Global Policy Forum

Rwanda - Whose Genocide?


By Steve Weissman *

March 31, 2004

In Rwanda ten years ago, Hutu gangs began killing ethnic Tutsis, slaughtering between 500,000 and one million men, women, and children - all in 100 days. Hutu extremists had carefully planned the massacre many months in advance, using secret meetings and vitriolic radio broadcasts to whip up mass hatred and fear of the Tutsi minority, who had once ruled the country. The organizers also trained death squads, prepared lists of Hutu moderates to be killed along with the Tutsis, and imported Chinese-made machetes, which they passed out to those willing to butcher their neighbors.

Hutu brutality shocked the entire world, forcing us all to ask how, as supposedly civilized people, we had utterly failed to stop the genocidal killings. Our guilt also left us napping when General Paul Kagame's Tutsi army invaded what was then Zaire, systematically killing hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees, many of whom had taken no part in the earlier bloodshed.

Genocide and counter-genocide. Horror and disgust. What was wrong with those murderous Africans? What was wrong with our racist, stand-aside West? Yet, with all our soul-searching, few Americans ever stopped to wonder what role our government played in spilling the blood. Not just in letting the evil happen, but in helping make it happen.

The French, who supported the Hutus, looked at their own responsibility, airing some very dirty linen in a full-scale Parliamentary inquiry. The Belgians, who had ruled Rwanda as a colony, also held up their continuing crimes for all to see. But Americans still know little of how Washington aided and abetted the savagery. Ten years on, we should at least begin to ask the right question: How much training, arms, intelligence, and political support did Washington give the refugee Tutsi army that began attacking Hutu-run Rwanda as early as 1989?

So far, only the outlines are clear.

Escaping earlier bouts of inter-ethnic violence before Rwandan independence in 1962, tens of thousands of Tutsi refugees had settled in Uganda, where their sons played major roles in the guerrilla movement that brought the current Ugandan strongman Yoweri Museveni to power. One Tutsi - Major General Fred Rwigyema - became chief of staff in the new Ugandan army, while Paul Kagame served as deputy director of military intelligence.

With a wink and a nod from Museveni, Rwigyema and Kagame used their military positions to create their own Tutsi force - the Rwandan Patriotic Army - which began making raids into Rwanda. U.S. Embassy reports in 1989 described these attacks as Ugandan, rather than Tutsi. According to Harald Matwitz, who worked at the time for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the State Department had note of at least 56 such incidents by 1991.

During those years, Washington was providing small amounts of training to the Ugandan Army - and to its Tutsi offshoot. One example is widely known: Kagame's training in 1990 at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. That same October, Fred Rwigyema led a surprise Tutsi attack inside Rwanda, moving to within 60 miles of Kigali, the capital, where the French helped fend them off. Rwigyema died under mysterious circumstances, and Kagame rushed home to take command of Tutsi forces. Did the Americans know by then that Kagame, a senior officer in the Ugandan Army, was also a top Tutsi insurgent? If they did not, someone should be shot - and not just at the Pentagon.

Washington would have gotten some of its best information from nominally independent refugee aid groups, who had a long - and some would say distinguished - history of working closely with both the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency. For the Tutsi refugees, the most visible player in this shadowy, ill-defined world was Roger Winter, now Assistant Administrator at USAID. From the early 1980s, Winter ran the U.S. Committee on Refugees, a private Non-Governmental Organization. Washington provided some 75% of his NGO's budget, but Winter - unlike overt government officials - was free to help the Tutsis organize a conference in Washington in August 1988. The meeting greatly increased support from exiles outside Uganda to the political wing of the Tutsi army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front.

The RPF, as it was known, played down its Tutsi roots, called itself multi-ethnic, and placed prominent Hutu dissidents in leadership posts. But Kagame and his Tutsi associates kept it - and their army - under firm control, and continued to press for a change in the Hutu government of President Juvenal Habyarimana that would permit the refugees to return to Rwanda. Washington increased its support for Musaveni's Uganda, which permitted his military to give increasing supplies of munitions, automatic rifles, mortars, artillery, and Soviet-designed Katyusha multiple rocket systems to Kagame's Tutsi troops. With this support, the Tutsis stepped up their incursions into Rwanda from their Ugandan bases. The escalating attacks caused nearly a million Rwandans to flee their homes, which only strengthened the Hutu hardliners in selling their final solution. The attacks also persuaded the French, who saw an American (and British) hand in the Tutsi effort, to increase their support for the Hutus. Africa was seeing a new kind of proxy war.

At the same time, both Paris and Washington pressed President Habyarimana to accept a UN-brokered power-sharing agreement that would allow the Tutsi refugees to return to Rwanda. Perhaps the deep thinkers in Washington saw the Tutsi military attacks as pressure toward a peaceful settlement. If they did, they soon found out how wrong they were. The climax came on April 6, 1994, when Habyarimana was flying home from peace talks in Tanzania. As his French Falcon 50 aircraft approached Kigali airport, a ground-to-air missile blew the plane apart.

American officials quickly blamed Hutu extremists, who saw Habyarimana as too willing to compromise with the Tutsis. Now, the well-respected French anti-terrorist judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere is reportedly accusing Kagame of personally ordering the assassination - a charge that the Rwandan ruler bitterly denies. Other reports suggest that a Tutsi commando team in Kigali fired Soviet missiles that the Americans captured during the first Gulf War and gave to the Ugandans. Whoever shot down the plane, the killing began within hours, as Kagame and his Tutsi army fought their way toward Kigali to stop the genocide they had helped provoke. Traveling with them, by his own account, was at least one American - the refugee's friend Roger Winter.

Should Congress ever investigate America's role in the Rwandan holocaust, Mr. Winter would be a star witness.

About the author: A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for Truthout.

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