This year marks a quarter century since the genocide in Rwanda but it still remains unclear who some of the main culprits were that triggered the chain of events that led to the genocide.
That it involved many actors, domestic and foreign, with a gradual political build-up among opposing military forces is however clear. And Belgium, Rwanda’s former colonial ruler that formed the backbone of the UN peacekeeping force at the time, found itself at the centre of the storm.
On Monday 11 April 1994, Johan Swinnen reached the Belgian embassy from his residence in the capital Kigali and as Belgium’s Ambassador to Rwanda, he started overseeing “Operation Silver Back”, which saw the evacuation of over 1,000 Belgian civilians in a country that had seen widespread massacres since the death of the president five days earlier. Ten Belgian para-commandos and several Belgian civilians had already been murdered.
The following day, after a heated telephone conversation with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and with an order from Brussels to personally leave, Mr. Swinnen oversaw the final steps in the evacuation of embassy staff. In a smoke-filled apocalyptic setting, the remaining staff spent the last two hours burning the archives with some anxiety that the embassy grounds might implode in the deadly chaos beyond.
And as captain of the sinking ship, Mr. Swinnen says that “even under instructions, I could not leave my colleagues behind.” Last to depart, Mr. Swinnen was then driven to the airport in an armoured vehicle under what sounded like heavy attacks.
When the Hercules airplane that transported the ambassador along with his Belgian and Rwandese colleagues to Nairobi was safely in air, the Canadian pilot told Mr. Swinnen that the take-off had been quite hectic. The pilot had apparently received a radio message from the control tower saying that the plane would be shot down if it took off with the Belgian ambassador, to which he replied that there is no ambassador onboard, much less a Belgian ambassador, and thus he took off.
The following months in Rwanda saw massacres, primarily of Tutsis but also moderate Hutus, by militias across the country. There were no death camps: the murders took place openly with piles of dead and mutilated bodies reportedly everywhere. The brutality and scale of the massacres were unprecedented with thousands of people murdered daily over the course of three months. The machete was a notorious weapon frequently used by the murderers, likely both due to accessibility as well as brutality.
The Rwandan genocide would be the last genocide of the 20th century, and with a UN estimation of 800,000 dead, it had claimed the largest number of victims since the Holocaust. The brutality and widespread participation by the Rwandan people ‒ with murders of long-time neighbours and even family members ‒ will always remain unfathomable.
Propaganda outlets like Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines played a key role however in the efforts of Hutu extremists to permanently eradicate Rwanda’s Tutsi population by encouraging the country’s population to action through its hate messages against the Tutsi minority. At the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where over 250,000 victims have been laid to rest, there is a children’s room with commemorative plaques and photographs of some of the youngest victims. David Mugiraneza was one victim.
Favourite sport: Football
Enjoyed: Making people laugh
Dream: Becoming a doctor
Last words: “Mama, UNAMIR will come for us.”
Cause of death: Tortured to death
Johan Swinnen arrived in August 1990 to take up his post as Belgium’s ambassador to Rwanda, recalling, “I was young, I had young children and a wife who shared my ambition of being ‘chef de poste’ in a country that was well-managed with a good reputation, and where we had a Belgian school, good climate and good relations between Belgium and Rwanda.”
At the time, like today, Rwanda was seen as a relatively stable African country on a reform path, and Mr. Swinnen explains that he was ambitious and saw particular opportunities to contribute with the appointment to the post at a time when Belgium was “rethinking its international cooperation… freeing itself from a paternalistic method of work and giving more responsibility to Rwandese experts and political leaders” adding however that “of course I was aware of some problems.”
On 1 October 1990, six weeks after Mr. Swinnen’s arrival, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a political group formed by then-exiled Tutsis and now Rwanda’s ruling party under President Paul Kagame, invaded Rwanda from their base in Uganda. The initial offensive was quickly repelled by Rwandan forces with the support of Zaire along with 300 French and 600 Belgian paratroops stationed in the country to protect French and Belgian citizens.
The RPF was forced to retreat but the offensive marked the start of a civil war that would ravage the country over the following years, leading to 100,000s of internally displaced people, with many living in miserable conditions, and foster Hutu radicalisation with the looming threat of an RPF invasion.
Local and global power play
With the increasing tensions in Rwanda, pressure started to build domestically on the Belgian government to distance itself from the Rwandan regime. Belgium thus stopped all arms sales as well as withdrew Belgian troops from the territory within a month of the RPF offensive.
In Mr. Swinnen’s view, this led to a more “balanced position, no military involvement… favouring and privileging negotiation and power sharing.” A potential path to peace. In the eyes of many of the political forces in Rwanda however, the changing stance of Belgium meant that they went from being a reliable partner to a supporter of RPF. Mr. Swinnen recalls how at the time he was labelled by some as an “inkotanyi” ‒ an RPF fighter.
France and Zaire however continued their military support for the Rwandan regime while neighbouring Uganda supported RPF, and in a now declassified Belgian intelligence report from 18 January 1993, the United Kingdom is singled out as another country that covertly supported RPF. The USA is also thought to have supported the RPF indirectly through Uganda. Major regional and global powers were thus pitted against each-other in what may have been a form of proxy-war for strategic and economic control.
At the same time, the situation within the political regime in Rwanda seemed to have become increasingly polarised. The ambitions of Juvénal Habyarimana, Rwanda’s former president, who came to power in a coup d’état in 1973, seems ambiguous and difficult to identify. There are examples of suspected assassinations of political opponents, but he also showed signs of openness to democratic reform. In July 1990, for example, he had established a national commission for the reintroduction of a multiparty system, and a reformed constitution was subsequently introduced in Rwanda on 10 June 1991. This led to the establishment of a multitude of political parties and newspapers.
Mr. Swinnen explains that “as a Belgian ambassador I had some privileged access to the president” and he saw Habyarimana regularly for what he explains were “always very frank and honest conversations” adding that while he “refuses to demonise Habyarimana,” it was at times difficult to know what Habyarimana was saying as he eloquently spoke in “a double language” that could be interpreted in several ways depending on his audience.
Habyarimana’s apparent ambiguity might be explained by the role of his wife, Agathe Habyarimana, along with her brothers whom Mr. Swinnen describes more categorically as “hardliners, defenders of Hutu power and hostile to substantial power sharing.” Habyarimana’s in-laws are thought to have been part of a radical Hutu extremist network referred to as Network Zero. As such, Habyarimana had to satisfy hardliners, who Mr. Swinnen says “were in his immediate entourage,” adding however that “29 years later, I cannot answer the question whether Habyarimana was an actor or a hostage of the single party or of his in-laws, including his wife.”
The failed peace
Habyarimana however showed proof of compromise and on 10 July 1992, the RPF and the Rwandan regime started negotiating a cease fire in Arusha, Tanzania, as a first step in the negotiation of a peace agreement that was then signed on 4 August 1993. The accords foresaw significant power-sharing and political integration of the RPF in Rwanda, with an election scheduled 22 months later.
Mr. Swinnen recalls that with the constitutional reforms “there had been an explosion of liberty, ambition, expression… giving life and impetus to a society that wants to be culturally, socially and politically mature, and then came the Arusha accords.” There were thus many reasons to believe that the Arusha accords, much lauded in the international community, could indeed succeed in bringing peace and progress to the country. The many Hutu hardliners however, viewed it largely as a capitulation.
Pursuant to the peace negotiations, the United Nations set up the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) to support the implementation of the peace agreement. Belgium eagerly committed substantial troops to the UNAMIR force with 440 peacekeepers. A strict interpretation of the peacekeeping mandate given to UNAMIR would however restrict military engagement solely to situations where the lives of the peacekeepers themselves were in direct danger; a fatal procedural weakness for the UNAMIR troops.
The turning point in the peace process came in October 1993 with the assassination of Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, who only months earlier became the first democratically elected president of Burundi. Mr. Swinnen recalls a one-on-one discussion following the assassination where Habyarimana “was very angry, and he shouted ‘now you see what can happen to someone who has acted in a very democratic way and made concessions.'”
It thus likely marked a point where Habyarimana and his compromises in the Arusha accords were increasingly seen by Hutu extremists as a dangerous liability. The RPF, at the other end of the negotiating table, might also have been reluctant to follow through on the terms of the peace accord. As a minority political force in Rwanda, there was likely a valid concern of losing any gains in the planned democratic election along with fears of being ambushed by Hutu extremists once integrated into the Rwandese military.
Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines had started broadcasting some months before, but the assassination of the president of Burundi significantly intensified the hate propaganda against Tutsis. The radicalisation might thus already have embarked down its own uncontrollable path. Across the country there was also a gradual arming of local militias with traditional weapons as part of “self-defence” programmes.
General-Major Nsabimana wrote to Rwanda’s Defence Minister that “it was suggested to instruct the population on the use of traditional arms (swords, spears, machetes, bows and arrows) given the lack of firearms.” This, despite the apparent uselessness of such primitive arms against a military force like the RPF. Belgium and UNAMIR also suspected a troubling strategy of provoking or directly targeting UNAMIR, and especially its core Belgian troops, in the hopes of forcing a withdrawal from the country.
There was also a formation of several Hutu extremist militia groupings and “death squads” specialising in assassinations and brutal intimidations. Interahamwe, an official “youth wing” of the then ruling political party was described in a secret report for the Belgian government, drafted by Major Hock on 2 February 1994, as operating “a new form of guerrilla tactics” whereby a clandestine group, organised by the ruling regime itself had the objective of undermining the concessions that it had made and to prevent a transition of power that it had itself agreed to: the concessions made by Habyarimana under the Arusha accords.
By early 1994, the situation in Kigali seemed to be teetering on the edge with Major Hock reporting back to Brussels that “today, it is reported that in certain ‘red light’ districts, prostitutes even accept payment in grenades.”
With what thus appears to have been an increasingly untenable position of compromise, on 6 April 1994 a Dassault Falcon 50 airplane carrying Habyarimana and Burundi’s president Cyprien Ntaryamira caught fire and crashed while approaching Kigali airport, killing all onboard.
While parts of the airplane are still spread across the grounds of the former presidential palace 25 years later, the black box was never found along with those responsible for having launched what is believed to have been the two SA-16 surface-to-air missiles that hit the airplane.
Mr. Swinnen’s own initial assessment of responsibility fell on Hutu extremists who openly feared, due to the many concessions made by Habyarimana, that they would soon be dominated by Tutsis and the RPF. Mr. Swinnen seems less sure today though and adds that he’s “very angry” concerning the lack of investigation of the downing; “we need an internationally mandated independent inquiry and it hasn’t happened yet. Why?”
On the streets of Kigali, the Hutu extremists were quickly mobilised and within hours of the president’s death, roadblocks were set up across the city with militias on murder sprees targeting moderates that might hinder a coup d’état by Hutu extremists. Rwanda’s Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, next in line to succeed the president, was one of the targets.
The following morning, a Belgian UNAMIR squad received the mission to protect the Prime Minister and escort her to the premises of Radio Rwanda, where she would address the nation. With the city locked-down by roadblocks and sporadic gunfire heard all around, the squad had difficulties reaching the Prime Minister’s house. When they finally reached her home, Rwandan soldiers quickly arrived and opened fire on the house. The Prime Minister managed to escape to a neighbouring house, but she and her husband would later be discovered and assassinated by the Presidential Guard.
Two of the UNAMIR soldiers meanwhile gave up their weapons forcing a surrender of the whole squad, which was then escorted to the nearby Camp Kigali where Major Ntuyahaga started spreading the rumour among the troops that the Belgian peacekeepers had shot down the president’s plane the night before.
A lynch mob at the military camp started beating the prisoners and four soldiers quickly succumbed to the beatings and bayonet charges while the remaining prisoners succeeded in breaking free and barricaded themselves in a guardhouse. With some members of the squad having hidden pistols, several hours of battle ensued. The stand-off ended when grenades and teargas were thrown through a hole in the roof of the guardhouse.
Later that afternoon, the bodies of the 10 peacekeepers from the Belgian UNAMIR squad were left, pillaged and mutilated at the Kigali Hospital morgue. Ten Belgian civilians were also murdered in various locations across the country. With its nationals having become exposed targets, Belgium withdrew its troops, leaving UNAMIR on the verge of collapse.
By Christian Ernhede