Ex-French soldier challenges Paris’s version of Rwandan genocide
Issued on: Modified:
As performers at a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide enacted some of the horrors of the past in Kigali on Monday, thousands of miles away from the Rwandan capital, an ex-French soldier was also retracing his steps.
Guillaume Ancel, a former French army captain who served in Operation Turquoise – a French-led military operation in Rwanda in 1994 under a UN mandate – has written two books about his experience during the atrocity.
In an interview with French weekly magazine, Jeune Afrique, on Monday, Ancel recounted how in July 1994, he was ordered to load weapons into civilian trucks bound for neighbouring Zaire [now the Democratic Republic of Congo]. The weapons were meant for the fleeing Rwandan army – the perpetrators of the genocide.
“I was even advised to keep journalists away during this period, to prevent them from realising what was happening,” said Ancel. “When I voiced my disapproval, the [French] Legion commander told me that army command had decided that it was necessary to show the Rwandan army that we had not turned into their enemies, so that they did not turn against us. France had even paid the Rwandan soldiers’ salaries."
This was after the worst of the atrocities by Hutu extremists had occurred across the tiny African nation. The genocide was sparked by the April 7, 1994 killing of then-Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, whose plane was shot down near Kigali International Airport.
As Hutu extremists went on a murderous rampage following Habyarimana’s assassination, killing minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus, a Tutsi rebel force, the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) took advantage of the social disorder and managed to sweep through the country.
By July 1994, the RPF – led by Paul Kagame – had taken Kigali, sending Hutu forces fleeing east toward Zaire.
Today, the RPF is in power in Rwanda – as it has been for the past 20 years, with Kagame presiding over a country that has made rapid economic advances.
But the diplomatic wounds of the past were reopened just days before Monday’s commemorations, when Kagame accused France and Belgium of playing a "direct role" in the killings in an interview with Jeune Afrique, which was published over the weekend.
According to Kagame, French soldiers – who helped train the Hutu nationalist-controlled Rwandan army prior to 1994 – had been both accomplices and “actors” in the bloody tragedy.
Back to the bad old days
In a swift, strong response, France said Kagame’s accusations went against reconciliation efforts between the two countries and announced that Justice Minister Christiane Taubira would not travel to Rwanda as planned to mark the 20th anniversary.
In retaliation, the French ambassador to Rwanda was barred Monday from attending the commemoration ceremony at a Kigali football stadium.
The diplomatic tit-for-tat threatened to drag Franco-Rwandan bilateral relations back to the bad old days following the genocide, when Kigali and Paris broke diplomatic relations for several years amid similar accusations by Rwanda, followed by French denials.
In 2010, during the first visit by a French president to Rwanda following the genocide, then French President Nicolas Sarkozy acknowledged French “mistakes” in 1994. But he stopped short of issuing an apology.
Kagame’s accusation came just weeks after a French court sentenced a former Rwandan army captain Pascal Simbikangwa to 25 years in prison for his role in the massacre in the first trial in France into the genocide.
But just as relations between France and Rwanda have been improving, Kagame’s standing in the international community has been suffering with western nations reducing aid in 2012 after a UN report accused the Kagame administration of backing M23 rebels in neighbouring Congo.
Over the past few years, international human rights groups have condemned the Rwandan regime’s persistent attacks on opposition figures – a charge echoed by the South African government, which has also accused Kigali of sending hit squads to kill exiled opponents on South African soil.
From colonisers to UN troops: Rwanda looks back again
French officials maintain that Kagame’s latest reopening of a diplomatic can of worms is aimed at diverting attention from the recent international condemnations.
But in France itself, rights groups, victims groups as well as individuals affected by the genocide have kept up a steady stream of pressure to re-examine a murky chapter of African history – one that has potential lessons for UN missions charged with securing order in nations riddled by ethnic or sectarian strife.
Monday’s genocide anniversary ceremony came as the UN Security Council prepares to approve a 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping force to restore order to the Central African Republic, a nation torn by sectarian violence between the majority Christian and minority Muslim communities.
At the Kigali football stadium on Monday, the role of outsiders – colonisers or UN troops – featured predominantly in the performances and the discourse.
Stadium-goers watched as white people in colonial outfits jumped out of a safari car and stormed the main stage. The wide-brimmed colonial pith helmets then changed to blue berets, the headgear worn by UN troops who did nothing to stop the carnage.
Mistakes and responsibilities in the fog of war
In his interview with Jeune Afrique on Monday, Ancel – the former French army captain – noted that the launch of the French Operation Turquoise was controversial since the UN already had a peacekeeping force, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) in Kigali.
When asked about the official French version of Operation Turquoise, Ancel responded, “Personally, I only report what I experienced at the time. If it does not fit with their version, it's a problem,” he said.
Ancel’s account is a testimony of a soldier on the ground who did not have access to the decisions of high command. Indeed his testimony has ample evidence of mistakes and a failure of policy or high command to respond quickly to the fast-changing and horrific reality on the ground.
But French officials insist that mistakes made in the fog of war do not translate into being “actors” in the genocide, which was conducted by one Rwandan ethnic group against another.
In an interview with French radio station Europe 1, Edouard Balladur, who was the French prime minister in 1994, dismissed Kagame’s accusation as “a lie”.
"The government that I led, once it had been installed, put an end to all deliveries of weapons to Rwanda," said Balladur. "It was especially important for France not to get caught up in a civil war that was developing and that could not be stopped.”
Referring to Kagame, Balladur noted that the Rwandan president “constantly seeks to challenge France, while he himself has failed, after 20 years, to unite the people of Rwanda."