The sorry French psychodrama surrounding the Rwanda tragedy has to stop.
What is needed above all is a return to reason, not to mention decency, by former ministers on both sides of the aisle who served in the governments of François Mitterrand’s second term and who seem far less concerned with remembering the 800,000 Tutsis who were hacked to death between April and July 1994 than with the honor of a French army that they were the first, through their irresponsible orders, to throw knowingly under the bus.
Because facts are facts.
It is a fact, for example, that France supported—to an unreasonable degree and for the sake of geopolitical calculations in which the defense of the French language vied for primacy with anti-Americanism (coupled with abiding resentment over losing to the British in the Fashoda incident in 1898)—a Hutu power movement whose totalitarian, racist, and anti-Tutsi ideology could not have escaped French leaders’ notice.
It is a fact that, from the early 1990s, under the guise of a protective operation dubbed Operation Noroît, the announced goal of which was to rescue French nationals caught up in what was then no more than a garden-variety confrontation between the one-party Hutu regime and Tutsi exiles trying to return home, France armed, trained, and assisted the government’s forces, thus enabling them, in the shade of the French umbrella, to sharpen the military and paramilitary tool that would soon be put in the service of genocide.
It is a fact, attested to by credible witnesses such as journalist Colette Braeckman and UNAMIR commander Roméo Dallaire, that after the downing of the plane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana on April 6, 1994,which set off the carnage, it was in France’s embassy in Kigali that the Hutu interim government was cobbled together.That was the government that would direct the massacres, certain leaders of which (Jérôme Bicamumpaka and Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, who were, respectively, minister of foreign affairs and a founding member of the infamousRadio Mille Collines) were received in Paris two weeks later by Prime Minister Edouard Balladur and Foreign Minister AlainJuppé—the latter of whom, it must also be acknowledged, was the first to utter the taboo word of genocide following a meeting on May 15 of the EU Council of Ministers in Brussels.
During the genocide itself, it is another fact that France, along with Belgium and Italy, organized a second humanitarian operation (under the name of Amaryllis) that ended on April 17, the sole goal of which was the evacuation of the 3,500 Westerners, including 525 French citizens, working in Kigali. By this time, Hutu militiamen were moving through the streets of the capital, killing the way one clears brush, drunk with blood, grenades in hand, while French soldiers, stunned and sickened, were ordered to stand by and watch as, just meters away, the skulls of Tutsi children were split open with machetes.
The third of these brilliant “humanitarian” operations (known as Turquoise) is still being presented to us 20 years later as a noble initiative designed (better late than never) to stop the cycle of killing. But it chalked up some horrifying failures, such as the one that occurred on June 27 in the Bisesero mountains in the west of the country, when a French patrol encountered a pocket of Tutsi hostages encircled by Interahamwe militiamen but, once again lacking orders, had to fall back.Three days and a thousand deaths later, a second patrol was authorized to return and save the survivors. And it is still another fact that the main purpose of that third mission, supposedly designed, under the terms of the UN mandate, to “assure in an impartial manner the safety of endangered populations,” was less to rescue what remained of the victimized people, than to exfiltrate to Zaire, with their weapons and baggage, the authors and planners of the third great genocide of the 20th century.
Now it is true that this bundle of blunders and errors does not constitute “participation”in genocide.
And plainly it cannot be said that the French army was implicated militarily in the killing.
But equally plain is the fact that France bears political and moral responsibility for the sadly foreseeable chain of monstrous events that unfolded on its watch.
The sooner that fact is acknowledged, the sooner we stop playing with the truth, the sooner we start listening to the voices of witnesses, Rwandan and French alike, the better off we all will be.
Why? Because of the obligation to make reparation that a crime against humanity always imposes.
Because of the need of a people to grieve and remember, a people that we left to die and that it is our duty to help in a small way to live again.
And, indeed, for the honor of the French armed forces—the real honor, the one based not on words but on acts, honor that depends not on the lie of a contrived national myth but on the bitter, painful work of sincerity. Yes, for the deep and true honor of the French soldiers who covered themselves in glory in Malinand Libya, who performed well in the Central African Republic, and who made the most of a very difficult context in Sarajevo and Bosnia—but who, when it comes to Rwanda, are haunted by a past that, for them as for the Rwandans, will not go away.
Translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy