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That night, French media reported France's plan to deploy troops to Rwanda. The defending forces in Kigali went mad with joy at the prospect of imminent rescue by the French. The génocidaires believed the French were coming to save them and that they now had carte blanche to finish their gruesome work.
~ Canadian Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, commander of UN forces in Rwanda

The Rwandan genocide is often cited as an example of how when genocide calls, the international community looks away from the phone. In only a few short months, nearly a million of the country's minority Tutsi group were massacred in broad daylight by the Hutu majority. Scholars argue to this day about whether the bulk of the killing had already occurred before the outside world realized what was going on and a significant intervention became possible; but suffice to say, there was no meaningful intervention to stop the genocide.

However, there was an intervention. In June 1994, two months after the genocide began, the French government announced its intention to launch Operation Turquoise in the west of the country. It said it would create a safe zone to which the persecuted could flee and be protected, and duly dispatched 2,500 troops.

France was the least appropriate country to intervene in Rwanda to protect those who feared for their lives. For decades, the French had been the closest ally of the Hutu regime that ran Rwanda and eventually carried out the genocide. The policies of this government had driven over a million Tutsis to flee over the borders into neighbouring countries, from where they launched an offensive into the country that was the backdrop to the genocide. France had actually intervened with its own elite forces to protect the Hutu government from these rebels in 1990 and 1993.

The genocide was sparked by the assassination of Rwanda's Hutu president, but it had been prepared for years. Elite forces of the Rwandan government, armed with French weaponry and trained by French forces, had in turn trained a vast paramilitary called the Interahamwe and drawn up death lists; French officers were embedded in elite units of the Rwandan army until shortly before the genocide began and were involved in drawing up lists of opponents of the regime.

Rwanda's own committee of inquiry into the genocide has concluded that France was complicit in the genocide because of this involvement, and even that French forces actively participated in atrocities in their "safe zone". The committee named names; among them was French President François Mitterrand. The committee examined documents from a French historical archive and showed how French policy in Rwanda had been driven by a desire to support the Francophone Hutu and stop the creation of an English-speaking "Tutsi-land". The possibility of outright genocide seemed, at the very least, an acceptable risk.

Hence, the Tutsi rebels greeted the news of a French intervention in 1994 with massive suspicion. The rebel forces, known as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), considered the French to be sworn enemies because they had faced them in battle before, and so there was no question of co-operation. Although the French intervention had UN blessing – it was the best offer available – it put the existing UN operation in the country in the position of effectively being a peacekeeper between the second, French UN force and the Tutsi rebels. For Lt. Gen. Dallaire, the UN commander who witnessed more horror and brutality than any man can possibly bear and tried to kill himself after the genocide was over, this was the last straw in the undermining of his mission.

Within their safe zone, the French did not stop the killings. Nor did they disable the transmitter of the infamous hate-spewing Hutu radio station that was used to co-ordinate the killings, and nor did they arrest any Hutu known to be responsible for crimes. In fact, Hutu roadblocks continued to operate, killing anyone with a Tutsi identity card or even Hutu with no card.

As the RPF finally captured Kigali and cemented their control over the rest of Rwanda, their advance was halted at the point the French "safe zone" began. Two million Hutu, many of whom had been génocidaires, fled Rwanda, and many of them were facilitated in their escape by the French "safe zone", which had turned out to be safer for the génocidaires than their Tutsi victims.

Many of these Hutu went over Rwanda's border into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where vast refugee camps sprung up. There was an epidemic of disease and hunger which forced the international community to intervene with humanitarian assistance; but the camps were heavily militarized and politicized by members of the Interahamwe and Hutu government forces. Soon, humanitarian aid was being redirected to military purposes as these elements launched raids into Rwanda and sought to destabilize the new government. Their presence in Congo also helped spark that country's brutal civil wars.

French policy in Rwanda had been driven for decades by the interest of the governmental elite. What happened in this remote country – whether it became an English-speaking "Tutsi-land" or not – was of precious little interest to the people of France, but their representatives funded, armed and trained a regime that eventually carried out a genocide; looked the other way as preparations for same took place under their nose; and then intervened to facilitate the escape of the perpetrators. This is something that should not be forgotten.

Sources

Roméo Dallaire's Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda is one of the most moving works of our time. Samantha Power's "A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide is not only excellent on the subject of Rwanda but even noded. On the internet, search out anything by Linda Melvern, e.g. "France and genocide: the murky truth", The Times, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article4481353.ece .

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