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Rwanda: Update to End February 1998

Publisher WRITENET
Author Gérard Prunier
Publication Date 1 March 1998
Cite as WRITENET, Rwanda: Update to End February 1998 , 1 March 1998, available at: [accessed 30 November 2015]
Comments This issue paper update was prepared by WRITENET mainly on the basis of publicly available information, analysis and comment. All sources are cited. This paper is not, and does not purport to be, either exhaustive with regard to conditions in the country surveyed, or conclusive as to the merits of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and are not necessarily those of UNHCR. WRITENET is a network of researchers and writers on human rights, forced migration, ethnic and political conflict. WRITENET is a subsidiary of Practical Management (UK)
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


The domestic situation in Rwanda has markedly deteriorated over the last seven or eight months. This is mainly due to the growing insecurity in the northwestern part of the country, but also to the increasing feeling within both the Hutu and the Tutsi communities that the Government, led by the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), is on the wrong path. On the part of the Hutu the feeling is simple: since the political elimination of the independent Hutu politicians from government in August 1995, they have felt increasingly marginalized.[1][1] On the part of the Tutsi the situation is more complex and more recent: some feel that the Government is engaged in a dead-end policy of direct confrontation with the Hutu majority in the country, while others feel that on the contrary the Government should carry out a more thorough repression and that security is not assured. Both sides agree that they criticize the Government for its increasing corruption, and the press in Kigali has been so virulent on all these issues that the Vice-President and Minister of Defence, Major-General Paul Kagame, has felt it necessary to reorganize the ruling RPF and become its president. This move was designed to tighten his political control over the political representation of his own community which he felt was slipping.


2.1     The Renewed Interahamwe Killings

The forced return of about 700,000 Hutu refugees between November 1996 and January 1997 has been a mixed blessing, to say the least. There were many former soldiers of the Forces Armées Rwandaises (FAR) and Interahamwe militiamen among them, many of whom seemed to have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing since the 1994 genocide. And for those who had, it was not always easy to stay out of mischief. Former FAR officers would call upon them to "return to their unit" and those who did not obey would then either be killed directly or else denounced to the RPF administration as abacengezi (infiltrators, i.e. coming from the Hutu guerrilla rear bases in Kivu). So, knowing they would otherwise die in any case, many joined their armed brethren even if they had mixed feelings.[2][2]There are two types of operations: some, carried out by crowds where local Hutu peasants played a prominent role and targeting just about any Tutsi civilians who could be killed, were clearly designed to compromise the local population, trigger massive reprisals by the RPA and help poison the already deleterious ethnic climate. Others seem to have a strong military organization and to be aimed mostly at military or at least strategic targets. These are carried out by former FAR soldiers operating from the Masisi-Rutshuru area of North Kivu, where they have good sanctuaries.[3][3] They are under the command of General Kibirigi, the ex-FAR general who fought to the last in defence of Kigali against the RPF in the summer of 1994, and by Lieutenant-Colonel Léonard Nkundiye, a former head of Habyarimana's Garde Présidentielle, and one of the main organizers of the 1994 genocide.

The new wave of massive killings started with the Mudende massacre of 22 August 1997, when 131 Tutsi refugees coming from the Masisi area of North Kivu were slaughtered by Hutu guerrillas supported by the local population.[4][4] Then there was the attack on Giciye,[5][5] killing unknown numbers (at least forty) and finally the large controversial slaughter at Mudende camp again, in mid-December.[6][6] This massacre was controversial first because there was a huge discrepancy in the numbers quoted in Kigali (271) and Kinshasa (1,643).[7][7] Secondly, since Mudende had already been attacked in August and since it was an obvious target for the Interahamwe, the fact that it was guarded by only two dozen RPA soldiers shocked Tutsi public opinion inside Rwanda, which felt poorly protected by the security forces. To make matters worse, the soldiers ran away, a fact which could be excused by the vast number of attackers (about 1,000), but which did not satisfy Tutsi opinion.[8][8] The Hutu for their part spread rumours that the RPA had let the Tutsi civilians be killed in order to solidify Tutsi support behind the Government and quell Tutsi dissent.[9][9] It therefore appeared to everybody in Rwanda that, contrary to the usual practice of the Government, the casualty figures for the Tutsi refugees were understated in order not to give further shocks to an already traumatized public opinion. But the killings went on with terrifying regularity: 84 people were killed at Nkamira transit centre and Bigogwe barracks on 19 December 1997, most of whom were survivors from the recent Mudende horror who had just been transferred to apparent "safety".[10][10] A further 25 people were killed in two separate incidents on 25 and 28 December 1997;[11][11] 9 nuns were killed by the Interahamwe in their convent a few days later;[12][12] 30 employees of the BRALIRWA brewery were slaughtered on 19 January 1998, when the bus taking them to work in the morning was ambushed and burnt;[13][13] in early February 58 more people were killed and 64 wounded in a series of clashes between "infiltrators" and the Army, without any possibility of establishing exactly who had killed whom.[14][14]

2.2     The RPA Repression

In its various reports on Rwanda, Amnesty International presents a horrendous picture of the ways the Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA) deals not only with the Interahamwe killers but with the civilian population around the site of military clashes.[15][15] When the human rights organization began to voice its concern over the repression in August 1997, the RPA responded that there had been "only" 1,800 casualties in May-June 1997 and that these were only armed "infiltrators".[16][16] Although not personally present on the ground, this author has had the opportunity to talk directly with people involved in the Nyakinama Caves horror. This network of caves in the northern préfecture of Ruhengeri had been turned into a shelter for the local Hutu population, who was suffering constant harassment from the Army after Interahamwe attacks. But after a while the Interahamwe themselves began to use the caves. Some of the peasants agreed to help them but others asked them not to come any more, since they would bring trouble on them. When things got worse one of the peasants went to the RPA to ask for help in flushing out these unwanted guests. The Army came, accused all the people there of being abacengezi and shot indiscriminately at the people to force them back into the caves. The soldiers then built brick walls at the entrances, leaving those inside to starve. Those who tried to break out were shot. Afterwards the corpses were burnt and hastily-called journalists who could still smell the burning flesh in the air were not allowed to inspect the inside of the caves.[17][17] Rwandese human rights activists in Brussels said that 8,000 people died at Nyakinama. Our informants think the figure is likely to be much lower, but still probably around a horrendous 2,000.

2.3     The Dangerous Existential Anguish of the Tutsis[18][18]

To understand the ultra-violence now at work in north-western Rwanda, one has to go back, once again, to the genocide. The genocide was a traumatic experience for the exile Tutsi community which makes up the RPF, not only because it killed many family members still inside Rwanda but because it came perilously close to succeeding. Almost 90 per cent of the Tutsi in Rwanda were killed between April and July 1994. For the Tutsi, always critically aware of their minority situation, total extinction suddenly moved from the status of an imagined fear to that of a concrete possibility. This is what is meant here by "existential anguish", the anguish that not only the individual, but the entire community could definitely be wiped off the face of the Earth. This fear is always present in the minds of the Rwandese Tutsi,[19][19] and it can drive them to acts of extreme violence which are rationalized as retaliation or prevention. Not that they do not have cause for fear: the raiders who attacked the North-West left behind them leaflets printed by the Parti pour la Libération du Rwanda (PALIR) which read in parts: "You Tutsi, God has created us to eat you, you are like soft dough under our teeth" and "Run while you can and go home; those of you who stay in Rwanda will all die".[20][20] With a few dozen dead bodies around to show that these words were not empty threats this was enough to drive any normal human being into a frenzy of fear, obviously the effect intended by the attackers.

The results were disastrous. Within days a number of Hutu were murdered in various parts of the country (especially in Gitarama and Butare préfectures where inter-group relations had previously been better) by angry Tutsi mobs who took revenge on them for the Mudende atrocities.[21][21] Vice-President Paul Kagame had to warn several civilians not to form vigilante groups and was forced to talk tough to reassure his constituency.[22][22] This tension has led to extremes of paranoia on the part of the Government. After this author wrote a critical but realistic note on the situation in Rwanda in June 1997,[23][23] he was personally denounced by the Director of ORINFOR (Rwanda's Information Office) as having written "a eulogy for genocide". The text of the communique was put on the Internet by ORINFOR, relayed by the Rwandese diplomatic missions in London and Washington, taken to the Foreign Office and the State Department personally by the relevant Ambassadors and then published in full in Kigali's press.[24][24] The contents of the note hardly seemed to call for such major treatment. But the reaction was typical of the mood prevailing in Kigali's government circles. An ethnic laager mentality is prevalent today among many Tutsi. This is an extremely disturbing phenomenon if we remember that the genocide of 1994 was triggered by the Hutu political elite, because it thought that it was going to lose power. Some even feared prosecution for their role in the minor massacres of the years 1990-1993. These days the defensive feeling among the Tutsi is much more acute and thus at least as dangerous. The Tutsi elite of today knows that if it lost power it would be physically destroyed, except for those who could flee the country. It is a fear which has been analysed by a number of observers[25][25] and which should be taken very seriously into account in all and any dealings with the present power structure in Kigali.


3.1     The RPF under Tutsi Criticism

For the last year or so, the present power structure has come under mounting criticism from inside the Tutsi community, a phenomenon which can be seen as paradoxical. In fact, it is not. The first sign of disagreement came with a two page letter circulated in June 1997 by Claude Rukeba, one of the "historic" leaders of Union Nationale Rwandaise (UNAR). This was the monarchist party of the 1950s, which later led the first round of guerrilla attacks (1960-1963) against the Hutu government. UNAR has survived in exile in a much diminished form and, given its present lack of political weight, the letter did not seem very threatening. But it was significant. The old generation of exiles was worried that the RPF government was beginning to paint itself into an ethnic corner. Corruption was also a prominent issue.

The second and much louder warning came with a memo written by angry members of the RPF support network abroad.[26][26] They complained about the "monopolization of power by a small group" and about corruption. They warned the Government that unless it mended its ways it would "go the same way as those we have replaced". And they complained that neither the Vice-President of the RPF, Denis Polisi, nor the Rwandese Ambassador in Washington and RPF Secretary-General, Théogène Rudasingwa, who had been invited to a debate had bothered to come.

By late 1997 the criticism had mounted to such a point that the Government was being openly challenged in the Tutsi-dominated press. To give the flavour of these attacks, we would like to quote from one of the most radical articles that appeared then:[27][27]

The RPF revolution has failed because we copied the methods of the government we overthrew.... Have we really fought against Habyrimana just to take his place?.... The numbers of those who honestly think that our fight was motivated by a desire for good governance and economic development diminish by the day. A new mafia which pretends to be above any suspicion is now systematically looting the country.... You who are in power, do you realize the growing gap between your easy life and the depth of misery of the ordinary people? Probably not, because you live in a virtual, not in a real Rwanda.... If we look closely at the situation, the new masters of this country have now largely achieved the same degree of economic and political catastrophe which Habyarimana and his minions took fifteen years to reach.... You accumulate enormous amounts of wealth. But where are you going to hide tomorrow to be able to enjoy that?This strong diatribe was not isolated. Several other newspapers were almost as rough with the Government as Le Tribun du Peuple was. So when the security situation sharply deteriorated in the late summer and throughout the last part of 1997, a new cause of anger was added to the criticism of political ineptness and corruption in high places. After the massacres of December 1997 which the Government tried to minimize, Major-General Kagame was forced to go on the air several times to assure his community that "government forces were able to contain the insecurity", this partly to defend his own record and partly to try to stop the revenge killings which were beginning to spread out of control.[28][28] The European Union's Special Envoy, Aldo Ajello, a seasoned expert on the area, declared that: "In my view, Kagame realizes that he will have to choose between reconciliation and power-sharing or failure".[29][29]

3.2     Major-General Kagame and the Restructuring of the RPF[30][30]

Within government circles there was a feeling that urgent action was necessary. In January 1998 all the ruling bodies of the RPF were dissolved. They had not met for several years anyway. And on 16 February 1998, Vice-President Kagame officially became president of the renewed RPF, with President Bizimungu as vice-president.[31][31] This inverted order of precedence was definitely much closer to reality than the official government organization chart.

The unfolding of events during the RPF Congress was very interesting. The hardliners of the so-called "Gahini Mafia"[32][32] were marginalized, including people who had been very close to Major-General Kagame himself. This was particularly the case with Colonel Joseph Karemera who was voted down as head of one of the RPF committees and replaced by Professor Munyanganizi Bikoro, head of the National Institute of Agronomy. The fact that Professor Bikoro is a Catholic and a member of the "Zairian" diaspora group (and was not even present at the Congress when he was clamourously nominated) was a meaningful sign. Rank-and-file petits Tutsi are tired of the arrogance and corruption of the "Ugandan" Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA) hard core. They sent a clear message to Vice-President Kagame and they were heard. The problem for Major-General Kagame is that the members of the Gahini Mafia, that ordinary people resent so much, are strategically positioned right around him: Colonel Frank Mugambage heads the President's cabinet; Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Rusagara is Secretary-General of the Ministry of Defence; Donat Kaberuka, Colonel Mugambage's cousin, is Minister of Finance;[33][33] Aloysia Inyumba is the Minister of Social Affairs and her husband, Major Richard Masozera, is a key person in the Ministry of Defence; Ephraim Kabaijja is Major-General Kagame's adviser on the reintegration of the refugees and as such one of the key men in the Northern repression and political control of the civilian population; Major Wilson Rutaysire, a cousin of Minister without portfolio Patrick Mazimpaka, is Director of ORINFOR, etc. To disturb the influence of this group is no mean task and Major-General Kagame is relying on a number of allies such as Charles Morigande, the Chancellor of the University of Butare whom he had caused to be elected as Secretary-General of the new RPF, his personal secretary Major Emmanuel Ndahiro who is also the Army Spokesman, Colonel Kayumba-Nyamwasa, the RPA new Chief of Staff and Colonel Charles Ngoga, commander of the most exposed unit in the Northern war, the Kibungo-Byumba Brigade.

As far as can be assessed after this key Congress, Vice-President Kagame has chosen - albeit hesitantly but the task is formidable indeed - to liberalize a hitherto ironclad regime dominated by the "Ugandan" military. Much will depend upon his success or failure. The stakes are very high since many of his friends feel that his life might be at risk, fearing a replay of 6 April 1994 when President Habyarimana was murdered, probably by extremists in his own camp who attributed his assassination to the RPF and used it to start the genocide. People very close to Major-General Kagame fear a similar scenario where Tutsi extremists would kill him, attribute the crime to Hutu extremists and use the opportunity to "purge" the country of all the "wrong" people, i.e. prominent Hutu or liberal-minded Tutsi. This is one reason for the very heavy political atmosphere now evident in Kigali in government circles.


4.1     The Regional Picture

The regional picture has not changed much in the last six months. The main development is that of Kenya. Vice-President Paul Kagame went to Nairobi in July 1997 to meet President Daniel Arap Moi, who was then beginning to gear up for the presidential election campaign.[34][34] The talks were short, sharp and to the point: the Rwandese strongman promised to use his influence on President Yoweri Museveni if President Arap Moi ceased forthwith to help in any way the former Hutu regime members who were in his country. He specified that this did not apply to the moderate Hutu who had fled from his own regime in late 1995, such as former Interior Minister Seth Sendashonga or former Prime Minister Security Chief Sixbert Musamgamfura, but only to the génocidaires.[35][35] President Arap Moi quickly kept his part of the bargain. Within 24 hours a big police sweep was carried out among the former leaders of the "Hutu Power" regime, netting some well-known extremists (Jean Kambanda, former Prime Minister of the génocidaire government, Hassan Ngeze, Chief Editor of Kangura newspaper and George Ruggiu, the Italo-Belgian head of the French-language branch of Radio Mille Collines).[36][36] All were on the International Tribunal wanted list and were transferred to Arusha.

The other country where Rwanda has played a role is Burundi. The situation there is rather paradoxical: President Museveni who supports the RPF regime in Rwanda is also strongly in favour of continued economic sanctions against Burundi, while his Rwandese ally favours relaxing or suppressing them. The split became apparent during Museveni's 48 hour visit to Kigali in January[37][37] and was confirmed during the Kampala regional summit in February.[38][38] Rwanda's desire to end the sanctions is easy to understand: any weakening of the Tutsi regime in Bujumbura is potentially very dangerous for the RPF regime in Kigali. But President Museveni's attitude is harder to fathom. Among the possible reasons for his hard line on the embargo, observers mention both his personal dislike of Major Pierre Buyoya[39][39] and his desire to please the Dar-es-Salaam government, which is strongly anti-Buyoya because it wants a restoration of the elected FRODEBU regime overthrown in July 1996. Since President Museveni is an ardent believer in the necessity of rebuilding the East African Economic Community and since Tanzania is of course a key partner, his attitude on Burundi could be conditioned by a desire to go along with Dar-es-Salaam's Burundi policy.

4.2     The Special Case of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

Kigali's role in the DRC is extremely peculiar. Since the admission last year by Major-General Kagame that it was the RPA which had spearheaded the conquest of Zaïre by President Laurent-Désiré Kabila,[40][40] the special relationship between the RPF regime and the new Congolese regime has been public knowledge. When it later became known (and never denied by Kigali) that one of Kagame's close military aides, Lieutenant-Colonel James Kabarebe, was in fact Operational Chief of Staff of the new DRC army, the peculiarity of that relationship became even stronger.

Rwanda has a stake in former Zaïre, in several ways. But the biggest one is probably the Kivu security situation which has remained very poor ever since President Kabila's victory.[41][41] Rwandese armed forces are still present in both North and South Kivu where the physical security of Banyarwanda of Tutsi and/or Banyamulenge origin is still extremely problematical.[42][42] It is unlikely that these forces will be withdrawn in the near future. The situation is made even worse by the rapidly deteriorating health of President Kabila.[43][43] If his failing health is indeed confirmed, a power struggle could develop in Kinshasa which would force Kigali to watch even more closely the security developments in Kivu.

4.3     Rwanda and the International Community

The relationship between Rwanda and the international community has been extremely tense, characterized by highly polarized reactions linked with the memory of the genocide, guilt about UN lack of action at the time and a willingness (or unwillingness) to condemn the present Army repression in the North-West. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ireland's former President Mary Robinson issued a very strong statement about violations of human rights following her visit to Kigali.[44][44] On the contrary US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was content with reminding her listeners in Rwanda about the genocide and promising a (limited) amount of economic aid.[45][45] French former Prime Minister and Parti Socialiste Euro-MP Michel Rocard also took a very soft line in his appraisal of the RPF regime.[46][46] General Roméo Dallaire's testimony at the International Tribunal in Arusha, with its strong indictment of the UN attitude during the genocide,[47][47] re-launched a global controversy, because any reminder of the international neglect of Rwanda during the genocide seems to go along with an attitude exonerating the present regime for its repression of the Hutu and its ethnic monopolization of power, while any condemnation of the Government's violence and authoritarianism tends to be seen as a weakening of resolve in the defence of international justice.

Of course, this type of argumentation is illogical because the two groups of facts are not automatically mutually exclusive. There can be Tutsi victims as well as Tutsi murderers, Hutu victims as well as Hutu killers. Nevertheless, in the media and in public opinion there is a tendency to come to blanket judgements, often with a drift towards pro-Tutsi or pro-Hutu positions, even among human rights organizations who should know better.[48][48]


5.1     The Hidden Persistence of the Refugee Problem

In spite of official statements to the contrary, the refugee/returnee problem is far from over. In fact it has become incredibly complicated because it is now intermeshed with the situation of the so-called "old caseload" refugees, i.e. the Tutsi who had lived in exile for the last thirty years or so and who returned to Rwanda, with their grown children, during 1994-1995. The growing violence in north-western Rwanda has often targeted Hutu returnees, who are on the one hand prima facie suspect (in that they fled) and at the same time without any internal support system, because not only returning Tutsi but even their own Hutu neighbours have tended, during 1994-1996, to occupy lands and houses belonging to those who had fled. And now the violence is also targeting a new class of refugees, the Tutsi Banyarwanda from Kivu who have fled the DRC to the relative "safety" of Rwanda.

Given the ransacked economy, the limited resources and the poorly coordinated international aid,[49][49] socio-economic re-insertion is an almost impossible challenge. Mrs Albright's grand offer of US$ 200,000 for "refugee skills improvement" and US$ 1 million for "reconciliation" (whatever that means) does not go very far towards any kind of efficient action. At the same time, failure to re-integrate the refugees, whether new or old caseload, reinforces the extremists on all sides, who can easily point at the disastrous living conditions and blame them on the other group.

There is much talk of "voluntary repatriation", while in practice there is no such thing. It is obvious that those refugees who came back between November 1996 and February 1997 came back to Rwanda only because they feared for their lives in Zaïre. Since it now seems more dangerous to go back to Rwanda than to stay in the DRC, the few remaining ones do not want to go back.[50][50] In the same way, the Tutsi who fled the Masisi-Rutshuru area of Kivu, now largely under ex-FAR control, do not want to go back either.[51][51] Caught between two dangers these floating populations (and this includes the 1996-1997 returnees) are the main victims of economic hardship and military insecurity.

5.2     The Deterioration of the Food Situation

War in the North-West has had a very negative impact on the food supply in Rwanda. The North-West had long been a surplus area in the country and its exports to other parts of the country were essential. Prices have risen catastrophically during the last six months or so.




















































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