Rwandan president Paul Kagame receiving the Pearl of Africa Medal from Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, Kapchorwa District, Uganda, 2012
During the 1990s, unprecedented violence erupted in Central Africa. In Sudan, the civil war intensified; in Rwanda, there was genocide; in Congo millions died in a conflict that simmers to this day; and in Uganda, millions more were caught between a heartless warlord and an even more heartless military counterinsurgency.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Although the US had for decades backed dictatorships and right-wing rebels across the continent, George H.W. Bush had declared in his 1989 inaugural speech that “a new breeze [was] blowing…. For in man’s heart, if not in fact, the day of the dictator is over. The totalitarian era is passing…. Great nations of the world are moving toward democracy through the door to freedom.”
Bush and his successors supported peace on much of the African continent by funding democracy promotion programs and sanctioning, or threatening to sanction, South Africa and other countries if their leaders didn’t allow multiparty elections and free political prisoners. But in Uganda, Ethiopia, and a small number of other countries, the Bush and Clinton administrations lavished development and military aid on dictators who in turn funneled weapons to insurgents in Sudan, Rwanda, and Congo. In this way, Washington helped stoke the interlinked disasters that have claimed millions of lives since the late 1980s and still roil much of eastern and central Africa today. The complicity of the US in those disasters has not yet been sufficiently exposed, but Judi Rever’s In Praise of Blood explores how Washington helped obscure the full story of the genocide that devastated Rwanda during the 1990s and cover up the crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which has ruled the country ever since.
The familiar story about the Rwandan genocide begins in April 1994, when Hutu militias killed hundreds of thousands of Tutsis, mostly with machetes and other simple weapons. The RPF, a Tutsi-dominated rebel army, advanced through the mayhem and finally brought peace to the country in July. The RPF’s leader, Paul Kagame, eventually became president of Rwanda and remains in power today. He has overseen a technocratic economic revival, the installation of one of the best information technology networks in Africa, and a sharp decline in maternal and child mortality. Political dissent is suppressed, many of Kagame’s critics are in jail, and some have even been killed—but his Western admirers tend to overlook this. Bill Clinton has praised Kagame as “one of the greatest leaders of our time,” and Tony Blair’s nonprofit Institute for Global Change continues to advise and support his government.
Over the years, less valiant portraits of Kagame and the RPF have appeared in academic monographs and self-published accounts by Western and Rwandan academics, journalists, and independent researchers, including Filip Reyntjens, André Guichaoua, Edward Herman, Robin Philpot, David Himbara, Gérard Prunier, Barrie Collins, and the BBC’s Jane Corbin. Taken together, they suggest that the RPF actually provoked the war that led to the genocide of the Tutsis and committed mass killings of Hutus before, during, and after it. In Praise of Blood is the most accessible and up-to-date of these studies.
Rever’s account begins in October 1990, when several thousand RPF fighters invaded Rwanda from neighboring Uganda. The RPF was made up of refugees born to Rwandan parents who fled anti-Tutsi pogroms during the early 1960s and were determined to go home. Its leaders, including Kagame, had fought alongside Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni in the war that brought him to power in 1986. They’d then been appointed to senior Ugandan army positions—Kagame was Museveni’s chief of military intelligence in the late 1980s—which they deserted when they invaded Rwanda.
In August 1990, two months before the RPF invasion, the Hutu-dominated Rwandan government had actually agreed, in principle, to allow the refugees to return. The decision had been taken under enormous international pressure, the details were vague, and the process would likely have dragged on, or not occurred at all. But the RPFinvasion preempted a potentially peaceful solution to the refugee conundrum. For three and a half years, the rebels occupied a large swath of northern Rwanda while the Ugandan army supplied them with weapons, in violation of the UN Charter and Organization of African Unity rules. Washington knew what was going on but did nothing to stop it. On the contrary, US foreign aid to Uganda doubled in the years after the invasion, and in 1991, Uganda purchased ten times more US weapons than in the preceding forty years combined.
During the occupation, roughly a million Hutu peasants fled RPF-controlled areas, citing killings, abductions, and other crimes. An Italian missionary working in the area at the time told Rever that the RPF laid landmines around springs that blew up children, and invaded a hospital in a town called Nyarurema and shot nine patients dead. According to Alphonse Furuma, one of the founders of the RPF, the purpose was to clear the area, steal animals, take over farms, and, presumably, scare away anyone who might think of protesting. The Ugandan army, which trained the RPF, had used similar tactics against its own Acholi people during the 1980s and 1990s, so these accounts seem plausible.
At least one American was angry about the RPF invasion. US ambassador to Rwanda Robert Flaten witnessed how it sent shock waves throughout the country, whose majority-Hutu population had long feared a Tutsi attack from Uganda. Flaten urged the Bush administration to impose sanctions on Uganda for supplying the RPF, noting that Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait only two months earlier and been met with near-universal condemnation, a UN Security Council demand that he withdraw, and a US military assault.
By contrast, the Bush administration, which was then supplying most of Uganda’s budget through foreign aid, treated the RPF invasion of Rwanda with nonchalance. When it took place, Museveni happened to be visiting the US. He assured State Department officials that he’d known nothing about it, and promised to prevent weapons from crossing the border and court-martial any defectors who attempted to return to Uganda. He then did neither, with the apparent approval of US diplomats. In 1991 and 1992 US officials met RPF leaders inside Uganda and monitored the flow of weapons across the border, but made no effort to stop it, even when the Rwandan government and its French allies complained.
Years later, Bush’s assistant secretary of state for Africa Herman Cohen expressed regret for failing to pressure Museveni to stop supporting the RPF, but by then it was too late. At the time, Cohen maintained that the US feared that sanctions might harm Uganda’s robust economic growth. But he hasn’t explained why Washington allowed the RPF—by invading Rwanda—to ruin that country’s economy, which had previously been similarly robust. Robert Gribbin, a diplomat then stationed at the US embassy in Kampala, has claimed that sanctions weren’t considered because they might have interfered with Uganda’s “nascent democratic initiatives,” without mentioning that Museveni’s security forces were torturing and jailing members of Uganda’s nonviolent opposition and also pursuing a brutal counterinsurgency in northern Uganda that would claim hundreds of thousands of Ugandan lives.
The UN may also have turned a blind eye to Museveni and Kagame’s schemes. In October 1993 a contingent of UN peacekeepers was deployed to help implement a peace agreement between the RPF and the Rwandan government. One of its mandates was to ensure that weapons, personnel, and supplies didn’t cross into Rwanda from Uganda. But when the peacekeepers’ commander, Canadian general Roméo Dallaire, visited the Ugandan border town of Kabale, a Ugandan officer told him that his peacekeepers would have to provide twelve hours’ notice so that escorts could be arranged to accompany them on patrols. Dallaire protested, since the element of surprise is crucial for such monitoring missions. The Ugandans stood their ground, and also refused to allow Dallaire to inspect an arsenal in Mbarara, a Ugandan town about eighty miles from the Rwandan border, which was rumored to be supplying the RPF.
Dallaire has not said whether he brought Uganda’s obstruction to the attention of the Security Council, and he didn’t respond to my interview requests. But in 2004 he told a US congressional hearing that Museveni laughed in his face when they met at a gathering to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the genocide. “I remember that UN mission on the border,” Dallaire said Museveni had told him. “We maneuvered ways to get around it, and of course we did support the movement [i.e., the RPF invasion].”
The likely reasons why Washington and the UN apparently decided to go easy on Uganda and the RPF will be explored in the second part of this article. But for Rwanda’s President Juvénal Habyarimana and his circle of Hutu elites, the invasion seems to have had a silver lining. For years, tensions between Hutus and Tutsis inside Rwanda had been subsiding. Habyarimana had sought reconciliation with Tutsis living in Rwanda—so-called internal Tutsis—by reserving civil service jobs and university places for them in proportion to their share of the population. Though desultory, this program was modestly successful, and the greatest rift in the country was between the relatively small Hutu clique around Habyarimana and the millions of impoverished Hutu peasants whom they exploited as brutally as had the Tutsi overlords of bygone days. While the elites fattened themselves on World Bank “anti-poverty” projects that created lucrative administrative jobs and other perks but did little to alleviate poverty, they continued to subject the Hutu poor to forced labor and other abuses.
Habyarimana, like the leaders of Malawi, Ghana, Zambia, and other countries, was under pressure from the US and other donors to allow opposition parties to operate. Many of these new parties were ethnically mixed, with both Hutu and Tutsi leaders, but they were united in criticizing Habyarimana’s autocratic behavior and nepotism and the vast economic inequalities in the country.
The RPF invasion seems to have provided Habyarimana and his circle with a political opportunity: now they could distract the disaffected Hutu masses from their own abuses by reawakening fears of the “demon Tutsis.” Shortly after the invasion, Hutu elites devised a genocidal propaganda campaign that would bear hideous fruit three and a half years later. Chauvinist Hutu newspapers, magazines, and radio programs reminded readers that Hutus were the original occupants of the Great Lakes region and that Tutsis were Nilotics—supposedly warlike pastoralists from Ethiopia who had conquered and enslaved Hutus in the seventeenth century. The RPF invasion, they claimed, was nothing more than a plot by Museveni, Kagame, and their Tutsi coconspirators to reestablish this evil Nilotic empire. Cartoons of Tutsis killing Hutus began appearing in magazines, along with warnings that all Tutsis were RPF spies bent on dragging the country back to the days when the Tutsi queen supposedly rose from her seat supported by swords driven between the shoulders of Hutu children.
In February 1993 an RPF offensive killed hundreds, perhaps thousands of Hutus in the northern prefectures of Byumba and Ruhengeri, further inflaming anti-Tutsi sentiment. At the time, the Organization of African Unity was overseeing peace negotiations between the RPF and the government, but the process was fraught. Habyarimana knew the RPF was better armed, trained, and disciplined than his own army, so under immense international pressure he agreed in August 1993 to a peace accord that would grant the RPF seats in a transitional government and nearly half of all posts in the army.
Even Tutsis inside Rwanda were against giving the RPF so much power because they knew it would provoke the angry, fearful Hutus to rebel, and they were right. Hutu mayors and other local officials were already stockpiling rifles, and government-linked anti-Tutsi militia groups (including the notorious Interahamwe) were distributing machetes and kerosene to prospective génocidaires. In December 1993, a picture of a machete appeared on the front page of one Hutu-chauvinist publication under the headline “What Weapons Can We Use to Defeat the Inyenzi [Tutsi Cockroaches] Once and For All?” The following month, the CIA predicted that if tensions were not somehow defused, hundreds of thousands of people might die in ethnic violence. This powder keg exploded four months later, when on April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Habyarimana was shot down as it was preparing to land in Kigali, the capital.
The French sociologist André Guichaoua happened to be in Kigali that evening. The country was tense, but peaceful. But Hutu military personnel panicked when they heard about the crash. That night they began hastily erecting roadblocks around government and army installations, while militiamen, many from the presidential guard, began moving into position. The killing of Tutsis began the following afternoon. According to Guichaoua, Tutsis suspected of collaboration with the RPF, which the killers blamed for the plane crash, were sought out first, but soon the militias were killing every Tutsi they could get their hands on. The vast majority of the victims would turn out to be internal Tutsis, who had nothing to do with the RPF.
Rwandan Patriotic Front soldiers preparing to march into Kigali, Rwanda, 1994
For decades, blame for the plane crash that set off the genocide has fallen on members of Habyarimana’s army who were believed to be unhappy about the terms of the August 1993 peace accord. However, a growing number of academic studies, judicial reports, and other investigations now suggest RPF responsibility. They are based on eyewitness testimony from multiple RPF defectors who say they were involved in the planning and execution of the plot, as well as evidence concerning the origin of the missiles.
It’s unclear what motive the RPF would have had for shooting down the plane, but it may have wanted to ignite a war in order to abrogate the August accord, which called for elections twenty-two months after implementation. The RPF, dominated by the unpopular minority Tutsis and widely hated for its militancy, including by many internal Tutsis, would certainly have lost.
The RPF began advancing almost as soon as the plane hit the ground, and even before the genocide of the Tutsis had begun. According to Rever, the rebels actually made the situation worse. While Hutus were massacring innocent Tutsis, the RPF was further inciting ethnic hatred by massacring innocent Hutus. In mid-April RPF officers assembled some three thousand Hutu villagers in a stadium in Byumba and slaughtered virtually all of them. In June RPF soldiers attacked a seminary in Gitarama, killing several Hutu priests, and then, according to a four-hundred-page report compiled by a respected priest and human-rights activist named André Sibomana, proceeded to massacre roughly 18,000 others in the prefecture.
RPF defectors told Rever that the purpose of these mass killings was to strike fear in the Hutu population and provoke them to escalate the genocide into such a horrific crime that no political compromise with the former leaders would ever be possible. The August 1993 peace accord would then be irrelevant, and the population would have no choice but to accept an RPF takeover.
Some RPF operatives told Rever that they had even infiltrated Hutu militia groups to stoke ethnic anger and incite ever more indiscriminate reprisals against Tutsis. Again, this seems plausible to me. Kagame and other RPF commanders may have learned such strategies in Uganda while fighting alongside Museveni, whose rebel army reportedly committed similar “false flag” operations in the 1980s. After the genocide, war broke out in neighboring Zaire, as Congo was then known. When assailants killed hundreds of Congolese Tutsi refugees inside Rwanda in December 1997, US officials, Amnesty International, and The New York Times all blamed Hutu insurgents, but RPF sources told Rever that they themselves had done it. “Everyone knew that the RPF staged that attack. It was common knowledge in intelligence circles,” a former RPF officer told Rever. It was a “brilliant and cruel display of military theater,” said another.
Dallaire, the commander of the peacekeepers, remained in Rwanda during the genocide. In his harrowing memoir, Shake Hands with the Devil, he expresses puzzlement about the RPF’s troop movements. Rather than heading south, where most of the killings of Tutsis were taking place, the RPF circled around Kigali. When Dallaire met Kagame at the latter’s headquarters, he asked him why. “He knew full well that every day of fighting on the periphery meant certain death for Tutsis still behind [Rwandan government] lines,” Dallaire writes. Kagame “ignored the implications of my question.” By the time the RPF reached the capital weeks later, most of the Tutsis there were dead.
In May 1994, while supplies continued to flow to the RPF from Uganda, the UN placed the Rwandan government army, some of whose soldiers had participated in massacres of the Tutsis, under an arms embargo. By the end of July, the much stronger RPF had taken control of nearly all of the now ruined country. As it advanced, some two million Hutus fled, either to the giant Kibeho camp in southwestern Rwanda or to camps over the border in Tanzania and Zaire. Some Hutus returned home in the fall of 1994, but according to a UN report prepared by the human rights investigator Robert Gersony, many of them were killed by the RPF, either on suspicion of sympathy with revanchist Hutu militants or simply to terrify others.* These killings stopped during the run-up to a donor meeting in Geneva in January 1995, but then resumed after $530 million in aid was pledged.
Hutus once again fled to Kibeho, where they thought they would be protected by UN peacekeepers. But in April 1995 the RPF fired on the camp and then stormed it while helpless aid workers and UN troops, under orders to obey the RPF, stood by. At least four thousand Hutus, probably more, were killed, including numerous women and children. Thomas Odom, a retired US army colonel stationed at the embassy in Kigali, blamed the killings on Hutu instigators within the refugee population who, he says, stirred up the crowds, provoking panicked RPF soldiers to shoot. Several eyewitnesses dispute this.
In the enormous refugee camps in Zaire, Hutu militants—many of whom had participated in the genocide—began mobilizing to retake the country and launched sporadic attacks inside Rwanda. The RPF’s reaction was fierce, swift, and cruel. Hutu villagers who had nothing to do with the militants were invited to peace-and-reconciliation meetings, then shot point-blank or beaten to death with garden hoes. In 1997, thousands of Hutus fleeing indiscriminate RPF reprisals sought refuge in caves near the Virunga Mountains, where they were trapped and killed by RPF soldiers. Thousands more were killed in the environs of the town of Mahoko around the same time.
In order to neutralize the mounting threat from the Zairean refugee camps, the RPFcrossed the border in 1996, invaded them, and herded most of the refugees home. But hundreds of thousands refused to return to Rwanda and fled deeper into Zaire. Some were ex-génocidaires and other Hutu militants, but most were ordinary Hutus understandably terrified of the RPF. Kagame’s commandos, who had by then received training from US Special Forces, tracked them down in towns and villages across the country and killed them. Hundreds of thousands remain unaccounted for.
To hunt down fleeing Hutus, RPF spies deployed satellite equipment provided by the US. The RPF also infiltrated the UN refugee agency and used its vehicles and communications equipment. US officials insisted that all the fleeing refugees were Hutu génocidaires and downplayed the number of genuine refugees identified by their own aerial studies, but in 1997 Rever, then a young reporter for Radio France Internationale, trekked through the forest and found vast encampments of malnourished women and children. She interviewed a woman who had seen her entire family shot dead by Kagame’s soldiers, a boy whose father had drowned while fleeing the RPF, and aid workers who told her they had seen mass graves that were too dangerous to visit because they were being guarded by Kagame’s soldiers.
Versions of Rever’s story have been told by others. While all contain convincing evidence against the RPF, some are marred by a tendency to understate the crimes of the Hutu génocidaires
or overstate the RPF’s crimes. But some, including the work of Filip Reyntjens, a Belgian professor of law and politics, have been both measured and soundly researched. Kagame’s regime and its defenders have dismissed them all as propaganda spouted by defeated Hutu génocidaires and genocide deniers. But Rever’s account will prove difficult to challenge. She has been writing about Central Africa for more than twenty years, and her book draws on the reports of UN experts and human rights investigators, leaked documents from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and hundreds of interviews with eyewitnesses, including victims, RPF defectors, priests, aid workers, and officials from the UN and Western governments. Her sources are too numerous and their observations too consistent for her findings to be a fabrication.
The official UN definition of genocide is not restricted to attempts to eradicate a particular ethnic group. It includes “killings…with the intent to destroy, in whole, or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” (my emphasis). The RPF’s operations against the Hutus in the Byumba stadium, in Gitarama, Kibeho, the caves near Virunga, around Mahoko, and in the forests of Zaire do seem to fit that description. The RPF’s aim was, presumably, not to eradicate the Hutus but to frighten them into submission.
And yet in January, the UN officially recognized April 7 as an International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsis—only the Tutsis. That is how the conflagration in Rwanda is generally viewed. And while the French army has been accused of supplying the Rwandan government with weapons during the genocide, US officials have faced no scrutiny for lavishing aid on Uganda’s Museveni while he armed the RPF in violation of international treaties and the August 1993 peace accord. Why have international observers overlooked the other side of this story for so long? And why are the RPF’s crimes so little known outside of specialist circles? That will be the subject of the second part of this article.