Recollections of the Rwandan Army's Early Years
Posted by David Shorr
Below is a post I originally published here on August 28, 2010. With Paul Kagame and the Rwandan Army back in the news, I thought I should again recall their role in the Eastern Congo refugee crisis of 1996-97. I stopped following the Great Lakes region closely at the end of that decade and can't speak to more recent events. I can merely spotlight the Rwandan army's early record. Soon after liberating their country from the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide, they showed a shocking lack of discipline.
Carnage in Congo -- A Long-Range Witness' Recollections [original title]
A front-page piece by Howard French in today's New York Times triggered memory banks from an earlier life. For French, covering the new UN report on the history of atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a return to the story's bloody 1996-97 climax, which he covered for the Times. In the mid- to late-1990s, the protracted crisis in Central Africa's Great Lakes region was a big focus of my job -- first with Search for Common Ground and then with Refugees International (RI) -- so I figure I should similarly go back in time.
First a little background. During the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the exiled fighters of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) swept through the country, halted the killing of fellow Tutsis, and took control of the capital. RPF leader Paul Kagame has been president of Rwanda for ten years and its primary power figure for longer. In the genocide's aftermath, the surviving Hutu perpetrators fled to neighboring Congo and Tanzania, along with hundreds of thousands of their ethnic compatriots and faimly. For the next two and a half years, the massive refugee camps were a source of continued violence and instability, with the Hutu genocidaires using the camps as a rear base for operations against the new Rwandan government and a populace off of which they could feed parasitically.
Given the international community's failure to find a solution to the problem, the Rwandan Army (RPA) had good reason to cross into Congo and forcibly break up the camps, which it did in November 1996. If the RPA had limited its aims to disrupting the genocidaire forces (Interahamwe and ex-FAR) and draining the resevoir of instability on their border, neither the UN, nor Howard French, nor I would be writing about them today. Which brings us to the part of the story where my recollections come in.
Washington-based Refugees International has a long history of rapidly getting its staff to the scene of humanitarian crises and using its real-time findings to press for life-saving action by the US and other governments and UN agencies. Under RI's then leaders Lionel Rosenblatt and Dennis Grace, RI made the Rwandan refugees our priority focus in 1996-97. As the UN report details, the Rwandan army and Congolese rebels who overthrew Mobutu Sese Seko did a lot more than break up the refugee camps. The November 1996 operation was just the beginning of a vengeful drive that indiscriminately chased and massacred Hutu militia and civilians alike over the course of many months and hundreds of miles.
At RI, we did what we could to make sure the refugees were not forgotten, even as they became more widely dispersed and more remote and difficult to reach. We kept signs posted in our office that counted the weeks since the RPA operation against the camps. My colleagues Paula Ghedini and Kirpatrick Day travelled to the region during the height of the crisis and told us the tragic things they saw. In the spring of the following year, Kirk caught up with many of the refugees in Kisangani, far from Congo's eastern border where they started their harrowing trek. We colleagues back in the office then helped convey their reports to people in Washington, New York, or Geneva who were in a position to do something about it (I still have a small archive of our work). Legendary UN official Sergio Vieira de Mello was an ally at UNHCR, along with his aide Augustine Mahiga. As I remarked upon her death, Alison DesForges not only was the primary documenter of the genocide, but was equally tenacious when the Rwandan heroes turned into villains.
Which is a long way of saying that a lot of the substance being brought to light by the UN investigation was known at the time, at least in outline. And reported by the news media. In addition to Howard French, there was his Times colleague Nick Kristof as well as the Washington Post's John Pomfret, leading shit hole reporters of their day (like Christiane Amanpour, but for newspapers). One of the most chilling reports came from Kristof and began as follows:
As he strode confidently down the red-clay road that parted the jungle, the young rebel soldier was perfectly candid about his mission. ``We're capturing the Rwandan refugees,'' he said placidly. ``We're catching them and killing them.'' Asked to repeat that, he elaborated without embarrassment. ``Every day we kill them,'' he said with a shrug. ``They fled, so they must be bad people. So we catch them and take them back to our commander, and then we kill them.''
There's the essence of it: collective guilt and summary justice. My main recollection of that time is about the difficulty for the United States government and the rest of the international community to keep a fixed gaze on terrible events taking place so far away. I'll never forget one meeting I attended between NGOs and US officials just after the RPA operation against the camps had been initiated. Everyone in the room knew there were two halves to the story of what had just happened. At one end of the string of camps, Goma to the north of Lake Kivu, a stream of refugees were driven back into Rwanda to be reintegrated into their homeland, a good thing basically. At Bukavu to the South, there was no such gateway for repatriation, and the refugees were at the mercy of the RPA and its Congolese allies. The tone of the meeting, unfortunately, was more relief over the former than worry over the latter.
Photo: US Army