The Hindu Explains | France’s role in the Rwandan genocide

In Kigali, French President Emmanuel Macron asked Rwandans for “forgiveness” for France’s role in the 1994 killings.

May 28, 2021 03:54 pm | Updated May 29, 2021 12:58 pm IST

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks at the inauguration of a French Cultural Centre in the capital Kigali, Rwanda, Thursday, May 27, 2021.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks at the inauguration of a French Cultural Centre in the capital Kigali, Rwanda, Thursday, May 27, 2021.

The story so far: French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday asked for forgiveness for his country’s role in the 1994 Rwandan massacre in which about 800,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis, were killed. Speaking at the genocide memorial in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, Mr. Macron said France chose “silence over examination of the truth” for too long, but stopped short of issuing an apology, saying France had not been an accomplice in the genocide.

What was France’s role in the killings?

France, which enjoyed close ties with Rwanda’s Hutu-led government of President Juvénal Habyarimana, has long been criticised for its role in the killings of the Tutsi minorities in the months of April to June 1994. In May 2019, President Macron, promising a new beginning with Rwanda, set up a 15-member expert committee to investigate his country’s role in the genocide. The committee, which had access to official files and secret documents, submitted its findings to the government in March, which stated that France, which was then ruled by President François Mitterrand, bore “heavy and overwhelming responsibilities" for being “blind” to the events that led to the killings. The report blamed Mitterrand for a “failure” of policy towards Rwanda in 1994. Rwanda had commissioned a separate inquiry, which concluded in a report submitted to the Cabinet in April that France “enabled” the genocide. The 600-page report stated that France did “nothing to stop” the massacres, and tried to cover up its role and even offered protection to some of the perpetrators. President Macron said on Thursday, “I come to recognise the extent of our responsibilities”.

What’s the history of the Hutu-Tutsi relations?

The majority Hutus and minority Tutsis have had a troubled relationship in Rwanda that goes back to the German and Belgian colonial period. Colonialists ruled Rwanda through the Tutsi monarchy. Tutsis were appointed as local administrative chiefs and the ethnic minority enjoyed relatively better educational and employment opportunities, which led to widespread resentment among the majority Hutus. In 1959, Rwanda saw violent riots led by Hutus in which some 20,000 Tutsis were killed and many more were displaced. Amid growing violence, the Belgian authorities handed over power to the Hutu elite. King Kigeli V fled the country. In the 1960 elections, organised by the Belgians, Hutu parties gained control of nearly all local communes. In 1961, Hutu leader Grégoire Kayibanda declared Rwanda an autonomous republic and the next year, the country became independent. Kayibanda became Rwanda’s first elected President, while the Tutsis who fled the country formed armed insurgencies. Since then, Rwanda had been controlled by Hutus, until their genocidal regime was toppled by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in 1994.

What led to the genocide?

The crisis escalated in the 1990s when the RPF, led by Paul Kagame, the current President , grew in strength and posed a serious challenge to the regime of President Habyarimana, who was backed by France and had defence ties with Israel. In 1993, Habyarimana, who rose to power in 1973, was forced to sign a peace agreement (Arusha Accords) with the RPF. This led to resentment among Hutu militias, backed by the government, towards local Tutsi population, who were accused of collaborators of the RPF. On April 6, 1994, a Falcon 50 jet carrying Habyarimana and his Burundi counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down near Kigali International Airport. The Hutu-led government blamed the RPF for the attack on the presidential jet. The military and Hutu militias, mainly Interahamwe, unleashed violence against Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Mr. Kagame has denied any involvement in shooting down the plane. The RPF says Hutu extremists ordered the attack to use it as an excuse for the genocide (which they were preparing for long before the plane downing) as well as to capture power.

What happened?

The killings were a pre-planned extermination campaign. The militias, with support from the government, launched a premeditated violent campaign on April 7, aimed at eliminating the entire Tutsi communities. Interahamwe militants went to cities and villages across the country, hunting down Tutsis, and asking Hutus to join the campaign, killing at a pace of 8,000 people a day. The Hutus who opposed the killings were also targeted. The militias used a radio station to coordinate the killings. Bodies were dumped in the Nyabarongo River. France, which had backed the Hutu government, did nothing to stop the massacre. Thousands were slaughtered in churches where they sought refuge. The Catholic Church had deep ties with the ruling Hutu elites – Archbishop Vincent Nsengiyumva was a member of the ruling party’s central committee. Many priests were involved in the killings. In a visit to Rwanda in 2017, Pope Francis asked for forgiveness for the Church’s role in the killings. The violence continued for three months.

How did the killings come to an end?

The killings came to an end after the RPF, under Mr. Kagame’s command, captured Kigali and toppled the Hutu regime. While the RPF put an end to the Hutu campaign to exterminate Tutsis, the rebels were also accused of carrying out revenge killings during the civil war. When it was evident that the RPF was winning, an estimated 2 million Hutus fled Rwanda, mainly to the neighbouring Zaire (the Democratic Republic of Congo), where Hutu militias are still operating from. The RPF initially went about establishing a multi-ethnic government with Pasteur Bizimungu, a Hutu, being the President. Mr. Kagame, a Tutsi, was his deputy. In 2000, Mr. Kagame assumed the Presidency and continues to be in power till today.

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