The Rwandan genocide was triggered by the killing of the country's president in April 1994. The identity of the assassins remains one of the great mysteries of the 20th century. Now a new witness has emerged, alleging French involvementby Linda Melvern / February 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
Few events in recent times have been the subject of such speculation as the assassination, on 6th April 1994, of Rwanda’s president Juvénal Habyarimana. For 13 years, the identity of those who shot down the president’s Mystère Falcon jet—triggering the genocide of up to 1m Rwandans, mainly Tutsi—has remained a mystery. All that is known with certainty is that surface-to-air missiles were fired at the jet as it came in to land at Kigali airport, causing it to crash into the garden of the presidential villa—killing all on board.
By this time Rwanda had suffered over three years of civil war, with President Habyarimana’s Hutu government fighting a rebel army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), created in neighbouring Uganda by Rwandan Tutsi refugees. In previous decades, thousands of Rwandan Tutsi had been forced into exile refugee camps, denied the right of return. The RPF emerged to enforce their rights, and invaded Rwanda in October 1990, eventually seizing territory in the north. In 1993 an international peace agreement—known as the Arusha accords, after the Tanzanian city in which it was signed—was brokered between the Rwandan government and the RPF, providing for a power-sharing democracy in Rwanda. UN peacekeepers were sent to monitor compliance with the agreement.
After the downing of the jet, each side in the civil war blamed the other for the death of the president, and a vicious battle for the historical truth has been waged ever since. It is widely believed that whoever is eventually found guilty will carry the moral responsibility for starting the genocide—which is why we may never know for certain who the assassins were.
In the hours immediately after the plane had crashed, blame was laid squarely at the door of the RPF, with the Hutu radio station RTLM announcing that “Tutsi rebels” had assassinated the president. These news broadcasts also claimed that the rebels had been assisted by Belgian peacekeepers. The story spread rapidly, and had a decisive effect on events. The following morning, ten Belgian UN peacekeepers were murdered by Rwandan soldiers who believed they had been involved in the shooting down of the aircraft. These peacekeepers had been the escort for the pro-democracy coalition prime minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, who was also killed that morning. Their deaths led to the collapse of the UN mission and a hurried exodus of Rwanda’s 3,000-strong expatriate community. By that time the genocide was well under way, with thousands of Tutsi being killed in churches, schools, hospitals and clinics—anywhere they had fled for safety.