Rwanda: a step towards truth

A new French report into the incident that sparked Rwanda's genocide is of vital importance on three grounds: discrediting false accounts, establishing facts, and raising further questions. But it leaves critical questions unanswered, including over the role of a key French mercenary, says Andrew Wallis

Andrew Wallis
21 January 2012

The source of the rocket attack on an aeroplane carrying the president of Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana, on 6 April 1994 is a matter of profound historical importance, since this event was the prelude to the genocide that over the next eight weeks saw 800,000 of the country's citizens massacred. In 2006, a report on the incident authored by the French report judge Jean-Louis Bruguière was published, but its conclusions were immediately contested and the report failed to convince that it had established anything near the truth of the matter.

Now, parts of a new report looking into responsibility for the incident - also written by a French judge, Marc Trévidic - have been published. This report demolishes the conclusions of its (already discredited) 2006 predecessor; confirms what most independent analysts have thought all along about the direct source of the 1994 attack; and marks a watershed in an increasingly bitter political, judicial and ideological debate surrounding the incident.

But the report also poses more questions than it answers. In the process it highlights the fact that the surrounding controversy has for many become less about the authorship of the genocide than the status of Rwanda’s current leader, Paul Kagame. Even if the facts are now established, the blame-game is far from over.

The core findings

Marc Trévidic's report concludes that Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down from Kanombe military camp in an area of Kigali, Rwanda's capital, Rwanda's capital. This tightly controlled military base was a training and billeting area for the elite presidential guard, a para-commando battalion, and (perhaps most significantly) an anti-aircraft battalion (the LAA). 

The LAA had been commanded for several years by Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, who was to be found guilty at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) of being the main organiser of and mastermind behind the genocide.

Trévidic, after investigating six possible firing positions for attackers using Soviet-made SA-16 surface-to-air missiles, decided they were most probably fired from one of two positions in Kanombe. The SA-16 missiles were widely available on the African continent in the early 1990s, though the major headache for their owners was to find the training necessary to use them.

Trévidic’s twenty-month investigation - using six ballistics experts, and geometric and technical experts - finds that the plane was downed after a missile hit the fuel-tank located on its left side and caused an immediate fireball. A Belgian military doctor billeted at Kanombe, Massimo Pasuch, reiterates what he had already told the Rwandan government (Mutsinzi) inquiry in 2009, namely that he heard a large "blasting" noise, then saw a red spinning light and finally a fireball that came down into the area of the presidential palace.

The expert contributors to the report cite audio, visual and technical reasons firmly to exclude the possibility that the attack came from the vicinity of Massaka Hill; a vital detail, since this was where the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) forces headed by Paul Kagame were alleged to have infiltrated and fired the missiles from, and a place some kilometres away from their base at the parliament building.

However, Trévidic’s report also resurrects the longstanding debate about whether political expediency has overruled truth and justice in the reaction to the 1994 genocide. The report, which is not a public document, will now be studied by lawyers during a three-month "time out" period when its conclusions can be appealed. Only after this will the French public prosecutor decide if the evidence can lead to the current cases against seven leading aides of Kagame, which were opened in light of the conclusions of the Bruguière report, being officially closed.

Lawyers for these aides indicate they expect some form of appeal against Trévidic’s findings by legal representatives of Agathe Habyarimana, the president's widow. This could mean that they will accept that the missiles came from Kanombe, but that somehow an RPF group infiltrated the heavily protected camp to shoot the missiles.

But Trévidic's report leaves serious questions unanswered. If Kanombe was the origin of the attack, who precisely was behind it - who gave the orders to acquire the missiles, train the operatives and meticulously plan the killing? It has taken seventeen years for the location of the attack to be agreed; it promises to be a lot longer to find out the exact guilty parties.

The key witnesses

Moreover, questions surround several key players during the period of 6-7 April 1994. The foremost amongst these is the French mercenary Paul Barril. This former leading member of the elite secret anti-terrorist group, the GIGN, had by 1994 been working for many African dictators, Juvenal Habyarimana among them. On 5 April 1994, Barril was in Kigali. Among his movements during the next two months of the genocide was a trip to Paris, funded by Agathe Habyarimana, a month after which the charge against Kagame, which Bruguière was to replicate, was made.

But Barril also returned to Rwanda during the genocide, having been paid by the new interim Hutu extremist government to set in place "operation insecticide" - intended to destabilise the RPF attack and bolster the interim regime in its ongoing war and genocide against the Tutsi inyenzi (cockroaches).

An inquiry by France's national assembly in 1998 into the role of the then French president Francois Mitterrand’s government in Rwanda failed to call Barril as a witness. Bruguière heard Barril's testimony but allowed it to go unchallenged - and, importantly, omitted to quiz him on what precisely he was doing in Kigali on 6 April. There is a strong feeling within legal and academic circles that Barril should be at the centre of the continuing investigation - but that for political reasons he is being, and has been since 1994, protected from any such inquiry.

There are, however, equally important witnesses whose role needs to be closely defined. They include several French officers who were "embedded" with the Rwandan presidential guard at Kanombe, chief among them Gregoire de Saint Quintin who was charged with training the Rwandan paracommando batallion. Within minutes of the crash at around 8.30pm, Saint Quintin arrived at the scene and spent the evening searching for evidence and the plane’s black box. The United Nations mission (Unamir) led by General Romeo Dallaire was refused access. In the three days following the crash the presidential guard killed ten families who lived in the vicinity of the crash - both Hutu and Tutsi. There were to be no witnesses.

The role of Agathe Habyarimana, who attended Trévidic's hearing, is equally in need of substantial clarification. She is currently under investigation in Rwanda and France after an independent asylum commission in Paris published a lengthy report putting her "at the heart of the genocidal regime", though she has repeatedly protested her innocence. Trévidic's findings represent a major blow to such pleas and will focus attention on her part in how the genocide was planned and orchestrated.

This is especially welcome in light of the fact that since Agathe Habyarimana's initial public allegations on Belgian TV against Paul Kagame on 25 June 1994, the main thrust of the inquiry into the events of that year has intentionally been moved away from the issue of responsibility for planning and instigating the genocide - and how this was made possible by Rwanda's political and military allies, including Mitterrand’s France. Agathe had added in this interview: "I am sure that the good lord will avenge our family."

The release by Wikileaks of confidential diplomatic cables shows that Bruguière presented his findings to French officials, including Jacques Chirac (who succeeded Mitterrand as president in 1995), and was convinced of the need to coordinate the timing of their release with the government in order to ensure maximum political effect (indeed, the report was leaked in drips over several years before being finally published online - a complete contrast to the process around Marc Trévidic's).

The cables show that Bruguière was explicit about his personal animosity towards Kagame and antipathy towards Rwandan-American relations. Bruguière is currently under investigation for obstruction of justice and withholding evidence in relation to two other cases he headed where French interests were involved - the murder of eleven workers in Karachi in 2002 and of trappist monks in Algeria in 1996.  

Franco-Rwandan relations were effectively cut off after the Bruguière report, but have been slowly healing since Nicolas Sarkozy arrived at the Élysee palace in 2007. Trévidic’s new findings will do no harm to this new détente at the highest level. The Rwandan government initially reacted positively to the release of excerpts from it; foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo called it a "vindication" of its belief that the culprits were those who carried out the 1994 coup in Rwanda and ensuing genocide.

There is hope that the report will do much to halt a growing trend towards a "revisionist" portrayal of the 1994 events - both among Rwandan opposition groups such as the Rwandan National Congress (RNC), and from vociferous critics of Kagame such as Pierre Pean, Filip Reyntjens, Stephen Smith and Andre Guichaoua who backed Bruguière’s report.

Paul Kagame himself, however, has shown far less excitement at the result. "Have we been waiting to be cleared by a French judge?", he says. "Were we, all along, waiting to be absolved [of any wrongdoing] by a foreign judge? On the one hand, these fellows [the French] are the perpetrators; on the other hand, they are the judges. I don’t accept it."

In comments pointing to his sense of being both an African leader and spokesperson for the continent he adds, "I have an issue with accepting that Rwanda or Africa will always be defined and judged by the outside people, the same people who are so deeply involved in the problems Rwanda, our neighbours or Africa have had."

By contrast, the French government has yet to respond to the report.

The political implications

In a far less publicised event on the day Trévidic's conclusions became public, a French judge released another genocide suspect wanted by Rwanda's government. While a number of European countries, the United States and Canada are cooperating with the International Criminal Court for Rwanda (ICTR) - by putting suspects on trial or deporting them to Kigali - France has since 1994 yet to bring a single case to court, much to the dismay of survivor groups there and organisations such as the Collectif des partis civils pour le Rwanda (CPCR).

This French NGO has initiated civil cases against more than twenty alleged genocidaires. Its lawyer, Emmanuelle Debouverie, commented recently in exasperation at the lack of state action: "I think it’s unbelievable in France that we’re not able to prosecute anyone." The fear is that political interference is again blocking judicial process.

When Kagame made his first official visit to Paris as president in September 2011, Sarkozy announced that any genocidaire found on French soil would be "found and punished". But in relation to Rwanda, France's government and military are still deeply divided. The foreign minister Alain Juppé, who held the same position in 1994, absented  himself from the visit after declaring he would not shake Kagame’s hand. The chairman of the senate, Gerard Larcher, did likewise, and army generals - who continue to defend the reputation of France's military against Rwandan "slurs" of complicity in the genocide - were equally outraged by the visit.

Rwanda's genocide has long been mistreated, camouflaged, and manipulated for political and ideological gain. Now, in establishing the facts of the crucial incident that preceded it, Marc Trévidic's report will expose much about the Realpolitik of the post-1994 years. In the process it will open old wounds, challenge powerful interests, and, it must be hoped, bring the world closer to a true understanding.


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