Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Philip Gourevitch - French Actions in Rwanda

In a previous message, I had remarked in passing that
the "world community" (including the US, it is important to emphasize) turned its back on Rwanda. (Except for France, which actively aided the genocidaires.)
Someone asked me to spell out this remark about French actions in Rwanda:
Jeff can you point me to a source that documents this point. What exactly do you mean?
The following were my responses. --Jeff Weintraub


What I mean is straightforward. France had long armed, supported, and advised the Hutu-supremacist regime that carried out the genocide, and when the crunch came, they did not abandon their clients. When it was clear that the country was being overrun by the Rwanda Patriotic Front, the French military intervened directly in southwest Rwanda ("in "Operation Turquoise") to save them, helped a number of them escape over the border into Zaire (now Congo) ... and then, for several years, continued to arm, train, and support these same genocidaire militias as they took over the Hutu refugee camps and continued to launch raids into Rwanda ... a policy that came to an end only when the Rwandan army intervened in the Congolese civil war and overran the camps.

None of this is at all esoteric, hypothetical, or even controversial (among serious people). Sources are easy to find, and when I have a few moments later on, I'll find some to mention.

(What is controversial is whether any of the French advisers participated in the genocide itself--something which I did not claim in my message, but which others have. The current Rwandan government claims that they did, but I haven't seen firm evidence of this, and I'm willing to give the French the benefit of the doubt on this one. Even if a few advisers were involved, I feel pretty sure that actively helping to conduct the genocide itself was not French government policy--whereas opposing any action to stop the genocide and protecting, funding, arming, training, and supporting the genocidaires, even after the reality of the genocide was unequivocally clear, definitely was French government policy.)

Jeff Weintraub


Here's a start. Philip Gourevitch's book is the basic text on all this (in English at least) ... and I just remembered that PBS had excerpted some of the relevant portions on its website. Gourevitch's book itself will provide other references. But as I said, none of this is really that controversial (except for some die-hard apologists and propagandists). You can get them from back issues of Le Monde, for example.

Gourevitch's book, by the way, makes it completely clear that the US also acted in a shameful and unforgivable way (though, unlike the French government, it didn't actually side with the genocidaires, intervene militarily to help them, and then continue to arm & supply them after 1994).

Jeff Weintraub
(PBS - Frontline)

French Actions in Rwanda
by Philip Gourevitch

Excerpted from Chapter 11 of Philip Gourevitch's book, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Copyright 1998 by Philip Gourevitch. All rights reserved.

(click here to learn more about Philip Gourevitch)

Throughout the late '80s and early '90s, Rwanda's Hutu Power dictatorship had enjoyed the patronage of France. As a former Belgian colony, Rwanda was a French speaking country, and Paris's neo-colonial policy in Africa was to support those who spoke its language at all costs. In the early '90s, when Rwanda was plunged into civil war between the Hutu government, and the predominantly Tutsi rebel group, the Rwandese Patriotic Front, France threw its military support behind the Hutu regime. After all, the RPF came out of Uganda--where its leaders had been living in exile--and Uganda is an English speaking country. French leaders were unconcerned by their murderous Hutu Power clients. As the genocide reached its peak in the early summer of 1994, France's President François Mitterand was reported to say, "In such countries as this, genocide is not too important." Sadly, by their actions and inactions during the Rwandan slaughter, the rest of the world's great powers signaled that they agreed. [ .... ]

[ .... ] Rwanda is landlocked and dirt-poor, a bit larger than Vermont and a bit less populous than Chicago, a place so dwarfed by neighboring Congo, Uganda, and Tanzania that for the sake of legibility its name has to be printed on most maps outside the lines of its frontiers. As far as the political, military, and economic interests of the world's powers go, it might as well be Mars. In fact, Mars is probably of greater strategic concern. But Rwanda, unlike Mars, is populated by human beings, and when Rwanda had a genocide, the world's powers left Rwanda to it.

On April 14, 1994, one week after the murder of the ten Belgian blue-helmets, Belgium withdrew from UNAMIR--precisely as Hutu Power had intended it to do. Belgian soldiers, aggrieved by the cowardice and waste of their mission, shredded their U.N. berets on the tarmac at Kigali airport. A week later, on April 21, 1994, the UNAMIR commander, Major General Dallaire, declared that with just five thousand well-equipped soldiers and a free hand to fight Hutu Power, he could bring the genocide to a rapid halt. No military analyst whom I've heard of has ever questioned his judgment, and a great many have confirmed it. The radio transmitter of the genocidal propaganda station RTLM would have been an obvious, and easy, first target. Yet, on the same day, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution that slashed the UNAMIR force by ninety percent, ordering the retreat of all but two hundred seventy troops and leaving them with a mandate that allowed them to do little more than hunker down behind their sandbags and watch.

The desertion of Rwanda by the U.N. force was Hutu Power's greatest diplomatic victory to date, and it can be credited almost single-handedly to the United States. With the memory of the Somalia debacle still very fresh, the White House had just finished drafting a document called Presidential Decision Directive 25, which amounted to a checklist of reasons to avoid American involvement in U.N. peacekeeping missions. It hardly mattered that Dallaire's call for an expanded force and mandate would not have required American troops, or that the mission was not properly peacekeeping, but genocide prevention. PDD 25 also contained what Washington policymakers call "language" urging that the United States should persuade others not to undertake the missions that it wished to avoid. In fact, the Clinton administration's ambassador to the U.N., Madeleine Albright, opposed leaving even the skeleton crew of two hundred seventy in Rwanda. Albright went on to become Secretary of State, largely because of her reputation as a "daughter of Munich," a Czech refugee from Nazism with no tolerance for appeasement and with a taste for projecting U.S. force abroad to bring rogue dictators and criminal states to heel. Her name is rarely associated with Rwanda, but ducking and pressuring others to duck, as the death toll leapt from thousands to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, was the absolute low point in her career as a stateswoman.

A week after UNAMIR was slashed, when the ambassadors of Czechoslovakia, New Zealand, and Spain, sickened by the barrage of irrefutable evidence of genocide in Rwanda, began pushing for the return of U.N. troops, the United States demanded control of the mission. But there was no mission to control. The Security Council, where Rwanda conveniently occupied a temporary seat in 1994, could not even bring itself to pass a resolution that contained the word "genocide." In this proud fashion, April gave way to May. As Rwanda's genocidal leaders stepped up efforts for a full national mobilization to extirpate the last surviving Tutsis, the Security Council prepared, on May 13, to vote once again on restoring UNAMIR's strength. Ambassador Albright got the vote postponed by four days. The Security Council then agreed to dispatch five thousand five hundred troops for UNAMIR, only--at American insistence--very slowly.

So May became June. By then, a consortium of eight fed-up African nations had proclaimed their readiness to send an intervention force to Rwanda, provided that Washington would send fifty armored personnel carriers. The Clinton administration agreed, but instead of lending the armor to the courageous Africans, it decided to lease it to the U.N.--where Washington was billions of dollars in arrears on membership dues--for a price of fifteen million dollars, transportation and spare parts included. [ .... ]

[ .... ] The harder Washington tried to keep its hands clean of Rwanda, the dirtier they got. At the same time, France was chafing for an opportunity to rescue its investment of military and political prestige in Rwanda. That meant salvaging Habyarimana's Hutu Power heirs from the increasingly likely prospect of a total defeat at the hands of the dreaded Anglophone RPF. Communications between Paris and Kigali remained constant, cordial, and often downright conspiratorial. Hawkish French diplomats and Africa hands generally adopted the official position of Rwanda's genocidal government: that far from being a matter of policy the massacres of Tutsis were the result of mass popular outrage following Habyarimana's assassination; that the "population" had "risen as a single man" to defend itself; that the government and army wanted only to restore order; that the killing was an extension of the war with the RPF; that the RPF started it and was the greater offender--in short, that Rwandans were simply killing each other as they were wont to do, for primordial tribal reasons, since time immemorial.

Such mystification aside, the genocide remained a fact, and although France had rarely hesitated in the past to conduct unilateral, partisan military invasions to prop up its African clients, the genocide made such a move awkward. The French press was crowding the French political and military establishment with exposes of its blatant complicity in the preparation and implementation of the butchery. Then, in mid-June, the French government hit on the idea of billing a military expedition into Rwanda as a "humanitarian" mission and carrying it out under the U.N. flag, with some rented Senegalese troops along for the ride to create an aura of multilateralism. When asked what he thought of such a scheme, UNAMIR's indignant General Dallaire told The Independent of London, "I flat out refuse to answer that question--no way." Many African leaders outside the Francophone bloc, like South Africa's President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, openly questioned French motives, and the RPF pronounced Paris's plan unacceptable. On the nights of June 16 and 18, arms shipments for the Hutu Power regime were landed, with French connivance, in the eastern Zairean city of Goma and shuttled over the border to Rwanda. But on June 22, the Security Council--eager to be relieved of its shame, and apparently blind to the extra shame it was bringing upon itself--endorsed the "impartial" French deployment, giving it a two-month mandate with the permission to use aggressive force that had systematically been denied to UNAMIR.

The next day, the first French troops of "Opération Turquoise" rolled from Goma into northwestern Rwanda, where they were welcomed by enthralled bands of interahamwe--singing, waving French tricolor flags, and carrying signs with slogans like "Welcome French Hutus"--while a disc jockey at RTLM advised Hutu women to gussy themselves up for the white men, taunting, "Now that the Tutsi girls are all dead, it's your chance."

The timing of Opération Turquoise was striking. By late May, the massacre of Tutsis had slowed down because most of them had already been massacred. The hunt continued, of course, especially in the western provinces of Kibuye and Cyangugu, but Gérard Prunier, a political scientist who was part of the task force that worked out France's intervention scheme, has written that the great worry in Paris as plans for the mobilization got underway in mid-June was whether its troops would find any large concentrations of Tutsis to rescue before the television cameras. In much of Rwanda, Hutu Power's message to the masses had been changed from an order to kill to an order to flee before the RPF advance On April 28--long ago, in the compressed time frame of the Rwandan apocalypse--a quarter of a million Hutus, bolting before the RPF advance, had streamed over a bridge into Tanzania from the eastern province of Kibungo. This was the largest and speediest mass flight across an international border in modern history, and although it included whole formations of interahamwe, military units, town councils, and the civilian throngs who had strewn Kibungo with corpses, those who fled were indiscriminately received with open arms by U.N. and humanitarian agencies and accommodated as refugees in giant camps.

Before France even began talking of a "humanitarian" military expedition, the RPF controlled eastern Rwanda, and its forces were moving steadily westward in a broad pincer movement to the north and south of Kigali. As they progressed, the full extent of the extermination of Tutsis in the areas they conquered was broadcast to the world. While Rwandan government leaders and RTLM claimed that the RPF was killing every Hutu it found alive, and French military spokesmen promoted the idea of a "two-way genocide" and called the RPF the "Khmer Noir," the dominant impression in the international press was of an astonishingly disciplined and correct rebel army, determined to restore order. And for Tutsis and most Hutus of good conscience the best hope for salvation was to reach, or be reached by, the RPF zone.

The RPF, which consisted at that time of about twenty thousand fighters, was forcing a national army more than twice its size, backed by militias and a great mass of civilians mobilized for "self-defense," to retreat. For anybody concerned about the welfare of Hutu Power, as so many in France were, the obvious question would seem to have been: What went wrong? The simplest answer was that Rwanda's Hutu Power regime was sapping its frontline military effort in favor of completing the genocide, just as the Germans had done in the final months of World War II. But a subtler dynamic was at work in Rwanda as well. >From the start of the war with the RPF in 1990, Hutu extremists had promoted their genocidal aspirations with the world-upside-down rhetoric of Hutu victimization. Now Hutu Power had presided over one of the most outrageous crimes in a century of seemingly relentless mass political murder, and the only way to get away with it was to continue to play the victim. In yielding Rwanda to the RPF and leading vast flocks into exile, the Hutu Power leaders could retain control of their subjects, establish a rump "refugee" state in U.N.-sponsored camps, and pretend that their worst fears had been justified.

France promised the Security Council that its objective in Rwanda "naturally excludes any interference in the development of the balance of military forces between the parties involved in the conflict." But within a week of their arrival, French troops occupied nearly a quarter of the country, sweeping across southwestern Rwanda to stand face to face with the RPF. At that point, France suddenly reinterpreted its "humanitarian" venture and declared its intention to turn the entire territory it had conquered into a "safe zone." The RPF was not alone in asking: safe for whom? France's own ex-President, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, accused the French command of "protecting some of those who had carried out the massacres."

The RPF didn't waste much time in argument. It launched an all-out offensive to limit the "Zone Turquoise." On July 2 it captured Rwanda's second largest city Butare, and on July 4 it took Kigali, scuttling Hutu Power's earlier plans to mark that day with a funeral for President Habyarimana and a celebration of the total eradication of Tutsis from the capital.

Opération Turquoise was eventually credited with rescuing at least ten thousand Tutsis in western Rwanda, but thousands more continued to be killed in the French-occupied zone. Hutu Power brigades draped their vehicles with French flags to lure Tutsis from hiding to their deaths; and even when real French troops found survivors, they often told them to wait for transport, then went away and returned to find that those they had "saved" were corpses. >From the moment they arrived, and wherever they went, the French forces supported and preserved the same local political leaders who had presided over the genocide. While the United States still had not managed to deliver the armored personnel carriers promised to UNAMIR's African volunteers, the French had arrived in Zaire decked for battle, with an awesome array of artillery and armor, and a fleet of twenty military aircraft that was instantly the most imposing flying power in central Africa. And just as they embraced the Hutu Power military regime and its militias as the legitimate authorities of a state under rebel siege, they openly regarded the RPF as the enemy--at least until the fall of Butare. Then the French softened their tone. They didn't exactly back down, but the sneering animosity with which Turquoise spokesmen referred to the rebels suddenly gave way to something like grudging respect, and rumors began to circulate that the RPF had scored a direct military victory against France. Several years later, I asked Major General Paul Kagame, who had led the RPF to victory, whether there was any truth to this theory.

"Something like that," Kagame told me. "It occurred during our approach to Butare. I received from General Dallaire of UNAMIR a message from the French general in Goma telling me that we should not enter Butare. They were trying to tell me there would be a fight." Kagame told Dallaire that he "could not tolerate such a provocation and such arrogance on the part of the French." Then, he recalled, "I told the troops to change course, to move to Butare now. They arrived in the evening. I told them just to surround the town and stay put. I didn't want them to get involved in a firefight at night. So they took positions and waited until morning. When our troops entered, they found that the French had secretly moved out to Gikongoro"--to the west. "But then, through Dallaire, they asked permission to return for some Catholic sisters and some orphans they wanted to take away. I cleared it. The French came back, but they didn't know that we had already secured the route from Gikongoro to Butare. We had set a long ambush, nearly two companies along the road."

The French convoy consisted of about twenty-five vehicles, and as it left Butare, Kagame's forces sprang their trap and ordered the French to submit each vehicle to inspection. "Our interest was to make sure none of these people they were taking were FAR (Hutu power army) or militias. The French refused. Their jeeps were mounted with machine guns, so they turned them on our troops as a sign of hostility. When the soldiers in the ambush realized there was going to be a confrontation, they came out, and a few fellows who had rocket-propelled grenade launchers targeted the jeeps. When the French soldiers saw that, they were all instructed to point their guns upward. And they did. They allowed our soldiers to carry out the inspection." In one of the last vehicles, Kagame said, two government soldiers were found. One ran away, and was shot dead, and Kagame added, "Maybe they killed the other one, too." At the sound of shooting, the French vehicles that had been cleared to go ahead turned on the road and began firing from afar, but the exchange lasted less than a minute.

Kagame recalled another incident when his men had French troops in custody and tense negotiations had to be carried out through General Dallaire. On that occasion, Kagame said, "They threatened to come in with helicopters and bomb our troops and positions. I told them that I thought the matter was going to be discussed and resolved peacefully, but that if they wanted to fight, I had no problem with that." In the end, he said, the French pleaded for their men back, and he let them go. Kagame, who grew up in Uganda as a Rwandan refugee and spoke English, told me that he couldn't comprehend France's support for the "génocidaires"--as even English-speaking Rwandans call the adherents of Hutu Power--and he scoffed at French fears of an Anglophone conquest of Rwanda. "If they wanted people here to speak French, they shouldn't have helped to kill people here who spoke French."

Kagame's feelings about UNAMIR were more nuanced. He said that he appreciated General Dallaire as a man, but not "the helmet he wore," and that he had told Dallaire so directly. "UNAMIR was here, armed--they had armored personnel carriers, tanks, all sorts of weapons--and people got killed while they were watching. I said I would never allow that. I told him, 'In such a situation, I would take sides. Even if I were serving the U.N., I would take the side of protecting people.' I actually remember telling him that it is a bit of a disgrace for a general to be in a situation where people are being killed, defenseless, and he is equipped--he has soldiers, he has arms--and he cannot protect them."

Dallaire himself seemed to agree. Two and a half years after the genocide, he said, "The day I take my uniform off will be the day that I will also respond to my soul, and to the traumas . . . particularly of millions of Rwandans." Even among the French troops who served in Opération Turquoise, some souls became troubled. "We have been deceived," Sergeant Major Thierry Prungnaud told a reporter at a collection site for emaciated and machete-scarred Tutsi survivors in early July of 1994. "This is not what we were led to believe. We were told that Tutsis were killing Hutus. We thought the Hutus were the good guys and the victims." But individual discomfort aside, the signal achievement of the Opération Turquoise was to permit the slaughter of Tutsis to continue for an extra month, and to secure safe passage for the genocidal command to cross, with a lot of its weaponry, into Zaire.

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In case you think the point doesn't emerge sharply enough from the selections I just forwarded, let me emphasize the last paragraph:

Dallaire himself seemed to agree. Two and a half years after the genocide, he said, "The day I take my uniform off will be the day that I will also respond to my soul, and to the traumas . . . particularly of millions of Rwandans." Even among the French troops who served in Opération Turquoise, some souls became troubled. "We have been deceived," Sergeant Major Thierry Prungnaud told a reporter at a collection site for emaciated and machete-scarred Tutsi survivors in early July of 1994. "This is not what we were led to believe. We were told that Tutsis were killing Hutus. We thought the Hutus were the good guys and the victims." But individual discomfort aside, the signal achievement of the Opération Turquoise was to permit the slaughter of Tutsis to continue for an extra month, and to secure safe passage for the genocidal command to cross, with a lot of its weaponry, into Zaire.

Jeff Weintraub