x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Murders that unleashed a massacre

French authorities charged Rose Kabuye, a senior Rwandan official, with complicity in the assassination of a former Rwandan president.

Skulls of the victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide are on display at the Nyamata church near Kigali.
Skulls of the victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide are on display at the Nyamata church near Kigali.

The ghosts of the 1994 Rwandan genocide are loose. On Wednesday, French authorities charged Rose Kabuye, a senior Rwandan official, with complicity in the assassination of a former Rwandan president, hours after she had been extradited to Paris following her arrest 10 days earlier at Frankfurt airport. The French proceedings are no mere murder inquiry, though it involves the deaths of two heads of state. The downing of the executive jet carrying Juvenal Habyarimana, the former president, and his Burundian counterpart early in the evening of April 6 1994, triggered a bloodbath.

By the time the carnage ended 100 days later, about 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus had been killed at a blood-curdling pace that exceeded the mechanical efficiency of the Nazi Holocaust. Who fired the ground-to-air missiles that brought down the plane as it prepared to land at the airport in the Rwandan capital of Kigali remains one of the great mysteries of the 20th century. Equally plausible theories can be advanced that either ethnic Tutsi rebels or the extremist Hutu government were responsible.

On the answer to the puzzle hinges much blame for one of the century's great crimes. And from the failure to solve the mystery stems some of the resentment that fuels continued instability and bloodshed in central Africa. What is certain is that the neutrality of any French inquiry (this one was brought on behalf of the widows of the plane's two French pilots) is suspect, in part, because its leading witness retracted his testimony last week.

For years, leading up to the genocide, Paris was the Hutu government's closest ally. It provided arms and military advice to the regime. And to the Hutu officials whom Tutsi rebels - among them Ms Kabuye - deposed, it gave sanctuary. All these are reasons why tens of thousands of Rwandans are said to have swarmed Kigali's streets upon word on Wednesday that Germany had transferred Ms Kabuye, 47, into the hands of French authorities.

The mere fact that the French are carrying out an inquiry and that the identity of the culprits remains a riddle angers Linda Melvern, the author of A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda's Genocide. "Imagine that a plane carrying two European presidents was shot down," said Ms Melvern, a professor in international politics at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth. "The failure to conduct an international inquiry on the killing of two African presidents is extraordinary."

The repercussions of 1994 did not end this week in Europe. They were grimly evident in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where fighting continued along its eastern border with Rwanda between the Congolese army and fighters loyal to the rebel leader Laurent Nkunda. The rebel leader denies any ties to the Rwandan government, but it is an open secret in central Africa that Kigali supplies him with arms and other materiel. Furthermore, both appear keen on Congo's vast mineral wealth and a piece of the US$9 billion (Dh33bn) that China lent the Kinshasa government in May to help it restore the country's infrastructure and revive its mining industry.

What is making the motivations difficult to distinguish, as well as crippling the actions of foreign governments, is the shadow cast by the events of 1994. "Since the 1994 genocide, Rwanda has been regarded by many outsiders as a tiny, frail country bullied by its larger neighbours. This is a grossly inaccurate generalisation," said Tim Butcher, author of Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart.

"With a government now dominated by Tutsis, Rwanda punches way above its weight in regional affairs. There are clear parallels with Israel, another small country of people driven by the memory of mass murder committed against them to dominate its neighbours militarily, and the neighbour that Rwanda bosses most is Congo," Mr Butcher said. Indeed, after two overt Rwandan military invasions of Congo in 1996 and 1998 and orchestrating the dismissal of one president (Mobutu Sese Seko) and the installation of another (Laurent Kabila), as well as countless covert operations, claiming the inalienable right to pursue one's enemies in neighbouring countries is becoming neither legally nor politically defensible.

Western governments and leaders have much to atone for over its failure to stop the genocide. Turning a blind eye to Kigali's foreign meddling, however, only compounds the original sin, Mr Butcher said. "Our outsiders' sense of guilt for 1994 should not stop us from criticising Rwanda for fomenting the current violence," Mr Butcher said by telephone from Jerusalem, where he is a correspondent for a British newspaper.

"Until the axis between Rwanda and the ethnic-Tutsi rebels of eastern Congo is broken, then more violence and turmoil is inevitable." In a Washington intoxicated with Obamamania, far from the volcanoes and razor-sharp lava fields that encrust Kivu, the ghosts of Rwanda lurk, too. The Clinton administration failed to see the genocide coming, despite available evidence. It then actively opposed steps to contain it once it erupted. Only this week, speaking in Kuwait City, the former president said he wished that he had stopped it.

Now, some of the Clinton veterans responsible for that neglect - Susan Rice, Anthony Lake, Richard A Clarke - are said to be leading candidates for top national security jobs in the new administration. Are their dreams haunted by Rwanda? We are told earnestly by Ms Rice and Mr Lake that they are, that the lessons have been learnt. Mr Obama has also said he will never allow another one. Yet soon, Mr Obama and his new employees will be faced with Darfur and probably other bloodshed on a large scale. They may even remember the words of William Faulkner, the chronicler of life in the American South: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

cnelson@thenational.ae