Rwanda’s ghost haunts France

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ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A Rwandan boy covers his face from the stench of dead bodies in this July 19, 1994 file photo. April 7, 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide which killed 800,000 people. The three-month killing spree in 1994 by Hutu extremists targeted ethnic Tutsis, but moderate Hutus were also caught in the wave of violence that followed the fatal downing of a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana. REUTERS/Corinne Dufka/Files (RWANDA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST ANNIVERSARY POLITICS) TEMPLATE OUT ORG XMIT: PXP15

FOR 27 years, the ghosts of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide that left more than 800 000 people dead have haunted France.

And drastic efforts have been made to ‘exonerate’ the French from being complicit in the genocidal operation.

Commission reports have been used as a salvo in a bitter struggle between France and Rwanda’s Tutsi leadership to pin responsibility for the genocide on each other.

The latest is the Duclert Commission Report which the French Government released last week ahead of the 27th Rwandese genocide commemorations.

As expected, the findings by the Commission, headed by historian Vincent Duclert and appointed by French President Emmanuel Macron, has downplayed the role of France in the Rwandan genocide.

The findings by the commission said France was politically responsible for inaction amid preparations for genocide committed by extremist Hutus but the country was not a willing accomplice to the genocidal operation.

Though recognising France’s involvement with a regime that encouraged racist massacres in the East African nation, the report largely exonerated Paris for its role and involvement in the years leading up to the genocide.

“The history of France in Rwanda was not only (of) failure and defeat,” the report said. 

“It bore witness to the ethics of certain political authorities and agents of the State, military, diplomats and administrators who, in a crisis situation, emerged showing reason, courage and the ability to act for the human cause.”

Praising the report, Macron said: “France will continue its efforts in the fight against the impunity of those responsible for crimes of genocide,” according to a statement from his office.

The report derives its findings from the archives of nearly 8 000 declassified documents between 1990 and 1994. 

Macron appointed the Commission in April 2019 on the 25th anniversary of the Tutsi genocide, to create an understanding of the massacres in the collective memory of France.

At least 800 000 people, mainly from the Tutsi minority, were massacred. 

Thousands of women were raped and villages torched and pillaged.

The 992-page report, however, downplays the complicity of the government in power and various diplomatic and military officials by justifying their actions in the ‘context of war’, ‘exodus’ and ‘the terrible realities on the ground’. 

Its support for a ‘racist, corrupt and violent regime’ emanated from French policy in Africa to democratise Rwanda.

Previous documentary evidence from official archives and testimonies of survivors has charged the French Government with providing material support and refuge to perpetrators, which Paris has vehemently denied.

The report states: “The Rwandese crisis ended in disaster for Rwanda and in defeat for France.” 

It added: “But is France complicit in the genocide of the Tutsis? If this means a willingness to be associated with the genocidal enterprise, nothing in the archives consulted proves it.”

It blames the Francois Mitterand Government for adopting a ‘binary view’ in holding then Rwandese President Juvenal Habyarimana, whose assassination in April 1994 triggered massacres, as a ‘Hutu ally’ and the Ugandan-Tutsi-supported Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) as an ‘enemy’. And for being ‘slow to break with the interim regime that carried out the genocide’.

On the controversial military-humanitarian Operation Turquoise, where the French army was deployed under the UN peacekeeping mission and created a safe humanitarian corridor, the report said it ‘saved many lives’ but not of the ‘vast majority of Tutsi exterminated in the first weeks of the genocide’.

New evidence released last month showed the French Foreign Ministry issued orders to allow perpetrators present in the safe-zone to flee while ignoring a request by its Ambassador to arrest them.

Commissions! Reports! Commissions!

The Rwandan Government has for years been calling for the prosecution of a number of senior French politicians over the 1994 genocide.

In 2008, it released a report from a Rwandese Commission that accused the former President François Mitterrand and more than 30 senior French officials of aiding the killers.

A two-year investigation by the Commission also accused French forces in Rwanda of crimes against humanity and of using a UN-sanctioned haven for refugees to help those responsible for the 100 days of mass slaughter to escape justice.

The 500-page report cites official papers abandoned by the defeated Hutu regime that investigators said proved France made large weapons shipments to the former Rwandese army and trained members of the Interahamwe militias who carried out the genocide.

The report also details how French soldiers were involved in frontline operations against Kagame’s forces. In some cases, they commanded artillery and flew helicopter gunships. 

It accuses some of those soldiers of crimes against humanity. 

“French forces directly assassinated Tutsis and Hutus accused of hiding Tutsis … French forces committed several rapes on Tutsi survivors,” the report said.

The Rwandese Commission heard from Hutu former soldiers who said they had served with French soldiers and journalists. 

Among the witnesses was Isidore Nzeyimana, a former military instructor, who told the Commission he worked with French officers who trained members of the Interahamwe.

In 2017, another report, this time an independent report by American law firm Cunningham Levy Muse LLP, commissioned by Rwanda, makes the same accusations that the French military forces trained their Rwandese counterparts, supplied them with weapons even after an arms embargo and gave cover, under the auspices of a UN-sanctioned humanitarian mission, in the last moments of a genocidal campaign.

French troops stationed in Rwanda as part of a UN peacekeeping operation in 1994, under Operation Turquoise, had even created a safe zone to help some perpetrators escape to neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to the Muse Report.

Acknowledging ‘errors’

During a visit to Kigali in 2010, the then French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, broke new ground by admitting Paris had made ‘serious errors of judgment’ in Rwanda, but stopped short of an official apology.

Using carefully negotiated language, Sarkozy acknowledged, for the first time, that France and its troops in Rwanda at the time committed ‘errors’ as the Tutsis were being killed by France’s Hutu allies. 

Slow to act

The French justice system has been accused of being slow to put exiles accused of participating in the killings on trial in France.

So slow, in fact, that the European Human Rights Court accused France of dragging its feet in the case of Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, a priest accused of encouraging the genocide in his onetime Kigali parish who found refuge in France and now lives in a vicarage at Gisors, north-west of Paris.

It seems despite overwhelming evidence proving France’s complicity in the genocide, the French Government will not be held responsible for the events of 1994.

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