When Barack Obama launched his war against Libya in 2011, a war that resulted in a bloody chaos that continues to this day, Susan Rice and Samantha Power both invoked the memory of Rwanda as justification. According to them, Muammar Qaddafi was on the verge of committing genocide against the people of Benghazi, and the United States couldn’t just sit by waiting for “another Rwanda” to happen.
The conventional narrative is that between April and July of 1994, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were victims of a genocide perpetrated by Rwanda’s Hutu government. As the official story goes, this was predictable, yet the UN and the Western powers did nothing. As a result, they say, preventative intervention in cases of imminent humanitarian crises must become the norm.
This misunderstanding stems from the common mistake of failing to account for historical context when it comes to world events. The truth of what happened during those bloody days can only be found through an understanding of the quagmire that precipitated the tragedy.
Prior to the “Scramble for Africa,” Rwanda was a feudal kingdom in which the Tutsi minority (approximately 10-20% of the population) ruled over the Hutu majority (approximately 80-90% of the population). The Tutsis were cattle herders and landowners while the Hutus were peasants and serfs living under Tutsi overlords. When German imperialists arrived in 1885, they empowered the Tutsi monarchy and used them as proxy rulers. After Germany lost World War I, Belgium took control of Rwanda but continued the same practice of empowering and ruling via the proxy of Tutsi kings.
While the preceding years of Tutsi-controlled feudalism had been bad enough for the Hutu majority, the addition of foreign imperialism only exacerbated tensions between the two groups. In 1956, with their foothold becoming tenuous due to these tensions, Belgium held democratic elections. With more than 80% of the population, the Hutus won easily and took control of Rwanda’s new government. Newly empowered, the new Hutu rulers began violently taking out their long-held, pent up frustrations against the Tutsi minority who fled en masse to neighboring countries, including Uganda and Burundi.
During the “Inyenzi Wars” of 1960-1967, Tutsi exiles launched at least seven cross-border attacks against the new Hutu-led Rwanda regime. On July 1, 1962, the UN granted independence to Rwanda, but this did little to change the situation on the ground. The cross-border attacks continued, while those Tutsis who remained in Rwanda continued to be victims of reprisal killings.
Meanwhile in Burundi, Rwanda’s southern neighbor with roughly the same demographics, a Tutsi monarchy remained in power. In 1972, to protect their rule from the Hutu majority, the Burundi army began systematically killing the literate Hutu population. In all, more than 100,000 Hutus were killed, and many of the survivors fled across the border to Rwanda.
On July 5, 1973, the Rwanda National Guard, led by General Habyarimana, overthrew the government, and took power. Habyarimana, a Hutu, was generally supported by the Tutsi minority and the period from 1973-1990 was a time of relative peace.
The history of Uganda, Rwanda’s neighbor to the North, is also vital to understanding what happened during those infamous months in 1994. Colonized by the British in 1894, Uganda gained independence in 1962. The period between 1962 and 1986 was a time of chaos and violence as a series of governments came to power only to be quickly overthrown and replaced. The Rwandan Tutsis who had earlier fled to Uganda were treated poorly, used as pawns, and many were forced to return to Rwanda.
In 1986, Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) came to power and Museveni took control of the country. His army largely consisted of Rwandan Tutsi exiles. Since coming to power, U.S. taxpayers have unwittingly provided his regime with more than $20 billion in development aid, vast military aid, and more than $4 billion in debt relief.
In Museveni’s 30+ (and counting) years of rule, Uganda would be more aptly described as a military dictatorship than a democracy. He controls an unofficial security force that operates solely at his discretion. It controls arsenals, overrides local legislation, and closes NGOs, newspapers, and radio stations. During elections, it is common for voting stations to be surrounded by tanks, teargas trucks, and soldiers in body armor wielding high-powered weapons. Those who speak out in opposition often wind up in prison or a body bag.
The Rwandan Tutsi exiles residing in Uganda, in large part the former ruling class and their offspring, had long sought a “right to return” to Rwanda. Unsurprisingly, the Hutu government was not eager to let that happen. When the Cold War ended, Western powers took notice of the Tutsi refugees and began pressuring Habyarimana’s government to allow them to return. Finally, at a UNICEF meeting in New York on September 28, 1990, where Museveni was also present, Habyarimana announced that all Rwandan refugees could return, no questions asked.
The Uganda-based Tutsis weren’t satisfied. They wanted power more than they wanted passports, and they had been trained how to fight by Museveni. Two days later, a large contingent of Museveni’s army, comprised of Rwandan Tutsi exiles who called themselves the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), invaded Rwanda intent on reclaiming control of the country. This sparked a war that ultimately led to what has become known as the “Rwanda Genocide.” While Habyarimana rushed back to Rwanda, Museveni remained in New York, seemingly unconcerned with a large portion of his army having apparently gone rogue.
The RPF soon came to be led by Paul Kagame, a Rwandan Tutsi born in southern Rwanda whose family had fled to Uganda in 1959 when he was two years old. Kagame, as Chief of Military Intelligence in Museveni’s NRA, had plenty of experience in brutality. At the time, Kagame was in the U.S. studying field tactics, psyops, and propaganda techniques at the U.S. Army Command & General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. Upon learning of the invasion, he left immediately to join the fight with no objection from the Americans. His junket to the U.S. for military training was common among Museveni’s military officers, and many of those officers ended up, like Kagame, fighting with the RPF in Rwanda.
When the RPF invaded, hundreds of thousands of Hutus fled the invaders who were conducting a scorched Earth campaign that was killing, abducting, and raping their way south. It wasn’t just the Hutus who were fearful of the RPF. Many of the Tutsis who remained in Rwanda were also quick to flee the violence, and were rightly concerned with the prospect of resultant reprisal killings. Millions of innocent Tutsis and Hutus alike were killed and displaced during the years that followed. More than a civil war, this was an invasion by a foreign army against a democratically elected government.
Ostensibly to quell the violence, the UN placed an embargo on arms shipments into Rwanda. This embargo was fiercely enforced in the case of Habyarimana’s government, but ignored almost entirely in the case of the RPF invaders. Uganda routinely shipped people, arms, and money across the border to their former military comrades. If anything, this violation of the embargo was actively encouraged. In the three and a half years following the invasion, U.S. aid to Uganda doubled. In 1991, Uganda bought more than 10 times the weapons they had bought in the previous 40 years. Many of these arms came from the U.S., and a large number of them found their way to the RPF.
The heavily enforced arms embargo against the Rwandan government made it extremely difficult for them to fight. The RPF, on the other hand, invaded with machine guns, mortars, rocket launchers, rifles, cannons, and sophisticated radio communication equipment. Their supplies were continuously re-stocked by Uganda, so there was never a shortage of the arms and equipment necessary to continue their violent campaign.
To the south in Burundi, Melchior Ndadaye became the first democratically elected Hutu president of the country in July of 1993. Three months later, members of the Tutsi-dominated Burundi army assassinated him, sparking cheers from the RPF. Ties between the RPF and the Burundi army increased, and Habyarimana’s government found itself surrounded. After the death of their president, nearly 375,000 Burundi Hutus fled to Rwanda where they joined more than a million internally displaced Rwandans.
In the midst of the war, Western powers, not satisfied with Habyarimana’s agreement to allow Tutsi refugees to return, began to insist that he implement a system of multiparty politics to give the RPF a seat at the table. These parties were introduced in 1991, and a multi-party government was sworn in April 1992. Many of these new opposition parties, seeing which way the Western powers were leaning, established direct ties to the RPF with hopes of receiving financial & political support. Leaders of these parties, at the behest of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Herman Cohen, met with RPF leaders in Brussels during the summer of 1992. They were effectively forming a coalition with an invading army with the full support of Western powers. Habyarimana’s regime was now facing enemies from Uganda, Burundi, and from inside its own government.
In August 1993, the United States, United Kingdom, and Uganda held the Arusha Peace Accords. At the time, the UK had no embassy or consulate in the country and had no diplomatic relations with Rwanda. Those involved with the accords decided that: Habyarimana should be stripped of his powers; a “neutral” international force should be deployed to Rwanda; the RPF should be integrated into the Rwandan military; and a RPF battalion should be deployed to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.
This neutral international force became known as the UN Aid Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) and was led by Canadian General Remeo Dallaire. Between the end of 1993 and the beginning of 1994, 2,500 international soldiers arrived in Rwanda. The troops were to speak English despite Rwanda being a largely French speaking country. At the time, since France had a relatively good relationship with Habyarimana’s government, the French offered to act as mediators, but that overture was refused. In fact, French troops that were in the country (who supported Habyarimana) were forced to leave, while the mostly Belgian troops that were sent by the UN supported the RPF.
The first action of these UN forces was to escort six hundred RPF soldiers from Mulindi in northern Rwanda to the capital city of Kigali. Meanwhile, they trained, provided logistics to, and fed RPF soldiers. Foreign embassies began working with the RPF as if they had already seized power and told Habyarimana he had to go.
Throughout the war, Western powers and their NGOs issued human rights declarations and reports that served as propaganda to make the RPF look like the good guys. One of the most influential was the “Report of the International Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights Violations in Rwanda Since 10/1/1990,” which was issued on March 8, 1993. William Schabas, a member of this commission, began to use the word genocide in reference to Habyarimana’s government at the end of January 1993, after the commission had completed its investigation, but before they had issued their final report. The RPF used this as an excuse to launch a massive “punitive” attack in early February 1993 that resulted in thousands dead and which pushed the total number of internal refugees to over a million.
The groups sponsoring this commission were either founded by the RPF or had been infiltrated by it. One such group was the “Association rwandaise pour la défense des droits de l’Homme,” which was founded on September 30, 1990, the day before the RPF invasion. It was founded by Alphonse-Marie Nkubito, who later became Minister of Justice when the RPF took control of Rwanda’s government after winning the war in July of 1994. Because the report was constrained to a narrow timeframe, it purposely omitted the biggest crime of the whole conflict, the RPF invasion on 10/1/1990. When asked about this, William Schabas, along with fellow commission member Andre Paradis, admitted that the timeline was chosen by the sponsoring human rights organizations.
Of the ten commission members, six admitted to knowing nothing about Rwanda prior to traveling there, and that they had to look for Rwanda on a map. None spoke Kinyarwanda. Those who wrote the report spent only two weeks in Rwanda. During those two weeks, only two hours were spent in RPF occupied territory, which, according to Schabas, was to “demonstrate our impartiality.” While Habyarmina’s government allowed the commission full freedom to investigate and interview witnesses, the RPF only allowed the commission to meet witnesses in the presence of armed soldiers.
In January 1994, General Dallaire sent a fax to UN authorities citing information from a “Jean-Pierre,” who said that Habyarimana’s government was planning to provoke a civil war by assassinating Tutsi political leaders and Belgian troops. This fax also stated that he suspected lists were being compiled of Tutsis to be killed, and that the Habyarimana government had plans and weapons ready to go. In exchange for this information, he wanted protection from the UN for him and his family. The official narrative states that the UN leadership did nothing, ignored the fax, and genocide raged.
In reality, Dallaire’s fax was based on hearsay. He never personally met with Jean-Pierre. The information was relayed to him by Faustin Twagiramungu, leader of one of the opposition parties. Jean-Pierre, whose real name was Abubakar Turatsinze, had been a driver for Habyarimana’s MRND party, but was fired in November 1993 after being suspected of peddling information. Twagiramungu, like Dallaire, never personally met with Jean-Pierre. When Twagiramungu passed this second-hand information to Dallaire, Luc Marchal, Belgian commander of UNAMIR troops in Kigali, was sent to investigate. Marchal found few weapons and no lists of Tutsis to be killed. Nevertheless, Dallaire sent his infamous fax to the UN.
Untold in the conventional narrative is that Dallaire’s fax was not to inform about an impending genocide, but instead to ask for advice as to what to do given the lack of credible information. The only advice he received back was to warn Habyarimana that such a plan for inciting a civil war (that was already in progress) was a bad idea. In the years since, Twagiramungu has stated that he thinks Jean-Pierre’s story was totally false. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped those pushing the “genocide” narrative from citing this as proof that the Western world knew what was about to come, yet sat on their hands and did nothing.
The tipping point in the conflict came on April 4, 1994, when President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down on its approach to Kigali airport. The Rwandan President died, along with Cyprien Ntaryamira, President of Burundi, in what for years was only ever officially described as a “crash.” The death of President Habyarimana sparked what has become known as the Rwanda Genocide.
Prior to Habyarimana’s death, UNAMIR had shut down a runway of Kigali airport, making it so incoming planes could only approach from one direction. For anyone wanting to shoot down a plane, this action by the “neutral” international forces made it a lot easier.
Panicked Hutus, fearing a return to serfdom, chose extremism. Between April 4 and July 2, 1994, hundreds of thousands of innocent Tutsis, with no relation to or involvement with the RPF, were brutally murdered by Hutu militias. During the same period, the RPF killed tens of thousands of Hutus per month, dumping many of the bodies in rivers. There are some estimates that more Hutus were killed during this period than Tutsis.
This “genocide” came to an end on July 2, 1994 when the RPF took control of Kigali, overthrew the government, assumed power, and effectively won the war. Back in control of the country, the RPF rebranded itself as the RPA (Rwanda Patriotic Army). Paul Kagame, one of the top leaders of the RPF, became the de facto leader while serving as Vice President and Minister of Defense, and became President of Rwanda in 2000.
After their rise to power, millions of Hutus fled to refugee camps. One such camp was called Kibeko, located inside Rwanda. The RPA attempted to close this camp in 1995, but the Hutus living there, fearing for their safety, refused to leave. In response, the RPA massacred them. Local aid workers counted 4,000 dead bodies before they were ordered to leave the area.
Other camps were set up just a few miles across the border from Rwanda in what was then known as Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Of the hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, the vast majority were women and children, though approximately 30,000 were former members of the Rwandan Armed Forces and other Hutu militias who had fought against the RPF.
Between 1995 and 1996, Zaire’s President Mobutu provided these former Rwandan soldiers with arms to re-take Rwanda. Numerous “hit-and-run” attacks took place from within these refugee camps. At the same time, Mobutu allied with anti-Museveni Sudan-backed rebels to fight against Uganda. In 1996, the RPA raided the refugee camps in Zaire and herded Hutus back into Rwanda to live in camps under their control. To escape such a fate, hundreds of thousands of Hutus fled further into the jungles of Zaire.
Zaire is home to an estimated $24 trillion of cobalt, uranium, oil, gold, diamonds, coltan, chrome, and platinum. Africa is thought to contain 78% of the world’s chrome, 59% of the world’s cobalt, and 89% of the world’s platinum, and Zaire is considered the most mineral-rich country in Africa.
It is these resources that perhaps best explain Washington DC’s generosity to Yoweri Museveni. The U.S. saw Museveni as a “brilliant military strategist.” After all, his army overthrew the much stronger Ugandan national army when he came to power in 1986, and he was seen as a partner in securing access to Zaire’s plentiful resources.
Rwanda’s RPA, after raiding the Zaire-based Hutu refugee camps, chased the Hutus who had escaped their initial attack further into Zaire, as well as into Burundi, Tanzania, and elsewhere. Those they caught up with, regardless of if they were among those who had fought against the RPF during the 1990-1994 war, were dealt with brutally. The RPA routinely strangled, shot, bayoneted, bashed in skulls, and hacked to death any Hutu they were able to track down. U.S. Special Forces were actively involved in training those RPA commandos, and remain trainers of the RPA to this day.
In 1997, the U.S.-trained RPA, together with the U.S.-supplied Ugandan army, and a Congolese rebel group known as the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo (which had been trained and armed by Uganda and Rwanda) marched to Kinshasa, toppled Mobutu, and installed their own strongman, Laurent-Desire Kabila. It was then that Zaire became known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
With a puppet in power across the border, Museveni’s army occupied a mineral-rich swathe of the DRC, and his generals looted more than $10 billion of gold and other precious resources. Meanwhile, Museveni continued to back local Congolese rebel groups who murdered and raped local Congolese while helping themselves to the country’s resources. When, eventually, Laurent Kabila turned on his supporters and made moves toward nationalizing resources, he was assassinated. Kabila’s son Joseph took power, and Uganda’s army has remained in the country virtually unmolested ever since.
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, founded in November 1994, was tasked with finding those responsible for the “genocide” as well as any other serious violations of international law. Effectively, the ICC’s tribunal for Rwanda functioned in much the same way as the Versailles Treaty following World War I. It placed all the blame on one side while exempting the other from any fault whatsoever.
Perhaps most notable is their treatment of the plane crash that killed President Habyarimana. An investigation by Michael Hourigan in 1997 found it likely that Kagame was behind the assassination and that the RPF was foreign sponsored. When Hourigan submitted his report to Louise Arbour, ICC prosecutor for this tribunal at the time, she was initially enthusiastic about the report until Madeleine Albright intervened in the matter. Hourigan’s report was subsequently killed, and he was given a gag order. Ever since, Arbour has avoided questions about the plane crash. Several high-ranking members of the RPF have since confirmed Hourigan’s investigation and have gone so far as to explain how they executed the assassination with Kagame’s assistance.
Backing up Hourigan’s findings, Charles Onana, a Cameroonian investigative journalist, published a French book in 2002 titled “Les Secrets de Genocide Rwandais.” Paul Kagame sued him, but then dropped the case when Onana was willing to go to trial. Additionally, a seven-year investigation into the matter was conducted by French anti-terrorist Judge Jean-Louise Brugiere. He found evidence that the plane crash was indeed an assassination, and that Kagame and the RPF had planned, ordered, and carried out the attack. He also found evidence of CIA involvement. That investigation has been smothered and is rarely, if ever, mentioned in any media or official channels.
Also notable are the prosecutors of the tribunal, all of whom were chosen by the U.S. government. First was Richard Goldstone, who was fed information by the CIA to form his indictments and who was quick to compliment Madeleine Albright. UN Secretary General Boutros Ghali was concerned about Goldstone’s closeness to the Americans, citing his “cocktail schedule.” These concerns led quickly to his removal and replacement with Louise Arbour who was handpicked by Albright.
Carla del Ponte, who became a prosecutor for the tribunal in 1999, actually had some independent ideas. She began criminal investigations of RPF officers, and reported that Louise Arbour had suppressed Hourigan’s investigation into Habyarimana’s plane crash. During her time as prosecutor, the Rwanda RPF government disallowed prosecution witnesses from attending, and the RPF and U.S. Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper both argued that the RPF alone should be responsible for investigating RPF war crimes.
In 2003, an “agreement” was reached in which del Ponte was relieved of all investigative authority, required to hand over all collected evidence, and removed from her post. In what could have only been coincidence, del Ponte’s removal came at the same time that President George W. Bush was planning his invasion of Iraq and was looking for international partners to sign bilateral agreements that would exempt U.S. soldiers from prosecution of any potential war crimes. Rwanda’s RPF was the first African government to become such a partner. Throughout the entire history of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which continued until December 2015, nobody from the RPF was ever prosecuted, much less indicted.
The prevailing narrative paints a simplistic picture of what happened in Rwanda in the early 90s. It serves to provide cover for the military-industrial interests that profit from war, and acts as useful propaganda for convincing the people to support inhumane wars of aggression in places like Kosovo and Libya.
A sober look at the history of Rwanda reveals that tensions between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes had existed for centuries. Far from sitting on the sidelines and doing nothing, it was decades of Western imperialism and interventionism that exacerbated and inflamed those tensions. It wasn’t a genocide, but rather a war that was precipitated by an invasion from a foreign army armed with U.S. military equipment, led by men who had been trained at U.S. military bases. Both sides committed unspeakable atrocities, but the RPF invaders started it.
Jared Wall became convinced of and passionate about the philosophy of freedom and liberty during the Ron Paul presidential campaigns. Since then, he has focused on the issue of war and peace, especially as it relates to Central and Eastern Africa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.