Shooting down the official ‘truth’ about Rwanda

ESSAY: Barrie Collins exposes the fictions of those claiming to know who killed the Rwandan president in 1994.

Barrie Collins

Topics Politics

This essay was previously previewed in the March edition of spiked plus.

At a news conference in Paris earlier this year, one of the most contentious issues in the recent history of Rwanda appeared to be approaching resolution: the identity of who shot down the plane carrying then Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana in 1994.

This killing of Habyarimana was a turning point in Rwanda’s history. It provided the trigger for a resumption of the war between the Rwandan government forces, largely composed of Hutu peoples, and the rebel army of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which was dominated by the Tutsis. As a result, the shooting down of the president’s plane is also seen as the prompt for the now infamous massacre of hundreds of thousands of civilians – mostly Rwandan Tutsis.

But up until recently, precisely which side in the conflict was responsible for bringing down the president’s plane has been shrouded in doubt. That looked set to change this January when the key findings of a four-year-long expert investigation, commissioned by French judges Marc Trévidic and Nathalie Poux, were released to the world’s media.

Misreporting the truth

The Trévidic report points to the most likely area from which the missiles that brought down the plane were fired. Because this area includes a military barracks of the Rwandan army, the report infers that the culprits were most probably from the Hutu, government side and not the Tutsi-dominated RPF. This would appear to vindicate what may be termed the ‘official version’ of the Rwandan genocide, which holds that the plane shooting was the opening move by Hutu extremists in their carefully planned genocide of Rwanda’s Tutsi population.

No sooner had the Trévidic report been issued than sensational news reports went around the world stating that the matter was now settled. It seemed that the charge that the attack was made on the orders of President Kagame, who led the RPF’s war against the Rwandan government and has been Rwanda’s strongman ever since, had finally been shown to be false.

Little wonder that the current Rwandan government was on cue to say ‘we told you so’. Foreign minister and government spokesperson Louise Mushikiwabo claimed that ‘with this scientific truth, judges Trévidic and Poux have slammed shut the door on the 17-year campaign to deny the genocide or blame its victims. It is now clear to all that the downing of the plane was a coup d’état carried by extremist Hutu elements and their advisers who controlled Kanombe barracks.’ In Britain, journalist Linda Melvern declared in the Guardian that ‘after 18 years [the Trévidic report] has essentially settled the central question of who was morally responsible for triggering the genocide’.

Pointing the finger at Hutu extremists may well be the intention of those involved in the production of the report. But the report itself does not actually support the claims being made of it. Principally, it does not identify those who fired the missiles. And nor was it meant to.

Trévidic and Poux commissioned a team of technical experts in explosives, arms, aviation, acoustics, as well as a surveyor to determine the logistics of the plane shooting. What Claudine Oosterlinck, Daniel van Schendel, Jean Huon, Jean Sompayrac and Olivier Chavan – the commissioned experts – produced was a report over 300-pages long which took almost four hours to introduce at the press conference (1). The report is premised on four certainties about the missile attack:

  1. The aircraft was shot down by a portable SAM 16 missile made in the former Soviet Union.
  2. Two missiles were fired: the first missed and the second hit the plane.
  3. The reactors of the aircraft were not affected by the missiles and remained intact.
  4. The left wing of the aircraft was hit.

These certainties formed the basis of an investigation into the most likely site from which the missiles were fired.

Take the fact that two Belgian military doctors and their wives were resident in a house in the Kanombe area near the Rwandan Army’s military barracks when they heard the whistle of the missiles. The investigators used their testimonies and the ‘four certainties’ to ask experts in military acoustics to work out the likely launch sites. The investigators were mindful of testimonies that had already been submitted to Trévidic and Poux from RPF dissidents that give detailed accounts of RPF members firing the missiles from Masaka Farm, on a hillside facing Kigali airport.

As the plane prepared to land, it passed Masaka hill on its right, and flew in the direction of Kanombe, which lay ahead beyond the end of the runway. Directly ahead and slightly to the plane’s left were the Kanombe military barracks, and ahead and slightly to its right was the Kanombe residential area, which included the house where the witness resided. The investigators established six possible missile launch sites: two sites in the Masaka area – the tower and the Farm; three sites in the Kanombe area – the intersection of roads near the witnesses’ house, the cemetery, and the area below the cemetery (which extends into the Masaka area); and the Piggery – located near President Habyarimana’s residence.

They ruled out the Masaka area for two reasons:

Firstly, from the findings of the acoustic investigation, the witnesses could neither have heard the two missiles separately, nor have done so before hearing the sound of the plane exploding, if the missiles had been fired from Masaka, three kilometers away. Secondly, the experts established that if the missiles had been fired from Masaka they would have hit the plane’s engine and not its left wing. However, in presenting this section of the report, the aviation expert said that she could not be categorical on this point because it is possible that the pilots changed the trajectory of the aircraft in response to seeing the first missile that missed them.

The first finding, from the acoustic investigation, is based on a curious overlap between the Trévidic report and the Mutsinzi report, which was an investigation into the likely perpetrators of the missile attack published by the Rwandan government in April 2009. Promoted as an impartial, independent investigation, the Mutsinzi report was in fact conducted by commissioners who were all members of the RPF. Its bias and presentation of ‘unsubstantiated hypotheses or even downright untruths as facts’ have been well exposed by Professor Filip Reyntjens (2). The Mutsinzi report uses the same witnesses who were resident in Kanombe who heard the missiles. However, these witnesses also testified to a Belgian hearing, and Reyntjens shows that their testimonies are distorted in the Mutsinzi report. One of the witnesses, Dr Massimo Pasuch, reported hearing a ‘blast noise’ but did not see the launch of the missiles. Pasuch confirmed the declaration of Major Daubresse, who was with him at the time. Daubresse ‘saw the missiles move toward the plane from right to left, at a distance of maximum five kilometres and of minimum one kilometre’, which places the launch outside of Kanombe camp and in the direction of Masaka hill (3). The omission of the reference to Masaka hill is replicated in the acoustic report, which goes on to specifically rule out the Masaka area!

A close reading of the acoustic expert’s report further undermines its credibility. The investigators did not use SAM-16s to simulate the sound effects, but used 25H rockets instead (4). More tellingly, they state that ‘the effect of noise absorption by the soil or by the topology of the land, the effect of any other noise present at the time, and also of the ambient noise level when the tests were conducted, cannot be assessed with certainty’. This is not a surprise, since the tests were not conducted at any of the six possible sites mentioned, but in the grounds of weapons manufacturers TDS Armaments SAS, at La Ferté Saint-Aubin in north-central France (5).

So what exactly does the entire expert report tell us? Certainties one and two – that Soviet Union-manufactured SAM missiles were used, two were fired, the first missed and the second brought down the plane – corroborate the testimony of RPF dissidents cited in the November 2006 report of French judge Jean-Louis Bruguière. (Bruguière had been asked to investigate the circumstances of the plane shooting by relatives of the deceased French pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer.) The RPF dissidents’ testimony goes on to detail how the missiles were brought to the site at Masaka, and names the two individuals who fired the missiles. So these certainties were already established.

Certainty three: The reactors of the aircraft were not affected by the missiles and remained intact, and certainty four, that the left wing of the aircraft was hit. It is these two bits of information that were used for the technical investigation to determine the most likely missile launch site. And with their ‘scientific’ methodology, the investigators go on to name Kanombe as the most likely area. Which is, coincidentally, the same conclusion reached by the Mutsinzi report.

Kanombe is a region next to the airport that includes a military barracks, a number of houses, roads, a cemetery and a piggery. Even if we were to accept that Kanombe is the likely area of the launch site, this does not pinpoint the Kanombe barracks. The report itself states that it does not exclude a larger zone a hundred metres or more to the south or to the west of the barracks. So, what could generously be termed an ‘educated guess’ points to an area that includes Kanombe barracks. This does not state that the missiles were fired from the barracks and therefore could only have been the work of the Rwandan military.

Furthermore, Reyntjens also points out ‘the inherent absurdity of the FAR [Rwandan Army] launching the missiles from Kanombe camp, which would have pointed to themselves as perpetrators of the attack, while they could have used other, more discreet sites that would not have aroused that suspicion’ (6).

Attempting to legitimate the RPF narrative

Yet none of this seems to have been allowed to get in the way of a good story. According to Linda Melvern ‘… 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.’

This is nonsense. Apart from misrepresenting the report, Melvern is wrong about Kanombe camp. In 1994 it was not the home of the Rwandan presidential guard; it was instead occupied by UNAMIR, that is, the military forces of the United Nations mission. Not only had UNAMIR conducted an inventory of all weapons at the barracks and locked them up in an arsenal, it also ensured that the Rwandan military was disarmed on entering the barracks. On the evening in question, the presidential guard, meanwhile, were at their base at Kacyiru, near the parliament building in Kigali that was used by stationed RPF forces (7).

Those who have tried to use the Trévidic report to exonerate the RPF are clutching at straws, or rather, whistling in the wind. In fact, Kagame and his journalist friends come across as little short of desperate. How can such a shoddy report form the basis for claims about the ‘moral responsibility for the genocide’?

The background and wider context of the Trévidic and Poux investigation shows just how much is at stake.

The effort to establish the truth about who shot down the plane and why has been fraught with political and legal difficulties. But there is universal consensus on one point: the plane shooting and the resultant death of President Habyarimana was the most important stimulus to the carnage that followed. Not long after all 12 occupants of the plane had been killed, Rwanda turned into a slaughterhouse. Over the next three months hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were shot, beaten and hacked to death. Establishing the identity of the president’s missile-firing assailants would help to establish a causal explanation for this mass slaughter.

There are two contending narratives about Rwanda’s trauma:

The RPF narrative holds that Hutu extremists felt that Habyarimana had given too much away in the negotiations with the RPF at Arusha in Tanzania, and had organised a genocide of Rwandan Tutsis in order permanently to secure Hutu domination of Rwandan society. Accordingly, they planned the assassination of the president in order to give the signal for the genocide to commence. Though they succeeded in committing mass slaughter, they were defeated by the RPF when its army swept Kagame to power three months later. The RPF is to be credited for stopping the genocide when the outside world refused to get involved. France is the worst culprit because it gave military assistance to the side that committed the genocide.

The second, counter-narrative, holds that it was the RPF’s war, beginning with an invasion from Uganda in October 1990, which generated ethnic hostilities and created the conditions that made mass killings of civilians almost inevitable, since the RPF was an overwhelmingly Tutsi organisation terrorising the rural population – 85 per cent Hutu – off their land and into internal displacement camps. While the RPF had come off best in the negotiations at Arusha, they faced the prospect of certain defeat in the elections scheduled by the Arusha Accords, and could not countenance the prospect of being downsized from the dominant military power to a small minority party. Assassinating Rwanda’s most popular political leader at a time of unprecedented social tension would certainly push Rwanda over its tipping point and into mass killings. This would give the RPF the excuse it needed to resume its war and seize power. Generating an international consensus that the killings were the result of a Hutu extremist-controlled genocide provided the legitimacy they needed to assume power by force of arms.

The former, RPF narrative continues to this day to be supported by the US government and by Human Rights Watch, arguably America’s most influential human-rights organisation. It also received widespread endorsement in the Western media since most journalists covering the war entered Rwanda from Uganda and got the RPF line first. They were carefully kept away from RPF massacre sites, such as those which left tens of thousands of bodies to flow down the Kagera River toward Lake Victoria. Instead, witnessing the results of massacres conducted by the Hutu militia, which were arguably greater during that period in any event, and in which Tutsi civilians were specifically targeted, made the Hutu extremist conspiracy theory seem credible to Western observers. Concerted efforts by the US and Britain to provide military, financial and diplomatic backing to the new RPF-controlled government transformed the RPF narrative into the dominant one of the day.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, also in Arusha, Tanzania, was supposed to establish the truth about the carnage and bring to book those most responsible for it. Yet, since only Hutus have been tried and the most influential expert witness for the prosecution, the late Alison Des Forges, was unswervingly committed to the RPF narrative, the tribunal appears to have been designed to provide victors’ justice and to write the RPF narrative into international law. This becomes more obvious when one considers the efforts that its sponsors, the American government, have made to silence those who have tried to provide evidence in support of the counter-narrative.

The role of President Kagame

I have covered the role of the US in previous articles. Briefly, it began with the suppression of the findings of the UN’s own investigators who obtained detailed testimonies stating that President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down on the orders of Kagame. The chief prosecutor of the day ordered the investigators to terminate their work and not to publish their findings. When a subsequent chief prosecutor indicated her resolve to reopen investigations into allegations of RPF crimes, she was promptly relieved of her post. One judge after another has ruled that the circumstances of the plane shooting in particular are not relevant to their particular case. In this manner, the analysis of Des Forges went largely unchallenged. At the same time, the RPF narrative became modified to state that those responsible for the plane shooting may never be known, but that its timing coincided with the start of the Hutu extremists’ genocide plan.

The situation changed dramatically with the publication of the report of judge Jean-Louis Bruguière. Bruguière had been asked by the families of the French pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer who died in the missile attack to investigate those responsible for their deaths. Bruguière heard testimonies from Rwandans and Western officials. Testifying RPF dissidents had inside knowledge of the affair, and produced a wealth of detail. The report pointed to Kagame as the person who ordered the attack prior to commencing his well-prepared military campaign for power.

Lawyers for the defence in the big ‘Military I’ trial of Colonel Théoniste Bagasora, Colonel Anatole Nsengiyumva, General Gratien Kabiligi and Major Aloys Ntabakuze succeeded in obtaining a landmark ruling which forced the evidence supporting the counter-narrative into the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in December 2008. These so-called architects of the genocide were all found not guilty of the specific charge of conspiracy to commit genocide, based on the Chamber’s ruling that their actions prior to 6 April 1994 were based on war-time conditions, not planning to kill civilians or carry out a genocide against Tutsi Rwandans.

The lawyers’ success owed to their ability to force the court to accept the Bruguière report as admissible evidence. This report contains testimonies from RPF defectors like Jean-Pierre Mugabe, Aloys Ruyenzi and Abdul Ruzibiza. The Military I ruling has done more than anything else to discredit the RPF narrative.

Aloys Ruyenzi joined Kagame’s escort as a bodyguard in 1992. He testified to Bruguière in March 2004. Two years later, I interviewed him in Paris. He reaffirmed his statements, in particular about the meeting which took place at the RPF’s headquarters in Mulindi. On 31 March 1994, from 2.30pm to 3.30pm, there was a meeting between Major General Paul Kagame and his officers: Colonel K Nyamwasa, Colonel Théoniste Lizinde, Lt Colonel James Kabarebe, Major Jacob Tumwine, and Captain C Karamba. Ruyenzi saw Colonel Lizinde give Kagame a map of the selected site for the shooting down of President Habyarimana’s plane (8).

A section of Bruguière’s report is worth citing:

    ‘That as to these missile-launchers, Abdul Ruzibiza stated that while he was at the RPF headquarters in Mulindi he learned that the SAMs, which had come from the Ugandan arsenal in the beginning of January 1994, had been introduced into the CND [the RPF’s base] in Kigali hidden on board a Mercedes truck transporting firewood; and, he added, that he had heard of talk about a training programme in Uganda in January 1993 for RPA personnel, which included enlisted men Eric Hakizimana, Stevens Twagira and Andrews Nyavumba, all members of the ‘Missiles Section’ under the command of Lt, Alphonse Kayumba and his adjutant Lt, Franck Nziza; and that, in discussing the final stage of operation, he went on to state that, knowing the approximate time of arrival of the president’s flight and identifying the Falcon 50 by its characteristic engine noise, Eric Hakizimana fired the first missile, which missed the target, and that it was the second missile fired by Franck Nziza that hit the plane and caused it to explode in flight; and he added that at the end of this operation the hit-team fled, leaving the two empty missile-launcher tubes behind; and that furthermore, Abdul Ruzibiza learned that around 5.30 pm, Lt-Col. Charles Kayonga received a call from Paul Kagame alerting him to the return of the president’s plane and that he must not miss the operation, and that at the moment of the attack, Charles Kayonga, who was posted on the top floor of the CND, saw the plane explode; and that Paul Kagame, informed of the success of the operation by Lt-Col, James Kabarebe, immediately ordered the RPA units to move out…’

Jean-Baptiste Mberabahizi was with Kagame in Mulindi when the news of the success of the operation was received. Kagame immediately ordered the troops to move. The war had recommenced (9).

It’s also worth pointing out that the Rwandan army never possessed anti-aircraft weapons, nor did they have anyone trained to use them. Since the RPF had no aircraft, there was no need for them. The RPF, on the other hand, had already used missiles to bring down aircraft on four occasions prior to the attack upon Habyarimana’s plane. The first had brought down a Britten Islander BN2 reconnaissance plane on 7 October 1990, during the RPF’s invasion from Uganda. Pilot Major Ruterana and co-pilot Captain Anatole Hayugimana were killed. The second brought down a ‘Gazelle’ helicopter at Murambi commune on 22 October 1990. Pilot Commander Jacques Kanyamibwa survived and now lives in France, while co-pilot J Tuyilingire was killed. The third hit a Fokker F-27 on 10 September 1991, forcing it to crash land in Goma, former Zaire. The fourth brought down another helicopter in February 1993, in Butaro commune, killing the pilot, Captain Silas Hategekimana.

After the defence lawyers in the ‘Military I’ trial had closed their evidence in June 2007, Interpol warrants were issued for the RPF leadership. President Paul Kagame was named in two European indictments for the assassination of Habyarimana as well as then President Ntaryamira of Burundi (who also died in the plane crash, having at the last minute asked to be given a lift in Habyarimana’s plane).

Rwanda: an international affair

But there is another twist in the story which has to do with great power politics. French president Nicolas Sarkozy has prioritised a rapprochement between France and the United States. This dictated a change in French policy towards Africa. When Sarkozy stopped off in Kigali to mend bridges with Kagame, he was told to do something about Bruguière’s indictments. Sarkozy promised to look again at the evidence surrounding the plane shooting. The result was the Trevidic and Poux investigation, and then the major press release that reaffirms the Mutsinzi report.

The problem for Kagame, and his Western-endorsed narrative, is that Bruguière’s testimonies continue to be corroborated by a continual stream of high-profile defectors from Kigali. Twisting France’s arm to whitewash an investigation is a tame response, however, when one counts the number of dissident voices that are being physically silenced. Key officials with inside knowledge, like Seth Sendashonga and Théoneste Lizinde, were assassinated in Kenya in 1998 (11). In June 2010, Lt-General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, who was witnessed by Aloys Ruyenzi in the room with Kagame when the plans to shoot down the plane were made, and who had since defected to South Africa, was shot at close quarters but survived. South African officials foiled a second attempt on Nyamwasa while he was hospitalised. There are Rwandans currently on trial for these assassination attempts.

On 1 October last year, the most senior-ranking RPF official to date, Theogene Rudasingwa, made a confession that he had been told in July 1994 by Kagame himself that he – Kagame – was responsible for shooting down the plane. Rudasingwa had the rank of major and went on to be trusted with Kagame’s most important job as Rwanda’s ambassador to Washington. ‘Like many others in the RPF leadership, I enthusiastically sold this deceptive storyline, especially to foreigners who by and large came to believe it, even when I knew that Kagame was the culprit in this crime.’

The late President Habyarimana’s own son saw his father’s last moments for himself. Jean-Luc Habyarimana had just emerged from the family swimming pool with two of his cousins when they heard the sound of the plane and stayed in the garden to watch the landing. They saw the assault from start to finish: the missiles streaking up toward the plane, the ensuing fireball, and then the fragments of the plane and the remains of its passengers landing within metres of where they stood. They spent until dawn undertaking the gruesome task of collecting body parts. Within half an hour of the missile attack, they were fired upon by the RPF from nearby Ndera hill. The search was conducted during gun fights between the RPF and members of the presidential guard who had been stationed to protect the property. Jean-Luc is certain that the missiles came from the direction of Masaka, and that the plane abruptly changed course after the first missile had missed it (12).

Jean-Luc and RPF dissidents like Rudasingwa are now determined to make Trévidic listen to them, despite the risk to their lives in doing so.

Just as Kagame needs death squads to silence his opponents, so Washington and London – and now Paris – need to keep Kagame in office. They know that if Kagame falls, all the certainties surrounding the genocide in Rwanda that are trotted out to justify the Western record in central Africa will fall with them. And the extent of their complicity in the RPF’s war and atrocities will no longer be shrouded in the mist of disinformation. This is why we have an extraordinary set of affairs where British foreign aid directly funds the budget of the government of Rwanda, and at the same time Scotland Yard informs Rwandans resident in London that they have credible intelligence that indicates that their lives are in danger from… the very same government (13).

Trévidic and Poux will need to come up with more convincing material if they are going to rescue the ‘official version’ of Rwanda’s tragedy.

Barrie Collins is a writer on African affairs and author of Obedience in Rwanda: A Critical Question published by Sheffield Hallam University Press, 1998; and The Rwandan War 1990-1994: Interrogating the Dominant Narrative (PhD thesis), School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 2009.

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