The April 6 plane crash that killed the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi (they may have been shot down) is only the latest violent act for these neighboring Central African countries. As many as 100,000 people have died and more than a million have fled ethnic and politically based attacks in recent years. Elements of the Tutsi-dominated army in Burundi assassinated its prior President, a Hutu, in October. Similarly, Rwanda’s Hutu-dominated army is responsible for most abuses them according to Human Rights Watch/Africa. On top of that, one in eight people in Rwanda is on the verge of starving, according to a new report by aid agencies including Oxfam.
Rwanda’s renewed terror broke out as it was tentatively moving toward a peaceful settlement of a three-year civil war, which ended last August. The conflict was fueled by third-party governments supplying arms, which typifies the accelerated dumping of weapons into underdeveloped countries since the cold war ended.
In October 1990, guerrillas of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (R.P.F.), seeking to overthrow the government of President Juvenal Habyarimana, invaded the country from its northern border with Uganda. From around the world came a steady flow of weapons, including Kalashnikov AKM (AK-47) assault rifles, long-range 120-millimeter mortars, 122-millimeter howitzers and Soviet-made Katyusha multiple rocket launchers, which can cover with shrapnel an area wider and longer than a soccer field. Thousands died, both combatants and civilians, and one million people were uprooted from their homes. “I think in this type of market everybody wants to get in:” said James Gasana, Rwanda’s defense minister last year, adding that most countries and independent dealers that supplied the weapons were less interested in who won the war than in making money on it.
The government forces are made up primarily of Hutu; the guerrillas, of Tutsi. Their conflict dates back to the seventeenth century, when the Kingdom of Rwanda was established as a highly organized and stratified state. Most nobles, military commanders, local officials and cattle herders were Tutsi, who today are about 14 percent of the population; the rest of the people were Hutu, who were and remain predominantly subsistence farmers. Their differences are not tribal but ethnic and social, with the Tutsi historically regarding themselves as superior.
The Tutsi monarchy dominated Rwanda until it was overthrown by the Hutu in 1961, a year before the country’s independence from Belgium, which over the years had allied itself with the Tutsi but had shifted sides in the late 1950s. One of the new government’s first acts was to execute some twenty prominent Tutsi leaders; Hutu crowds killed up to 20,000 Tutsi citizens. By 1964, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that about 150,000 Rwandan Tutsi had fled to Tanzania, Burundi, Zaire and Uganda. Twenty-five years later, these people and their descendants, called Banyarwanda, had swollen to a population of some 500,000. Most lack citizenship or legal residence in the countries to which they escaped, which has left them vulnerable to deportation, displacement and harassment.
In 1973, Defense Minister Habyarimana, a Hutu, seized power. He promised to be fair to both Hutu and Tutsi; instead he distributed most of the resources and key positions to family, friends and associates from the region of his birthplace in northwestern Rwanda. Until recently, Habyarimana ruled the country as a one-party state, and most government ministers were related to him by either birth or marriage. After the guerrillas invaded, Habyarimana’s regime distributed at least 500 Kalashnikov assault rifles to municipal authorities, working in collaboration with militia from his ruling party. With government officials in the lead, these militia organized mobs of agitated Hutu that went to villages and fields in search of Tutsi.
They stole beans and slaughtered goats and cattle. They divided up the meat along with clothes before setting many bamboo huts on fire. About 2,000 people died, most of them hacked to death by machete. The Habyarimana regime arbitrarily arrested at least 8,000 others. Hundreds were beaten, raped and tortured. The guerrillas also committed abuses, executing hundreds of civilians suspected of collaborating with the Habyarimana regime, as well as military prisoners. They forcibly dislocated hundreds, if not thousands, more, and forced an unknown number of civilians into slave labor as porters for the troops. Although the abuses on both sides were documented by an international commission that included Human Rights Watch and three Francophone organizations, both the government and the guerrillas deny them.
Most of the countries and dealers facilitating the Rwanda slaughter are similarly closemouthed. The Russians and other former Warsaw Pact members are now prolific suppliers of small arms. The collapse of Moscow’s central control has given governments as well as the officials left in charge of existing stockpiles a free hand. Since these weapons are already paid for, they can be loosed on the world market at prices below cost. With the Russian ruble losing its value, and Eastern European nations also in need of hard currency, their governments are likely to sell even more arms in years to come. They are no longer constrained by the bounds of superpower loyalties; the only thing that counts now is cash.
Although exact numbers are unknown, Kalashnikov rifles have been flooding markets and wars throughout Africa and Asia. As late as March 1992 belligerents in Central Africa could pick them up in bulk for $220 each; prices have since dropped well below $200. In countries like Rwanda, Kalashnikovs were once more common than cars; now they are more common than bicycles. About 80 percent of the weapons used by the R.P.F. guerrillas were Kalashnikovs, many of Romanian manufacture. Among those fighters who had uniforms, most wore rain-pattem camouflage from the former East Germany; these are now also available through commercial military catalogues. African arms dealers living in Brussels appear to have facilitated the delivery of Warsaw Pact materiel to East Africa. The trend is global and not limited to guns and camouflage: In 1992 the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration confiscated Soviet-made AH-72 cargo jets that Colombia’s Cali cartel had used to smuggle cocaine.
In South Africa, the government-owned Armscor has for years manufactured high-quality weapons for its security and defense forces, which could not buy guns abroad because of a U.N. embargo. While this resolution was binding, another one, against buying arms from South Africa, was not; Rwanda has ignored it. According to Armscor invoices dated October 19, 1992, South Africa sold Rwanda at least $5.9 million worth of light arms, machine guns, mortars and ammunition. About 3,000 Rwanda troops are now equipped with the R-4 assault rifle, which is superior to the Kalashnikov. The status of Armscor and its subsidiaries in the new South Africa has yet to be determined, but it is likely to become a private industry. The lifting of stigma and sanctions against the former apartheid state will give Armscor the opportunity to market its products openly and aggressively for the first time.
A weapons contract signed on March 30, 1992, reads: “The BUYER and the SUPPLIER agree not to show the contents of this contract to third parties.” The buyer was Rwanda and the supplier was Egypt, in a $6 million transaction that included Egyptian-made Kalashnikov rifles, anti-personnel mines, plastic explosives, mortars and long-range artillery. Other documents indicate that the sale was financed by a “first-rate, international bank approved by” Egypt. Rwanda paid $1 million in cash up front and promised to pay another $1 million with the proceeds from 615 tons of harvested tea, and $1 million a year over the next four years. The “first-rate international bank” guaranteed Rwanda’s payment of the full $6 million. Few private commercial banks, operating on the profit motive, would take on such a risk. But Credit Lyonnais did. Although it may be privatized soon, in March 1992 it was still a nationalized bank of France. The sale was, in fact, a secret military assistance credit from France to Rwanda.
This credit has since become a subsidy. What Credit Lyonnais and Rwanda didn’t count on was that the R.P.F. guerrillas would launch a new offensive in February 1993 and take over the Mulindi tea plantation. The tea there spoiled and never made it to harvest. “Our economy was already ailing in 1990, and of course the war has not resolved anything,” President Habyarimana said last October. “Now we want to improve our macroeconomic outlook, but we have a serious shortage of currency.” As for Rwanda’s outstanding debt to Egypt, Credit Lyonnais, and by extension France, is obligated to pick up the tab.
The French government’s willingness to do so, and to keep propping up Habyarimana militarily, arose from its determination to maintain its credibility in French-speaking Africa. From Rwanda’s independence in 1962 until the war broke out in 1990, the nation’s main trading partner, political ally and military patron was Belgium. But once the war began, that role was assumed by France. Belgium is unique among NATO member states in that its laws explicitly prohibit it from selling or providing arms to a country at war. Shortly after the 1990 R.P.F. invasion, Belgium cut off all lethal aid. And last year, following the release of the international commission’s human rights report, Belgium recalled its ambassador for consultation. Accusations that Belgium has aided the R.P.F. are false, and stem from the Habyarimana regime’s resentment of Belgian neutrality.
French officials, however, have defended the record of the Habyarimana regime. “Civilians were killed as in any war,” said Colonel Cussac, the French military attaché in the capital of Kigali and head of the French military assistance mission. (In an apparent act of disdain for journalists and others who question France’s role, Colonel Cussac declined to give me his first name.) “Are you saying that the providing of military assistance is a human rights violation?” he asked, adding that officials in the U.S. Embassy in Kigali supported French policy. “France and the United States have a common history — for example, in Vietnam.” In fact, all non-French Western diplomats in Kigali are critical of France’s role.
Immediately after the war started, France deployed at least 300 combat troops in Rwanda, drawing them from its forces stationed in the Central African Republic. France also rushed in advisers, helicopter parts, mortars and munitions. After the R.P.F. launched its offensive last February, the number of French troops in Rwanda swelled to at least 680, comprising four companies, including paratroopers. “French military troops are here in Rwanda to protect French citizens and other foreigners,” Colonel Cussac told me. “They have never been given a mission against the R.P.F.” But Western diplomats, relief workers and Rwandan army officers all said these troops have provided artillery support for Rwandan infantry troops, and that French advisers have been attached to Rwandan combat commanders.
France’s Ambassador said the country’s presence is necessary to defend Rwanda against aggression from Uganda. It is true that Uganda has not sat on the sidelines during the conflict, although its government categorically denies this. Almost all of Uganda knew about the impending invasion in 1990, as Tutsi soldiers in the Ugandan army openly bid farewell to their families and friends. They traveled with their weapons, in plain view of Ugandan authorities, over two days, and then gathered in a soccer stadium in Kabale, about 200 miles southwest of Kampala and just north of the Rwandan border. Their weaponry included land mines, rocket-propelled grenades, 60-millimeter mortars, recoilless cannons and Katyusha rocket launchers. According to Western diplomats, international military observers, Ugandan army officers and eyewitnesses who saw soldiers unloading crates of Kalashnikovs, Uganda willingly provided more arms, food, gasoline, batteries and ammunition to the R.P.F. throughout the war. “We are committed to the R.P.F.” one Ugandan army operations officer boasted after a few beets in Kampala. “If they didn’t have our support, they wouldn’t be as successful as they are.”
Along with the Tutsi refugees who have served in the Ugandan army, about 200,000 other Tutsi have been living in Uganda. While President Yoweri Museveni tries to rebuild the country in the wake of its wholesale destruction under Idi Amin, these refugees have competed, sometimes violently, with Ugandans for water, land, and other resources. In supporting the guerrillas, President Museveni seems less interested in claiming Rwandan territory than in facilitating Tutsi repatriation. Many top R.P.F. leaders also fought alongside Museveni in Uganda with the expectation that some day he would help them invade Rwanda.
The R.P.F. and President Habyarimana signed a treaty last August, but his untimely death provoked Rwanda’s most severe wave of bloodshed since independence. Hours after his plane went down, the regime’s Presidential Guard began targeting political opponents and critics irrespective of ethnicity. They included the interim Hutu Prime Minister, 10 Belgian peacekeepers who tried to save her, many priests and nuns, and journalists and human rights monitors. While these victims, running into the thousands, were primarily Hutu like the regime itself, the ruling-party militia along with bands of soldiers and drunken armed Hutu men killed tens of thousands of Tutsi. Six days after the carnage started, the first of the main body of Tutsi R.P.F. guerrillas arrived in Kigali.
While Uganda harbored and largely armed the R.P.F., Egypt, South Africa and especially France armed the Habyarimana regime, which is most responsible for the recent bloodletting. Uganda denies it. Egypt and South Africa will not comment, and France has yet to fully disclose its role.
Monique Mujawamariya slapped her hand into mine and said “Ca va?” In Kigali a year ago, her smile was contagious, although the scars on three sides of her mouth were ugly. One of Rwanda’s most active human rights monitors, she was cut in an accident when someone tried to run her car off the road.
Monique, as she is generally known, couldn’t prove who did it. But she was later threatened by Capt. Pascal Simbikangwa in front of Western witnesses. Simbikangwa is a member of the Akazu (“the little house”), the clique of thugs and top ministers that kept President Juvenal Habyarimana in power for so long through its organization of the Presidential Guard and militia. Akazu members deny responsibility for any abuses.
Many of Rwanda’s opposition party leaders have been assassinated in recent years; Dissidents and West- ern diplomats suspect the Akazu. “Shadow groups are behind the violence. But nobody can provide concrete evidence,” said Dr. Dismas Nsengiyaremye, a former prime minister. “Take the example of the mafia: Their chief may recruit from churches, the government or private companies, which allow him to conduct criminal activities without being seen.”
This made for a dangerous climate. Because of it, Human Rights Watch/Africa arranged for Monique to meet with President Clinton last December in the Oval Office. “Your courage, Madame, is an inspiration to all of us, and we thank you:” the President told Monique. “I want to assure you that the United States will continue to be in the forefront of nations pushing the cause of human rights.”
After President Habyarimana was killed in Kigali on April 6, Monique felt she was in danger. She called United Nations peacekeepers in Kigali, but they were under siege and unable to help her. (Belgium says ten of its peacekeepers were tortured and murdered by the Presidential Guard.) Monique also appealed to U.S. Embassy officials, who were busy safeguarding Americans.
By then Monique was in touch with a friend in the United States, historian Alison DesForges. “Around 5 A.M. I called Monique and she said that she had seen two [member] of the Presidential Guard go into a house two removed from hers,” DesForges wrote. They brought out three people and shot them. “Around 6 when I called the soldiers had entered the house next door and had just killed someone. I told her to stay on the line with me, to open the door for them and to tell them that I was the White House.” Instead, Monique hid for six hours on the ground in the rain and then crawled into her ceiling space. They missed her, and she survived.