Soldiers played ball on dead: France faces its blood debt in Rwanda

Soldiers played ball on dead people
France faces its blood debt in Rwanda

By Simone Schlindwein, Kampala

For decades it was swept under the carpet: now a Paris court is ordering another investigation into France’s role in the genocide in Rwanda – a long-standing investigation.

The sweetish smell of decay still hangs in the air – even more than a quarter of a century after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Around 800 mummified bodies, many of them children, still lie in state in the classrooms and dormitories of the former technical secondary school in the city of Murambi.

The genocide memorial in southwest Rwanda, around 160 kilometers from the capital Kigali, is still one of numerous memorial sites in the small country in the heart of Africa, where more than a million people were murdered 29 years ago. Most of the victims belonged to the Tutsi ethnic group.

Many crime scenes in Rwanda are now memorial sites. The bones of the victims laid out on the site serve as a reminder that something like this must never happen again. And as in Murambi, some of these sites still bear witness to the French’s controversial role in this dark chapter of Africa.

The genocides fled to France

At the end of June 1994, when the mass slaughtering across the country was at its peak, over a thousand French soldiers billeted in the Murambi school’s dormitories, which had just been cleaned of blood, as part of the UN military operation “Turquoise”. On the sloping meadow behind the bunkhouses, the mass grave with thousands of bodies had just been filled up. The French built a volleyball field on it. Almost every evening the soldiers played balls there in the smell of corpses. To this day it still smells of decay.

In the adjacent Murambi museum building are posted photos of the five Rwandan politicians and military leaders responsible for ordering the Murambi massacre, including the prefect of the Gikongoro district, where Murambi is located, Laurent Bucyiabaruta. He had congratulated the Hutu militiamen after the massacre for their “job well done”. Later he lived in France.

France’s long-guarded state secret

France’s role in the Rwandan genocide has been a closely guarded secret. Documents and evidence were safely stored in the archives in Paris for almost 30 years. It was not until 2021 that French President Emmanuel Macron announced a turning point during a state visit to Rwanda’s capital Kigali. At the mass grave of the central genocide memorial in Kigali, he gave a touching speech: “Facing history and recognizing the part of the suffering it (France) has caused the Rwandan people by choosing silence over finding the truth for too long”. he promised the Rwandans. His visit was intended to mark the end of “27 years of alienation and incomprehension”.

Since then, a lot has happened in France in coming to terms with its own role in one of the most atrocious human rights crimes in recent history. One commissioned by Macron investigation report had revealed the extent of French involvement in Rwanda’s genocide in March 2021. So far, officials in France have downplayed this, if not denied it.

A court in Paris has now ordered the reopening of a case into alleged complicity by the French military and government in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The process was discontinued in September last year after 17 years of investigation. There was no evidence that the French army was involved in atrocities in refugee camps or that it helped or deliberately prevented the perpetrators from preventing the killings, the court ruled at the time. The trial was initiated by Rwandan survivors in France in 2015. The fact that he was hired in 2022 was a bitter blow for many of them.

A court of appeals in Paris overturned this decision on Wednesday due to procedural errors and made it clear that not all relevant evidence had been viewed. It must now be rolled up again. This gives survivors new hope. Specifically, this trial is about the role of French soldiers in the Bisesero massacre in western Rwanda, where almost 50,000 people were murdered in just a few weeks. Bisesero is not far from the Murambi secondary school with the stinking volleyball field, it was also in the deployment area of ​​​​the French troops.

In May 1994, thousands of Tutsis from other provinces and neighboring towns, including Murambi, fled to Bisesero. High up on a hill, they sought protection from the bloodthirsty Hutu militias in a church facility. They surrounded the hill and bombarded it with mortars and shells for weeks. When the French soldiers entered Bisesero on June 27, 1994 to stop the genocide on behalf of the United Nations, they promised the surviving Tutsi that they would return in three days to rescue them. Then they left. When they returned three days later, almost no one was alive.

In 2022, Bucyibaruta was still convicted

France’s unresolved role has weighed heavily on relations with Rwanda over the past 30 years. Only since Macron’s apology at the mass grave in Kigali in 2021 has there been increasing rapprochement. Accordingly, the decision of the Court of Appeals in Paris was received positively in Kigali.

To this day, numerous leading genocide perpetrators live undisturbed in France. For decades, the local authorities found it difficult to initiate investigations into the suspected clients of the genocide in Rwanda, who were enjoying their retirement in exile in France. A lot has happened here since Macron’s visit to Rwanda two years ago: In July 2022, a court in Paris sentenced former prefect Bucyibaruta to 20 years in prison. The 78-year-old, who had grown old as a refugee in France after 1994, initially enjoyed a release from prison because of his age. After the verdict, he was immediately taken to prison.

Félicien Kabuga was at the top of the list of wanted perpetrators of the genocide in Rwanda worldwide. For almost thirty years he seemed to have disappeared. Ultimately, the now 87-year-old was caught near Paris in 2020 and then transferred by French authorities to the UN special tribunal responsible for Rwanda in The Hague. However, the local international court declared the “financier of the genocide” at the beginning of June to be unfit to stand trial. But still: France had done its duty.

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