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France's role casts a long shadow, 25 years after the Rwandan genocide

Jacques NkinzingGabo, AFP | A picture taken on March 22, 2019, shows the skulls of victims of Rwanda's 1994 genocide at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial in Kigali.

As Rwanda marks 25 years since the genocide that killed an estimated 800,000 people in just 100 days, France is renewing efforts to shine a light on its role in the country, long a source of tension between Paris and Kigali.

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Rwanda has repeatedly accused France of playing a role in the genocide by supporting the Hutu government whose supporters carried out most of the killings, accusations that have often tarnished bilateral relations.

The violence erupted on April 6, 1994, after a plane carrying Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana and president Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi both men Hutu was downed by a rocket attack. Within hours, members of the Rwandan presidential guard began killing Tutsi civilians in retribution.

The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a Tutsi rebel militia, claimed that Hutu extremists within the Rwandan government had downed the plane while the government claimed the RPF itself was behind the attack. The actual perpetrators remain unknown.

For the next 100 days a massacre of the Tutsi ethnic minority unfolded. More than 800,000 people are thought to have been killed, according to the UN, and an estimated 150,000 to 250,000 women were raped. Some 300,000 of the dead were children while another 95,000 were orphaned.

On June 22 the UN Security Council authorised French-led troops to launch a humanitarian mission known as Operation Turquoise that saved thousands of civilians. But France has also been criticised for allowing many of the soldiers and officials responsible for the genocide to flee through the humanitarian zone it controlled into what was then Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).

REPORTERS: Rwanda, story of a genocide foretold

In an effort to bring more clarity to France's role, President Emmanuel Macron appointed a panel of eight researchers and historians this week to study French actions in Rwanda from 1990 through 1994, covering the period before, during and after the massacre.

But Macron also elicited a new round of criticism when his office announced he would not personally be attending commemoration ceremonies in Rwanda, citing scheduling conflicts.

'We must arrest them'

France had a strong presence in the country in the early 1990s under president François Mitterrand. From the start of the civil war in 1990 into 1993, the French army was training Rwandan soldiers.

According to Laurent Larcher, author of a new book that exhaustively recounts the stories of witnesses to the genocide, France took a particular interest in supporting the French-speaking regime of Hutu president Habyarimana. His rivals – the RPF led by Paul Kagame – were English-speaking allies of the United States.

Larcher says the belief that France was an ally helped emboldened the Hutu militiamen. As the genocide erupted, the regime allowed French nationals in Rwanda to be repatriated.

Journalist Vincent Hugeux, who was in Rwanda during the genocide, also cites cultural factors as playing a part in French decision-making: "For Mitterrand, Habyarimana, who was the kind of person who could quote the Parnassian poets from memory, could not be fundamentally bad."

But even back then there were those who could tell trouble was brewing. General Jean Varret, who worked for the French ministry of cooperation and travelled regularly to Rwanda, warned the French as early as 1990 that "a genocide is being prepared". Rather than his warning being heeded, Varret was replaced in 1993.

Jean-Hervé Bradol, who worked at Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in Rwanda at the time, acknowledges that the humanitarian area set up by Operation Turquoise saved thousands of Tutsis. But due to the neutral nature of the mission, “we also allowed those behind the genocide to administer some things, continue their massacres in some areas, receive weapons”, he said. “We did not arrest people who passed through, [and] some were perpetrators of genocide."

According to documents obtained by FRANCE 24 in February of this year, there was a sharp division between the Élysée presidential palace and the French foreign ministry at the Quai d’Orsay on how to respond to the violence in Rwanda.

The French ambassador to Kigali at the time, Yannick Gérard, warned Paris in July 1994 that the Rwandan authorities bore much of the blame for the genocide. “We do not have any other choice, despite the difficulties, we must arrest them.”

But the decision not to pursue those responsible came from the top.

Some underscore that France’s actions were necessarily limited. Hubert Védrine, then the secretary-general of the Élysée Palace, told FRANCE 24 that the UN mandate was a humanitarian one – not a judicial one.

“I don’t see how France could have done something at the time, because there was no clear mandate from the [UN] Security Council,” Védrine said, noting that it would have been different if France had been given a mandate to arrest those who were responsible.

Jacques Lanxade, chief of the French army at the time, concurs, saying France had no choice but to remain neutral. “We had no power to arrest people,” Lanxade told FRANCE 24 earlier this year, adding: “We did not have that right.”

France’s then foreign minister, Alain Juppé, vowed that those responsible for the mass killings would be arrested. But instead the French mission enabled many of them to flee.

Four months after the massacre, president Mitterrand remained hesitant to ascribe blame to one side. In response to a question about the genocide during a France-Africa summit in Biarritz, Mitterrand asked: "What genocide are you talking about, Sir, that of the Hutus against the Tutsi or of the Tutsis against Hutus?"

Rwandan genocide: 25 years on, mass graves still being discovered

France has always denied any responsibility for the killings, but French presidents have at times sought to improve relations with Kigali by seeking justice for the victims.

The first trial in France of someone accused in connection with the genocide opened in 2014, when Captain Pascal Simbikangwa went on trial in Paris. He was convicted six weeks later. The UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has separately indicted 93 people for involvement in the genocide.

In October 2017, French judges heard from a witness who claimed to have seen the missiles used to down the plane carrying Habyarimana. The witness said he saw two surface-to-air missiles at the headquarters of the RPF led by Kagame. France dropped its longstanding investigation into several Rwandan officials in connection with the presidential plane crash in December last year.

But just two months later, Radio France and investigative news site Mediapart published excerpts of a memo from the DGSE – the secret service branch specialising in foreign intelligence – that appeared to indicate France had advance warning of Habyarimana’s assassination.

“This French intelligence document indicates that two (Hutu) extremists – Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, an aide to the defence minister, and Laurent Serubuga, a former chief of staff of the Rwandan army – were the main instigators of the April 1994 attack,” the report said, adding: “Did the French secret services really know nothing?”

Serubuga moved to France in the 1990s. French authorities rejected a Rwandan request to extradite him in 2014.

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