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Rwanda marks 30 years since France's contested mission to stem 1994 genocide

This Saturday marks a milestone for Rwanda: 30 years since Operation Turquoise, the controversial French-led military intervention launched in the final weeks of the 1994 genocide. The anniversary revives questions over France's role in the events of 1994, and the diplomatic tensions between Paris and Kigali that have marked the decades since.

Refugees pass a French soldier in the west of Rwanda on 12 July 1994, during the UN mission Operation Turquoise. The intervention was supposed to establish safe zones for refugees, but has been accused of helping killers to escape. © AFP - PASCAL GUYOT

Launched on 22 June 1994 with a mandate from the United Nations, Operation Turquoise saw some 2,500 mostly French troops deployed to establish "safe zones" for Rwandans fleeing the killing.

It came around two and a half months into the genocide, in which more than a million people, mainly from the Tutsi ethnic minority, were massacred by militias from the dominant Hutu group.

Rwanda has long maintained that France not only failed to stop the slaughter but facilitated the safe passage of tens of thousands of Hutus into neighbouring Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of Congo – leading to many perpetrators of genocide escaping justice.

France has always denied direct complicity in the genocide. But a 2021 report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron concluded that France bears "heavy and damning responsibilities" for not doing enough to stop the killings.

France's role in bloodshed

The extent of French involvement before and during the genocide is disputed.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who came to power after leading the Tutsi forces that eventually ended the bloodshed, has accused Paris of training the militias who perpetrated killings and continuing to deliver weapons and equipment to the Hutus even after they had begun massacring Tutsis.

The UN Security Council, which had withdrawn most of its peacekeepers from Rwanda two weeks into the genocide, authorised Operation Turquoise as a strictly humanitarian mission.

While the UN estimates the mission helped save hundreds of lives, it came too late for the majority of victims, who had already perished in the early weeks of the genocide in April.

By the time French troops arrived – backed by a handful of soldiers from Senegal – Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front was beginning to overcome the government forces. The deployment of soldiers from France, an ally of the Hutu regime, was seen as an attempt to help the Hutus out.

In one infamous episode, French forces were accused of knowingly abandoning hundreds of Tutsis who had fled to the Bisesero hills in western Rwanda – only returning three days later, by which time most had been slaughtered.

Tutsi survivors with French forces in Bisesero, Rwanda, on 1 July 1994. Scores of people were murdered there days earlier. © Corbis via Getty Images / Jose Nicolas

"The truth is that all those who advocated intervention by the French army were in favour of the Hutu government," Edouard Balladur, France's prime minister at the time, told RFI and France24 in a 2021 interview.

"I therefore took a perfectly clear and simple position: not to intervene between the two parties, supposedly to separate them, and in particular to prohibit a whole series of operations that were proposed in Kigali. Sometimes it was to protect a charitable institution, sometimes it was to protect a school. I forbade our army to be reintroduced in a central position in Rwanda."

Instead Operation Turquoise focused on hotspots in the south-west of Rwanda – such as the Nyarushishi refugee camp, where French soldiers protected thousands of fleeing Tutsis.

"We're the only ones who did something," Balladur said in 2021. "It's a credit to France."

But Balladur's foreign minister, Alain Juppé, admitted to misjudging the situation. "Throughout the period I was in charge of France's foreign policy, from April 1993 to May 1995, I followed the same line: to work towards a ceasefire, reconciliation of the main factions, shared and democratic power," he wrote in Le Monde in April 2021.

"I made the mistake of believing that reconciliation was still possible in May-June-July 1994, when the horror of the genocide unleashed in April made it impossible."

French soldiers in Rwanda, ten days after the start of Operation Turquoise. © HOCINE ZAOURAR / ARCHIVES / AFP

Lasting recriminations 

Recriminations over France's actions have poisoned relations between Paris and Kigali in the decades since. 

France's 2021 inquiry into the tragedy, led by historian Vincent Duclert and involving two years of research, concluded that archives did not show that the French government willingly joined a genocide.

But it also found that Paris "remained blind to the preparation of a genocide".

After the landmark investigation published its findings, Macron asked Rwandans to "forgive France for its role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide".

Although the French president stopped short of an apology, Kagame said the findings could pave the way for a "better" relationship.

He has since softened his rhetoric against France, as the countries develop new diplomatic and economic relations.

Election kick-off

Saturday's anniversary coincides with the launch of campaigning for Rwanda's general elections. Taking place on 15 July, the polls will decide the next president as well as the lower house of parliament.

Kagame is seeking a record fourth term in office, which he is widely expected to secure. 

Only two challengers are standing against him, election authorities having denied applications from six other candidates – notably an outspoken critic of Kagame, Diane Rwigara.

Under Kagme's leadership, Rwanda has achieved notable economic progress and has become a prominent contributor to UN peacekeeping missions.

However, critics argue that his tenure has also been marked by the establishment of a repressive regime, accused of extensive human rights abuses and the concentration of power and wealth among his Tutsi elite.

The election comes amid ongoing tensions with the Democratic Republic of Congo, who Kagame has accused of supporting Hutu rebels who fled Rwanda in 1994.

Conversely, Kagame faces accusations from Kinshasa of destabilising eastern DRC by backing rebel groups responsible for massacres and the displacement of tens of thousands of people.


(c) 2024, Radio France Internationale


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