleged that French soldiers prevented UN forces from accessing the crash site, “All this is put aside and the blame is apportioned to the RPF. The French know who shot down the plane. It must be them who are responsible.”



In Shake Hands with the Devil, General Dallaire said the French-trained Presidential Guard prevented his UN troops from approaching the crash site.



As the controversy boils over from Kigali to Paris, the fundamental question now is this: will it make any difference to the international justice landscape if there is clarity on who shot down the plane with Habyarimana on board?



“Yes,” said IWPR's former foreign correspondent source. “The incident has been recognised as the trigger of the genocide, but the doubts surrounding it have given rise to suspicions and accusations. This has contributed to continued tensions, something Rwanda can do without.”



If Kagame is ever found guilty of complicity in the downing of the plane, as Bruguière intends, the legal and moral implications would be shocking. Rwanda's history would have to be re-written to reflect a tale of villains and heroes that is even more tangled than current versions.



Stephanie Nieuwoudt is a freelance South African journalist based in Nairobi who frequently reports from Rwanda and from Arusha on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.