Some Truth and Justice for Rwanda at Last

By Gerald Caplan

Two seemingly unrelated Rwandan stories made both history and the headlines last week. One was the dramatic finding by a French inquiry that members of the pre-genocide Hutu government and military must have shot down the plane carrying their President Juvenal Habyarimana on April 6, 1994, launching their planned genocide only hours later.

After 18 years it has essentially settled the central question of who was morally responsible for triggering the genocide.

The second was the decision of the Canadian government to deport to Rwanda at long last a man named Leon Mugesera, accused of inciting his fellow Hutu to massacre Tutsi about one and half years before the plane crash. In fact, the two stories are closely related.

Responsibility for the plane crash has been the source of bitter dispute from the very moment it happened. Given the extraordinary number of direct and explicit threats from Hutu extremists that they intended to annihilate all Rwandan Tutsi and would come after anyone who failed to support their conspiracy, even the president, and given Habyarimana’s intention after much stalling to implement a power-sharing plan with the largely Tutsi RPF rebels, the perpetrators of the crash always seemed obvious.

Logic suggested that the extremists decided to murder the appeasing Habyarimana as the signal for the genocide to be launched. And just as events prior to the genocide pointed directly at Hutu extremists as the only logical culprits, so the events immediately following the crash strongly pointed to a carefully organized plan that was now ready to be executed: the roadblocks that immediately went up; the murder of the prime minister and other moderate cabinet ministers, judges, and senior officials; the beginning of the systematic hunt to slaughter all Tutsi; the murder by government soldiers of 10 Belgian soldiers from the U.N. military mission; and through it all, the provocations of hate radio RTLM. How could there be any reasonable doubt as to the perpetrators of the crash?

This is where the case of Leon Mugesera comes in. He was among the first of the Hutu extremists to publicly call for the extermination of the Tutsi, helping to create the atmosphere of hysteria and hatred for the Tutsi that eventually allowed the conspirators to mobilize so many ordinary Hutu to carry out the genocide.

Mugesera shrewdly understood how to dehumanize the Tutsi by labeling them “inyenzi”—cockroaches—and to challenge their very existence by proclaiming them aliens who had come from Ethiopia and had no right to remain in Rwanda. “I am telling you,” he said to whip up his Hutu audience, “that your home is in Ethiopia, that we will send you by the Nyabrongo River so you can get there quickly.”

As it happens, this speech was taped and was later replayed around the country. A short portion can be found on YouTube.

Mugesera himself fled to Canada, and though he was convicted of inciting hatred, for years he found legal ways to resist being shipped back to Rwanda for trial. Now, however, he seems to have squeezed the last possible ounce out of the Canadian appeal processes and will soon be back home. During his trial the relation between his inflammatory exhortations to genocide and the plane crash 17 months later should become quite clear.

Plane Crash Investigations
Yet from the start, in their typically cynical, shrewd way, the genocidaires, with the help of France, began blaming everyone else for the crash: the Belgian soldiers in the U.N. mission, Uganda, and above all the RPF and their commander, Paul Kagame. But from the start, the motives for Kagame and the RPF were entirely obscure.

Did it make the remotest sense to think Kagame shot the plane down precisely in the hope there would be a genocide against his own people that would somehow, in some incomprehensible way, lead to RPF rule of the country? These questions have never had anything close to a sensible answer, which didn’t stop two groups of people from accusing Kagame of shooting down the plane.

The first group consisted of all those who for various reasons have denied that any genocide ever took place. Their interest here was simple: If Kagame shot the plane down, then there was no carefully organized genocide conspiracy by Hutu extremists that the crash was meant to trigger.

A second group agreed there was genocide but had grown so hostile to every act of the Kagame government that they concluded he had to be responsible for the crash as well.

Both groups found vindication for their unprovable position in a 2006 report by a French judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere that found President Kagame and several top aides guilty of deliberately assassinating Habyarimana. In the annals of shoddy, dishonest, biased, worthless reports, Bruguiere’s will forever take a dishonorable place.

With his report he joined that large group of French establishment officials, including politicians and bureaucrats alike, who have systematically betrayed the people of Rwanda for the past two decades; a phenomenon ending only with the 2010 rapprochement between Presidents Sarkozy and Kagame.

The next chapter in this remarkable saga unfolded exactly two years ago with a report by a commission of enquiry into the crash appointed by the Rwanda government. In my review of the Mutsinzi, I concluded that despite its flaws, the commission had proved as conclusively as was possible that the RPF had neither the capacity, the motive, nor the opportunity to shoot the plane down, while Hutu political and military officials had all three.

And now comes the latest shot in this critical war, perhaps the final attempt to answer definitively one of the great mysteries of the late 20th century: Who shot down Habyarimana’s plane, triggering the 1994 genocide? It’s a report by two other French judges, Marc Trevidic and Nathalie Poux, that they began working on four years ago, soon after Bruguiere.

Clearer Facts
The two made it clear from the start that they had no intention of replicating the disgraceful hatchet job on the RPF by Judge Bruguiere. They would seek out every conceivable piece of evidence and draw the appropriate conclusions from them. In the process, they conducted the most comprehensive, most professional, and most technical investigation ever done on the plane crash.

In brief, their report completely vindicates the key findings of Rwanda’s own Mutsinzi report that biased, partisan, RPF report scorned by so many. Linda Melvern, probably the most authoritative authority on the genocide and related events, did not quite share my view of Mutsinzi. While she found its findings plausible, she still feared the world would never really know beyond doubt which side shot the plane down. But she has been converted by Trevidic and Poux. Here is her assessment of their report in the Guardian:

“After 18 years it has essentially settled the central question of who was morally responsible for triggering the genocide.

“In some 400 detailed pages, including the conclusions of six experts who visited the crash site in 2010, the report has provided scientific proof that, as the plane made a final approach, the assassins were waiting in the confines of Kanombe military camp—the highly fortified home of Rwanda’s French-trained elite unit known as the Presidential Guard, and which is directly under the flight path. This secure military barracks would have been inaccessible to RPF rebels, a point made in a report on the crash produced by the Rwandan government.”

Trevidic and Poux do not name the individual Hutu extremists who were actually responsible for shooting down Habyarimana’s plane, and although someone must know who they were, it’s possible the world never will. Nor does the report indicate the murky role that French officials seem to have played in the crash. But none of that is as important as their overall conclusion that the RPF could not have shot down the plane and that only those Hutu government and military officials with access to the government-controlled Kanombe military camp could have done so.

What happens now? Will we see a torrent of heartfelt apologies from those who for two decades have insisted on Kagame’s guilt? Alas, we should probably not hold our breath waiting. I presume the report will now allow French-Rwandan relations to move forward smoothly, even though France has never apologized for its complicity in the genocide, or for implying there had been no genocide at all, or for helping perpetuate the myth that Kagame caused the plane crash. But it is of course Rwanda’s right to tolerate the absence of such apologies.

Related Articles
■In Rwanda, a Trial Steeped in Genocide
Above all, the historical record is now finally clear and beyond dispute. Truth has won out. Hutu extremists like Leon Mugesera deliberately contrived to stir up lethal anti-Tutsi hysteria. Their plot to exterminate all Tutsi gathered increasing support from government and military officials.

When President Habyarimana decided he had no choice but to implement the power-sharing arrangements with the RPF as agreed in the Arusha Accords, the time to strike had come. The extremists shot the president’s plane down, and the genocide began.

Gerald Caplan has a doctorate in African history. He recently published “The Betrayal of Africa.” This abridged version of the article was originally published in Pambazuka. Courtesy of Foreign Policy in Focus (


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