Kigali v. Paris: Shedding Light on the Rwandan Genocide

By , Jan Puhl and

Arrested Rwandan Chief of Protocol Rose Kabuye has become a symbolic figure in the bitter conflict between Kigali and Paris over who bears responsibility for the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The consequences of the massacre are still being felt in Congo.

Rose Kabuye, slim, tall, 47, is considered a heroine in her native Rwanda. She was a major in the rebel army that put an end to the 1994 genocide there. After that, she became mayor of Kigali, and today she is the chief of protocol for President Paul Kagame. As part of Kagame's delegation when he visited Berlin in April, Kabuye also met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

She returned to Germany on Nov. 9, flying into Frankfurt as part of a Rwandan government advance team making preparations for Kagame's scheduled visit to the Frankfurt Stock Exchange the following- day. But police officers arrested her at the airport, claiming she was in Germany on private business, and took her to a women's prison near Frankfurt prior to her extradition to France, where a warrant had been issued for her arrest only two years ago: Rose Kabuye, a former major in the Rwandan Patriotic Front, is accused of playing a role in the genocide in 1994.

The arrest led to the usual diplomatic furore. President Kagame promptly expelled the German ambassador and ordered his own envoy in Berlin to return to Kigali "for consultations." He also arranged for demonstrators to stage protests in front of the German embassy in Kigali, where they carried signs that read: "Shame on you, Germany! Seventy years after the holocaust, you arrest a woman who put a stop to genocide."

Germany had unwillingly allowed itself to be drawn into one of the bloodiest and most complicated conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa, a region plagued by recurrent violent conflict. Members of the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups have hated and killed each other for half a century in the picturesque, densely populated mountainous country of Rwanda. The slaughter came to a head in the early summer of 1994, when, in the space of 100 days, Hutu murderers committed one of the biggest mass crimes since World War II. An estimated 500,000 to 800,000 Tutsi, along with moderate Hutu, died between April and July 1994.

The effects of that horrific massacre can still be felt on the continent today, where eastern Congo, which borders Rwanda, has recently become the scene of renewed bloody violence.

Africa's 'First World War'

In 1994, the rebels and their young leader Paul Kagame rose up and defeated the Hutu army. They captured Kigali and the murderers fled to Congo, where they still are today. Rwandan troops later pursued them and became embroiled in a grueling jungle war between 1998 and 2003.

Other regional powers, like Uganda, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Angola, also became involved. Soon the focus of the conflict shifted from political goals to natural resources: wood, gold, diamonds and coltan, a metallic ore used in the production of cell phones.

Over the years, the war has claimed the lives of more than three million people, most of them civilians. Because of the intervention of other nations, some have described the conflict as Africa's 'first world war.'

Despite a number of peace treaties, the dying in Congo has not ended. Aid organizations estimate that, on quiet days, about 1,000 people die of the consequences of the war. But quiet days are a rarity in the region, which, once again, has become the scene of murders, kidnappings and rapes.

Rebel leader Laurent Nkunda and his band of soldiers have surrounded the city of Goma in eastern Congo. Nkunda, a well-mannered career soldier, claims that his mission is to protect his fellow Tutsi in the region, just as the Kagame rebels did in Rwanda in 1994. It is true that militias conduct raids on villages, where they are said to have abducted children to turn them into soldiers, killing anyone who gets in their way and raping women. These bands of rebel soldiers sometimes consist of the local Mai Mai militia but are usually Hutu veterans of the Rwandan genocides, often supported by the government forces of Congolese President Laurent Kabila.

Rwanda and DRC
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Rwanda and DRC

General Nkunda controls an army estimated at 4,000 men, and Rwanda is said to be the source of his fighters, weapons and logistical support. The government troops are in retreat. There are 250,000 refugees in the area, many of them wandering back and forth between the fronts, carrying their belongings in bundles. There has been an outbreak of cholera in the hilly, rain-swept region.

The current situation is a reflection of the recurring conflicts in this part of Africa.

The 18,000 United Nations troops are supposedly there as peacekeepers. But the soldiers, mostly from Asia and South America, are nothing but onlookers as civilians are murdered by the dozen, as recently happened in Kiwanja. This time it was the Mai Mai militias who killed close to 60 people in the village.

A Deeply Symbolic Conflict

The UN is now considering sending in another 3,000 troops, but it will take some time before they arrive in the region where Congo, Uganda and Rwanda come together, and there are few hopes that they will have any power to influence the mayhem. The Europeans are already hesitant to get involved, and France, long a protective power in Africa's French-speaking countries, has held back. Besides, French soldiers already have a dismal reputation in the region. They armed the Hutu army in Rwanda in the early 1990s and did nothing to curb the genocide.

The Kabuye case is part of a deeply symbolic conflict between Rwanda and France. The Germans entered the fray when they decided, needlessly, to classify Kabuye's visit as private. They did, however, forewarn the Rwandans of the consequences of her visit to Frankfurt and then felt compelled to act on a European warrant out for Kabuye's arrest.

There could be an upside to the complicated case. If there is a trial in France, it may shed light on the mysterious plane crash that led to the death of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana. The incident served as the initial trigger for the 1994 genocide.

Jean-Louis Bruguière, a French judge, investigated the deadly crash because the two pilots of the aircraft, which had been shot down by two missiles, were Frenchmen. He came to the controversial conclusion that Tutsi rebels had shot down the plane, and that rebel leader Kagame and his troops had paradoxically provided the excuse for the genocide against their own people.

Bruguière's conclusion was convenient for France, as it diverted attention away from accusations that French advisors and military trainers had cynically looked on as the murdering continued.

In 2006 Bruguière issued nine arrest warrants against high-ranking officers in the rebel army and against Chief of Protocol Kabuye. President Kagame has criticized the French judge, saying that he had not questioned or even spoken with any of the nine people.

Bruguière based his indictment on the witness testimony of a few exiled Rwandans. If a court were to acquit Kabuye, it would also weaken the argument that the Tutsi bore some responsibility for the genocide. But then the French government could no longer avoid an investigation into the responsibility of Frenchmen for the genocide.

In his hour of need in early 1990, Rwandan President Habyarimana had turned to an old friend, French President François Mitterrand. For France, its role as a protective power in Francophone sub-Saharan Africa, along with its nuclear weapons, has always guaranteed that it is treated as more than a mid-sized power, like Germany. Specialists from Paris helped Habyarimana develop his intelligence service, advised the generals in his army, trained its soldiers and helped stop the Tutsi offensive. And when Agathe Habyarimana went to Paris on a shopping spree, she rarely flew home without a few tokens of appreciation from the Elysée Palace in her luggage.

Getting France to Admit Complicity

It is possible that French reticence contributed to the radicalization of the governing Hutu in Rwanda. We know today that careful planning and preparation preceded the genocide. The Hutu government armed the Interahamwe militias and assembled death lists. For months the radio station Mille Collines incited the mob with chants like: "Death! Death! Graves with Tutsi bodies are still only half full. Hurry, and fill them up."

The French in the country must have known what was about to happen and been aware of the initial killings. They continued to provide aid to the government, even after the Hutu militias had killed hundreds of thousands with machetes and spears. Years later, an investigative panel in the parliament admitted that France had made mistakes, but it was little more than a paltry concession. To this day, Paris has not issued an official apology.

Rose Kabuye has now become a symbolic figure in Rwanda's bitter conflict with France. She is a rarity, a prominent woman with the rank of retired lieutenant colonel. She could have stayed home after receiving the warning from Germany, thus avoiding the risks involved in traveling to Frankfurt. But President Kagame wanted to draw attention to her case, in the hope that France would eventually lift the arrest warrants and finally be forced to admit to its complicity in the genocide, following the example set by former US President Bill Clinton and former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, who withdrew UN troops from Rwanda at the height of the genocide.

Rwanda's prospects are not half bad. Rémi Maréchaux, an Africa expert at the Elysée Palace and close advisor to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, was apparently in Kigali two weeks ago to meet with officials there. It is believed that the meetings ended in the two countries agreeing to a rapprochement. Once in Paris, Kabuye could be released on bail and then acquitted when her case comes to trial. This would pave the way for France and Rwanda to resume diplomatic relations, a step that could only benefit Paris, given Rwanda's substantial mineral and ore deposits.

Sarkozy has met with Rwandan President Kagame two times, in the context of summit meetings. At those encounters, he did manage to say a few appropriate words, telling Kagame that "unbelievable dramas" had taken place in Africa, and that his country is compelled "to think about mistakes."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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