Tragedy in Rwanda continues to unfold

January 20, 1998|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- The rumors were right. A devastating series of articles just published in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro documents French official implication in the genocide committed Rwanda in 1994.

Le Figaro quotes the testimony of aid workers, officials and soldiers, together with evidence acquired by the United Nations in Rwanda, and by a comprehensive Belgian parliamentary investigation whose damning results were published last month. Belgium is Rwanda's former colonial power.)

Covert operation

The newspaper says French forces took an active but secret part in fighting rebel Tutsi infiltration of Rwanda from 1992 forward, operating at front-line level. They were present during the 1994 genocide and did not intervene. They helped the authors of genocide to escape.

The Tutsi invasion of Rwanda began in 1990, launched from English-speaking Uganda, and supported by the Ugandan government. It was an attempt by this ethnic minority (some 10 percent of the Rwandan population) to reconquer a country it had ruled for the better part of the last two centuries. Most Tutsi leaders had been driven into exile during the 1960s and 1970s.

The Hutus' numerical predominance in Rwanda and presumed democratic legitimacy are why France originally backed them against the invaders. But France was also motivated by what the newspaper calls the ''Fashoda syndrome'' -- former French President Francois Mitterrand's conviction that the Tutsi invasion was part of an effort by the United States to end French influence in Africa.

(In 1898, France and Britain came close to war over control of the upper Nile region, when French and British expeditions confronted one another at the town of Fashoda, in what now is southern Sudan.)

'A final solution'

Murders of Tutsi civilians began in early 1992. Belgian intelligence reported the existence of a secret Hutu government command charged with ''exterminating the Tutsis of Rwanda in order to make a final solution to the ethnic problem, and also to crush the [moderate] Hutu political opposition.''

Western ambassadors in Rwanda made a joint protest to the Rwandan government in 1992 about these killings. The French ambassador refused to take part, saying the reports of mass murder were ''only rumors.''

At roughly that same time, the Ugandan-based leader of the Tutsis visited Paris, and was told at the Foreign Ministry that unless the invasion stopped, ''your brothers and families will all be massacred.''

In February 1993, an international commission denounced ''acts of genocide'' in Rwanda. Mr. Mitterrand remarked to an associate the next summer, ''in countries like that, a genocide is not very important.''

The genocide proper began April 6, 1994. Between then and July, more than a million Tutsi citizens of Rwanda were slaughtered by their Hutu fellow citizens, encouraged in this terrifying campaign by their government.

France's collaboration with the Hutu authorities continued for at least another month. There was a delivery of arms by way of Goma, Zaire, as late as July 18, long after a U.N. embargo had ordered a halt to arms shipments.

Military intervention

A French military intervention was launched at the end of June. It was announced as a humanitarian mission but actually covered the retreat into Zaire of Hutu soldiers, militias and the officials responsible for the massacres -- including those responsible for the fanatical ethnic propaganda that had incited genocide.

This policy of supporting the authors of genocide was chiefly the responsibility of Mr. Mitterrand, who under the French constitution was, as president, the ultimate authority in matters of foreign policy.

It was carried out, and subsequently covered up, by successive conservative and Socialist governments, including the Socialist government now in power in Paris.

Today, in Bordeaux, in southwestern France, the trial continues of Maurice Papon, an official of the wartime Vichy regime, who is accused of crimes against humanity for having collaborated in Vichy's handing over of foreign and French Jews for extermination by Nazi Germany. His defense is that as a civil servant he obeyed orders, and had little personal latitude to resist.

France recently also celebrated the centenary of Emile Zola's famous article ''J'accuse!'' denouncing the gross injustice done to Col. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer falsely accused of espionage and condemned to life imprisonment on Devil's Island. Zola was forced into exile by that article, but Dreyfus was later vindicated.

Le Figaro writes that there is much bitterness in the French army today because of the role it was ordered to play in the Rwandan genocide. It quotes an internal army document which speaks of soldiers who ''cracked, not because of the corpses and violence and hunting down of victims but because of a sense of guilt.''

There has been no open polemic, thanks to military discipline and esprit de corps, as well as ingrained cynicism about politicians. The soldiers have been silent in public, although the articles in Le Figaro clearly draw on private confidences.

The army has been abandoned before by French governments, left with terrifying responsibilities for crimes committed by political leaders. It must nonetheless recognize the irony in the coincidence of these revelations with the Papon trial and with Zola's great cry for justice.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/20/98

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