This past week, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda announced that it is increasing pressure on Paris to reveal the actions of their embassy during the 1994 African genocide. The accusation is that the French sheltered leaders of the genocidal regime in their embassy during the massacres, and then tried to facilitate their departure from the country. This is denied by the French, but they refuse to provide the requested documents that would confirm or deny it.
This ongoing spat between Rwanda and France is nothing new – it is born out of the complicit actions of France before, during, and after the Rwandan Genocide.
A full understanding of the argument requires an appreciation of the causes and effects of the horrific genocide. Basically, by the early 1990s, the tension between the Hutus and the Tutsis, the two main ethnic groups in the country, was reaching critical levels. While Hutus were in power in the country, they were fighting against the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi army that was invading from the north.
Early in the morning on April 6th, 1994, the plane carrying the Hutu-supporting President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down by a missile, killing all on board. Immediately, Hutu extremists blamed the presidential assassination on the Tutsis. They took to the radio waves calling for the extermination of Tutsi “cockroaches”, and began broadcasting prewritten lists of Tutsis and their addresses. They distributed weapons, which had been stockpiled in advance, and they armed militias. Within hours, genocide had begun.
Over the next hundred days, close to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus, in a country with just eight million people, were massacred. Children were slaughtered in front of their parents and wives and mothers were raped in front of their families. Neighbors murdered neighbors, and friends killed friends. No one was safe.
After three months of unspeakable horror, the genocide finally came to an end in mid-July when the Tutsi RPF led by current president Paul Kagame, took control of the country as Hutu extremists fled the advancing army. And all the while, despite clear evidence of horrendous atrocities during the genocide, no one in the western world had done anything to intervene in the massacre.
Except for France.
France, led by President Francois Mitterand, had decided in the early 1990s it had a vested interest in the Hutu-Tutsi conflict, and had thrown in its lot with the Hutus. This was because Hutus, by and large, spoke French, and Tutsis tended to speak English. Before the genocide occurred, the French had already provided the Hutu government with arms and military training, (both of which would be later utilized in the genocide) to fight the RPF, who were seen by the French as Anglophone invaders.
When the genocide did break out – the large-scale, organized slaughter of an ethnic group by extremist Hutus - France interpreted it as a civil conflict between Francophones and Anglophones. Given their linguistic preference, they intervened accordingly.
Calling it a peacekeeping mission, France began Operation Turquoise, a military structure ostensibly aimed at stabilizing a large region of the southwest of the country. The idea was that this region, called “Zone Turquoise” would be a safe zone for victims of the conflict.
And inside Zone Turquoise, Hutus murdered with impunity. French covered up mass graves of Tutsi bodies, and played volleyball on top. When Hutu extremists moved a transmitter for a radio station that was orchestrating and directly enabling the genocide into Zone Turquoise, the French did nothing to stop them. Genocidal leaders used Zone Turquoise as a safe way to flee the country. Tutsis, who thought that the French-maintained safe zone was secure, came out of hiding, only to be murdered for their mistake. All the while, France continued to arm government troops, who used or distributed the weapons to continue the genocide. And all that’s before you get to the rumors – the ones that suggest that French military directly took part in the killing and raping of Tutsis.
The atrocities committed under French watch were appalling. Surely, they were not the official goal of France when it intervened, but they happened regardless. And Rwanda deserves an apology.
What it got was entirely different. In 1995, French President Jacques Chirac added salt to the wounds when he presided over a meeting of Francophone African leaders (to which the new president of Rwanda was not invited), and began with a moment of silence for Juvenal Habyarimana - the one who’s supporters committed the genocide. He never mentioned the 800,000 victims.
A decade later, a French judge indicted nine high-ranking Rwandans, declaring that they had been the ones to assassinate President Habyarimana, while also implicating President Kagame in this act of terrorism. Later, in 2008, Rose Kabuye, Chief of Protocol for Kagame, was arrested on a French warrant when she entered Germany to make preparations for an upcoming visit by Kagame, due to her alleged role in the plane crash. And now, with the announcement of increased pressure on Paris last week, the political conflict continues.
During the one hundred days of the genocide, the western world stood by and watched. It was a horrific mistake. Bill Clinton has apologized directly to the Rwandan people for his inaction, and has called it “the biggest regret” of his administration. Kofi Annan has apologized. The Belgian prime minister has apologized. But France, who aided and abetted those who committed the genocide, still will not.
President Sarkozy has been making a push recently to strengthen France’s waning political influence in Africa. His first step must be an apology. For a decade and a half, French leaders have refused to admit they hold any responsibility for the atrocities of 1994. This continued policy of arrogance by the French is despicable, and it is an insult to the Rwandan people.
When Francois Mitterand originally chose to support the Hutus, he did so because he wanted to make sure that French would continue to be an official language of Rwanda. Today, Rwanda has stopped recognizing French, and utilizes English instead. This was not an effect of the RPF taking control in the country, as France tried to prevent so strongly, but was rather an official policy decision made in 2006. The reason? Rwandans were sick of French pride and disrespect.
For those looking for one of the best accounts of the events of the hundred days of the Rwandan Genocide, and their aftermath, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, by Cornell’s own Philip Gourevitch, is a seminal work.