Death of a president - then the bloodbath

A year ago today Rwanda's nightmare began. Richard Dowden examines the countdown to genocide

Their plans were laid, their weapons were ready, the lists were drawn up, their propaganda had been spewing out of their radio station and newspapers for months. The killers needed only a signal to go. Hutu power was to be re-established by killing all Tutsis and all moderate political elements in the country.

President Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda was no stranger to these people. He was sympathetic and had defended their broadcasts and editorials in the name of press freedom. He had twisted and turned for five months to prevent the implementation of the agreement he had signed in August 1993. It seemed he would do anything but share power with the Rwandese Patriotic Front, a guerrilla army which had grown out of the Rwandan Tutsi exiles. It had invaded the country in 1990 but failed to take over the government. Then the French had sent troops to protect Mr Habyarimana, but the price was that he had to allow the Tutsis to return and share power.

At the end of 1993 and the beginning of 1994, he resisted heavy pressure to implement the Arusha Accords, the power-sharing agreement. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund cut off funds, aid was suspended. "It is five minutes to midnight," Mr Habyarimana was told by Willy Claes, then the Belgian foreign minister. At last on 6 April, Mr Habyarimana caved in and accepted the government proposed by the RPF.

There was deep relief among his neighbouring heads of state, but Mr Habyarimana was uneasy. Maybe he guessed that he had signed his death warrant. Before he flew back to Kigali in the Mystere-Falcon jet given to him by the French government, he insisted certain key players travel with him. Perhaps he was holding them like hostages. On the way back, someone in the control tower at Kigali kept asking who was on board.

As the plane came in to land just after 8.30pm, two rockets struck it, and it plunged to the ground in flames. There has been speculation ever since about who fired the missiles. They were of a sophisticated type not used by the Rwandese army, and were fired from or near the barracks of the presidential guard.

The remnants of the government blamed the RPF rebels while the extremist Hutu media blamed the Belgian contingent in the UN observer mission. By dawn on 7 April, the killings had begun. Roadblocks were set up around the capital by the presidential guard and the President of the Constitutional Court and other ministers were killed. The Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, was murdered the following morning, as well as 10 Belgian soldiers. Prompted by Belgium and the United States, the UN force in Rwanda was cut to 270.

Although the killings began with lists and targets, the genocide spread through the country like a whirlwind. The planned elimination of opponents was the spark which ignited an insane racist hatred in which almost everyone joined. A month later, around half a million people, mostly Tutsis, had been shot or hacked to death.

What made Rwanda unique was that the two ethnic groups live on the same hills, in the same villages, share the same culture and language, but also share a unique relationship of aristocrat and serf. The Hutus were driven by fear that they would be subjected to traditional Tutsi domination. Since they share the same territory, the aim of violence was not to drive the Tutsi away, but to wipe them out. The killings were comprehensive, callous and indescribably vicious.

The RPF immediately advanced from its salient in north-east Rwanda and tried to take over the rest of the country. The extermination of the Tutsis was carried out while the civil war raged. When the RPF took over the capital hundreds of thousands of Hutus fled into Tanzania or Zaire. Thousands died of cholera in makeshift camps.

While there has been a vast international humanitarian effort to keep them alive, almost nothing has been done to secure their return to Rwanda. That will take political reconciliation and commitment on a stupendous scale. Few Hutus in the camps recognise the evil that has been done.

None of those who planned and led the genocide have been detained and many are living openly in European and African capitals. In the camps in Goma in Zaire and in Ngara in Tanzania, paranoia and revenge are breeding as virulently as cholera once did.

Neglected Tutsi exiles formed the RPF and invaded in 1990. How long will it be before the Hutus, armed and angry, make their return to Rwanda?

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