France’s role in the Rwandan Genocide was recently reexamined in two seperate reports commissioned by the French anpauld Rwandan governments. The French report was authorized by President Emmanuel Macron two years ago, breaking France’s longtime policy of secrecy over its ties with the Hutu-led government that incited the mass murder in 1994. The commission was impaneled by experts on the Holocaust, Armernian Genocide and international criminal law. They were given access to French “presidential, diplomatic, military and intelligence archives.” The Rwandan report was commissioned by President Paul Kagame in 2017. The administration tasked the U.S. law firm Levy Firestone Muse with carrying out the investigation. The firm relied on government documents, videos, documentaries and more than 250 witnesses to inform their conclusions.
500,000-600,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed within a 100-day period in Rwanda, from April 7 to July 15, 1994. This number represented two-thirds of Tutsis in Rwanda at the time. The catalyst for the violence was the assassinations of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira. On April 7, 1994, their plane was shot down by two missiles over the Kigali airport. The assasination of Habyrarimana gave the reins of government to Hutu Power hardliners, who wasted little time in murdering their political opponents and arming and inciting Hutu civilians throughout the country to murder Tutsis in their communities. Tutsis were hacked to death with machetes by their Hutu neighbors. Tutsi children hid beneath the pews in Catholic churches, only to be found and rifled down. Tutsis in Kigali were stopped at checkpoints, asked to produce their national identity cards, and murdered on the spot if the cards stated their ethnicity as Tutsi. Along with the half a million slain, between 250,000 to 500,000 women were sexually abused during the genocide. Many contracted H.I.V. and were mutilated by Hutu “rape squads.” Two million Rwandans, mostly Hutus, were displaced and became refugees. 400,000 became orphaned. 10,000 Pygmy Batwas out of a population of 30,000 were also violently killed.
The French report concludes that France bears “heavy and overwhelming responsibility” for the genocide, but also notes that they found no evidence of direct complicity with Hutu criminals. “Was France complicit in the Tutsi genocide? If this means a willingness to join the genocidal enterprise, there is nothing in the archives consulted that would suggest this,” say the authors. The commission specifies many areas in which the government failed in Rwanda, such as “lack of coordination powers and absence of effective checks and balances,” “parallel chains of communication and even command,” “bypassing the rules of engagement and legal procedures,” “institutional abuses covered up by the political authority or in the absence of political control,” and notably, having an “ethnicist reading” of the Rwandan conflict.
In response, President Kagame commended the findings of the commission, adding that it “represented an important step toward a common understanding of France’s role in the genocide against the Tutsi.”
The Rwandan report dissects the relationship between then-French President Francois Mitterand and Habyramina. It states that France was aware of the Hutu government’s plan to exterminate the Tutsis. Mitterand continued to prop up Habyarimana despite these “warning signs.” In the years leading up to the killing, “French officials armed, advised, trained, equipped, and protected the Rwandan government, heedless of the Habyarimana regime’s commitment to the dehumanization and, ultimately, the destruction and death of Tutsi in Rwanda.” It also accuses France of not doing enough to save lives during the height of the genocide, attempting to cover up its role and distort the truth about the perpertrators, and making “little efforts” to bring genocidaires to trial.
The close link between the France and Hutu Power is undeniable. The French had been supplying the Habyarimana Government with military arms since 1975, two years after he came to power in a coup d'etat. Under Habyarimana, opposing political parties were outlawed and every Rwandan had to join his party, Movement for Development (MRND). By the early 1990s, Rwanda, one of the poorest countries in the world, became the third largest importer of weapons in Africa. Between 1990-1994, there were at least thirty weapons deliveries from France to Rwanda. The arms were distributed to the people by the administration. Civilians were handed machetes and local police forces were given machine guns, Kalashnikovs, grenades and large quantities of ammunition.
During the Rwandan Civil War, the French trained the Hutu militia members that would eventually enact the genocide. French diplomats pressured Rwandan politicians into supporting Habyarimana. Human Rights Watch and the Burundian government claim to have evidence of French forces training Hutu fighters in the Central African Republic in late-1994, after the genocide was over.
France backed an administration that announced its genocidal intention on the airwaves for months leading up to the massacre. In 1993, Hutu Power groups founded the radio station Free Radio and Television of the Thousand Hills (RTLM). The station had enormous reach and its accessible programming made it popular among young Rwandans and the country’s large population of rural farmers. RTLM promulgated anti-Tutsi propaganda on a nonstop basis. RTLM vilified the Tutsis as subhuman pests and “cockroaches.” Radio hosts castigated the Tutsis as national enemies, and told its listeners that every Tutsi must be killed before they tried to kill Hutu men, women and children. One broadcast chillingly observed that “Someone must… make them disappear for good… to wipe them from human memory… to exterminate the Tutsis from the surface of the Earth.” The constant anti-Tutsi programming effectively brainwashed everyday Hutu civilians into seeing their Tutsi neighbors as outsiders, and less than human. This was the government that the French propped up.
At the beginning off the genocide, French, Belgian and UN forces launched a military operation to help European and American expatriots in Rwanda leave the country. Tutsis pleading for assistance from the international coalition were turned away. Those who boarded the evacuation trucks were dropped off at government checkpoints and later murdered by Hutu militias. Many expatriates were forced to leave their Tutsi wives behind. The French government was able to assist Habyarimana Administration members, including his Hutu extremist wife Agathe, in their efforts to leave Rwanda.
Hutu militias continued to receive shipments of weapons from France during the genocide. The UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Rwanda on May 17th, 1994. The French sent shipments intended for genocidaires to the Goma airport in Zaire after the embargo was put in place. The weapons were taken across the border to Rwanda by the Zairian military and given to Hutu militias as they slaughtered as many Tutsis as they could.
In mid-June 1994, during the waning days of the genocide, the French government decided to intervene. They dispatched 2,500 soldiers to Rwanda for “humanitarian purposes.” The UN Security Council authorized the French intervention, called “Operation Turquoise,” in order to create a safe zone for Tutsis fleeing persecution and displaced Rwandans. Operation Turquoise was able to save around 15,000 lives.
Hutu fighters also fled into the zone and were protected there from the encroaching Rwandan Patriotic Front’s (RPF) army. Many of the orchestrators of the genocide crossed the border into Zaire from the safe zone and were thus able to evade punishment for their crimes against humanity. UN officers accused the French Army of releasing prisoners that carried out the killing. In practice, France’s intervention only stalled the RPF’s military victory over all of Rwanda, which heralded the end of the genocide. Hutu Power radio stations continued to incite violence in broadcasts from the safe zone.
Unlike in the past, the recent French and Rwandan government reports are mostly in agreement on France’s complicity in the Rwandan Genocide. The Macron Administration deserves credit for this. The Hollande Administration sided with the French Constitutional Court in keeping the Rwanda archives secret. Last year, Felicien Kabuga, one of the biggest financers of the Rwandan Genocide, was arrested near Paris. And just last week, a Rwandan priest in France was arrested on charges of assisting Hutu militias in 1994. These are moves that the Rwandan Government has been calling for for decades. France is making a more conscious effort to acknowledge its mistakes before and during the massacre, be transparent with government documents regarding Rwanda, and bring genocidaires to justice. Illuminating France’s role is not meant to shame the country or bolster the position of others. Sadly, too many countries to name have committed or been complicit in genocides. Reckoning with the past, and helping in the meting out of justice, will only strengthen relations between nations and improve our understanding on how and why genocides occur.
Written by Benjamin Karlin
Benjamin Karlin is a columnist at DecipherGrey.
Photograph: ITU Pictures|Flickr.com