‘Never again’: Rwanda and the West

7 May 2014 | ResolutionPossible

Our series on Rwanda continues.

In 1990 the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) began military operations against the ruling Habyarimana regime in Rwanda, sparking a civil war that would last until 1994.  The RPF’s victory ended the mass killings of Tutsi and moderate Hutu which took place between April and July of 1994.  The political, social, economic and security environments were in tatters when the RPF took control of Rwanda, and the party often employed brutal tactics when building up their leadership.

To understand the RPF’s approach it is helpful to view it from both the foreign and the domestic fronts.  In the first of a two-part look at the RPF, we focus on foreign military and humanitarian responses in the aftermath of the violence in 1994.

Hutu militia refugees

Hutu refugees at the Magunga Camp, Goma, Zaire, August, 1994. [Photography – Jean-Claude Coutausse]

Perhaps one of the biggest issues surrounding the RPF victory in Rwanda was the refugee flow into neighbouring countries.  The numbers are truly staggering.  In 1994, immediately after the mass killings, 35 refugee camps were established in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), holding no fewer than 1.2 million Rwandans, mostly Hutu.  Over 40,000 of these refugees were ex-Forces Armées Rwandaises (FAR) and Interahamwe génocidaires – those responsible for ground-level implementation of the mass killings.

The ex-FAR and Interahamwe militia were able to gain strength and regroup outside of Rwanda for a number of reasons:

This support led to a very organized structure of the camps, which operated much like a city would, encompassing not only a central government-in-exile, but, as in the case of Goma: “2,324 bars, 450restaurants, 589 shops of various kinds, 62 hairdressers, 51 pharmacies, 30 tailors, 25 butchers, five ironsmiths and mechanics, four photographic studios, three cinemas, two hotels… and one slaughterhouse”.

However, perhaps the biggest support came from Western aid organisations. Their mass involvement turned this complex humanitarian issue into a competitive marketing opportunity, and became one of the humanitarian sector’s greatest mistakes.

Humanitarian aid

While the RPF was struggling to rebuild a country stripped of its resources – both material and human – the aid sector pumped money into the refugee camps in Zaire, essentially neglecting the need in Rwanda.  Between 1994 and 1996 a total of $2.036 billion was spent on Zaire-based refugees, compare to only $897 million spent in Rwanda. With two million refugees and five million people still remaining in war-ravished Rwanda, the aid allocation was highly illogical.  It meant that those living in Rwanda – a country left in ruins – were living on $0.49 per capita per day, while the refugees were living on $1.49 per capita per day. This refugee aid also bolstered the military capacity of the ex-FAR and the Interahamwe, leading to numerous cross-border attacks and massacres in Rwanda, after the most infamous and cited period of violence.  It would seem the international community had turned its back on Rwanda, not once, but twice.

RPF response

Given the threat posed by the camps in Zaire, their international humanitarian support, and the lack of consideration given to those left struggling in Rwanda, the RPF took matters into their own hands.  The RPF’s history is steeped in violent action against past dictators in Uganda, and violent action had brought (in their minds) a successful result in the political takeover of Rwanda.  It’s no surprise that they chose a similar solution to the refugee problem. However, the RPF did not just aim at the ex-FAR and the Interahamwe, they “rounded up hundreds of men, women and children at a time and butchered them with hoes and axes… Hutu refugees were bayoneted, burned alive or killed with hammer blows in large numbers.”

US and UN influence

Western countries were outspoken in their remorse and guilt for doing nothing during the mass killings in Rwanda, and it was thought that condemning the RPF for crimes against humanity would cause the West to be seen as partial to the génocidaires.  And so the West stood by once more as the violence came full circle.

Fort Bragg, RPF, Rwanda, genocide

Fort Bragg entrance in North Carolina, USA. RPF troops received specialised, US training at the fort. [Image – Blashfield Sign Company, author Fish Cop, 2004]

The US and the UN did not just ignore Rwanda’s violent actions in the refugee camps, they provided logistical and material military assistance to the RPF.  Military hardware and vehicles were given as a gift to Rwanda by the UN in the form of past UNAMIR equipment. The US, on the other hand, gave specialised military training to RPF troops at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  Air strikes and other attack options were also discussed at length between the US and the RPF.

The RPF’s actions outside of Rwanda after the mass killings were brutal but hardly surprising.  The actions (and inactions) of the global community, in particular the West, had devastating effects on the region – some of which are still being felt today.

Our next piece will look at the RPF’s domestic response in the aftermath.  As we will see, the West continued to influence the outcome.

ResPoss Asks:

  • Should governments who turned a blind eye during the first massacres of 1994 and then provided illogical and ill-conceived support to the RPF victors be held accountable? How? Could, or should the outcomes have been predicted at the time?
  • Think about your country’s arms deals and military support. What, or who, is behind that support? What are the implications?
  • When you donate money, do you know where it is going?
  • Is it possible to intervene positively in foreign crises without taking sides? If not, how do you decide as an outsider which side to support, given that most of our understanding will be superficial and lack nuanced context and hindsight?

Contributing writer/research: Eric Bell

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