June 23 1994: The Day French Troops Entered Rwanda
It was 15hrs on Thursday 23 June 1994 when 400 French elite commandos entered Rwanda through Cyangugu prefecture from Bukavu in DR Congo. France had lined up a total of 3,060 men from the best units of it army aided by some 508 African troops. Up until August 2, French soldiers raped Tutsi women, opened corridor for fleeing genocide militia and prevented RPF rebels from pacifying the region.
Genocide survivors, militia, former members of the government army and local villagers of Cyangugu region (now part of western province) give a particularly gloomy picture of the French action during its two months presence. Investigations about French actions have been documented by a French parliamentary inquiry â€“ much of which have been corroborated by two year investigation by a government of Rwanda commission.
French soldiers simply looked on as interahamwe militias killed Tutsis. On arrival in the region, French soldiers took over control of Nyarushishi camp for thousands of internally displaced. Victims narrate how French soldiers subjected them to atrocious sexual slavery.
Elsewhere in town, many victims talk about collaboration between French soldiers and the killers to bring them very young Tutsi girls to rape, whom they then threw back in the street knowing very well that they were likely to be killed. Finally, various witnesses tell how French soldiers strongly incited the population to flee to Zaire.
The OpÃ©ration Turquoise, authorized on June 22 1994 by the UN Security Council after spirited French government insistence, had come with a humanitarian cover â€“ but the actions turned out to be a completely different story.
Former soldier Major FÃ©licien NGIRABATWARE, was a direct witness. A member of the FAR, in 1994, he was a student at the National University of Rwanda at the faculty of LAW at MBURABUTURO in Kigali. He rejoined the army on 13th April 1994 and was stationed at Muhima Camp, from where he left for Ruhengeri at the beginning of July; then he went to Cyangugu. He stayed in that area until the end of August 1994 â€“ when he fled along with other militias.
Bernard Surwumwe was among government soldiers given safe corridor by French soldier to flee clashes with rebels as they retreated into Zaire by passing through Gisenyi, Kibuye and Cyangugu.
Here is how he narrates: “When we arrived in Cyangugu, we were quartered in the buildings of the MRND (Mouvement pour le Rassemblement National et de DÃ©veloppement, Habyarimanaâ€™s party). And during the crossing of the border towards Bukavu, they are the ones who transported our arms up to the military camp of Mpanzi where General Bizimungu joined us by helicopter in the company of Prime Minister KAMBANDA and two French men.â€
Gaspard Nteziryimana received military training from French soldiers so as to be a member of the â€œred bandsâ€, a group of auxiliaries of the French soldiers. After being assaulted by the Interahamwe and left for dead because he had hidden Tutsis, the French soldiers forced him to accuse the RPF while they were filming his declarations.
Genocide survivor Alphonsine Mukakarangwa recounts how French soldiers forced her, and her mother, out of the health centre where they were treating them when they learnt that they had been victims of the Interahamwe. Those French dropped them at a roadblock manned by Interahamwe.
Another survivor Concessa Mussa with a baby on her back, sought refuge in Nyarushishi camp. She was 18 years old at the time of the OpÃ©ration Turquoise. After a perilous journey where she and her baby survived being killed several times, she finally reached Nyarushishi camp where the French soldiers found her.
She narrates: â€œThe French came in the afternoon and Col Bavugamenshi ordered dance for them. Upon their arrival, the French soldiers had a tour of the camp and took photos. After three days, the French soldiers had identified places in the camp where they could find young ladies. From the fourth day, those who had identified places where to find the young ladies came back with other French soldiers and took the ladies to their tents and raped them.â€
Flore Muka was only 14 years old at the time of OpÃ©ration Turquoise. She is a survivor of the Nyarushishi camp who was handed over by the Interahamwe called Masudi to the French at Kamarampaka stadium as sex slave.
The headquarters of the southern unit of OpÃ©ration Turquoise headed by Colonel Hogard was located within Kamembe airport. Different witnesses affirmed that corpses were brought to the airport, loaded on helicopters and dumped either in Lake Kivu or in Nyungwe forest.
A witness who kept a precise memory of the happenings affirmed to having seen half a dozen fresh Tutsi corpses within the protected perimeter of the French army inside the airport.
Luc Pillionel , a Swiss national, is married to a Rwandan woman. He came to Rwanda on 19th July 1994 to pick up members of his wifeâ€™s family who had sought refuge in Nyarushishi camp. Being a Swiss, he was able to forge a relationship with the French soldiers and benefited from their assistance. The extract from his testimony is about the discovery of half a dozen fresh corpses, most likely Tutsis, inside the protected perimeter of the French military base located within Kamembe airport. At the same military base is where the command post of the southern unit of OpÃ©ration Turquoise was located, which also housed the office of Colonel Hoard. The extract of the testimony starts at the time when Luc Pillionel lands at Kamembe airport, coming from Bukavu in Zaire.
Different other witnesses affirm that French soldiers in collaboration with local authorities incited the populace to massively flee the country.
Tutsis abandoned in Bisesero
Kibuye prefecture was one the three prefectures that were officially under OpÃ©ration Turquoise. In that prefecture, French soldiers set up three main bases, one was located in Gishyita village, another was in Kibuye town and the last was in Rubengera village. They arrived in Kibuye from three different directions from 24th June.
Some came from Cyangugu including Commander Marin Gillier and his troops, mainly marine commandos as well as some members of the GIGN who set up their base at Gishyita, another unit of air force commandos headed by Lieutenant Colonel RÃ©my Duval called Diego set up its base at Gishyita, lastly another secret military unit which came from Gisenyi arrived on 23rd June at Rubengera and was under the command of Captain Bucquet.
The above shows actions of the French army in the triangle of Gisovu, Gishyita and Karongi and Bisesero hills which was in the middle of the triangle as well as Rubengera village. After setting up the aforementioned COS detachments, Kibuye prefecture constituted the northern unit of the Turquoise, commanded by Colonel Sartre with headquarters in Kibuye.
The case of Bisesero, which is important to remember, is one of the most serious accusations against the French army during the OpÃ©ration Turquoise. French commanders â€“ with tacit approval from Paris deliberately delayed for 3 days to intervene in the rescue of almost 2.000 survivors. It was to give the militias time complete the massacre.
This event was widely published since it occurred in the presence of foreign reporters and many Rwandans witnessed it. The key fact is that the French army waited for three days before starting the rescue operation for the Bisesero survivors and the army does not contest that fact. However, the reasons behind the delay are the cause of controversy.
The Bisesero case is composed of two episodes, the first is the fact that French soldiers abandoned survivors at Bisesero; the second is that French soldiers refused to intervene during the three days of massacres yet they were only 5 kilometres from the camp. Lastly there are two additions to the Bisesero case, following the French intervention the poor treatment of genocide survivors at Bisesero and the poor medical care of the injured that were transferred to Goma by the French military doctors.
Acts of abandonment occurred at the very start of OpÃ©ration Turquoise led by the COS detachments which had the mission to open Rwanda to the benefits of the mission. The mission involved two detachments of COS, one under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Remy Duval, alias Diego, and another one headed by Commander Marin Gillier.
Towards noon on 27th June 1994, Colonel Rosier took a helicopter to see Diego in Kibuye, it seems, to analyse the situation. On the same day, a group of French reporters, including Patrick de Saint ExupÃ©ry (from Figaro newspaper) were in Kibuye. Patrick de Saint ExupÃ©ry went to a secondary school run by nuns where Diego and his troops were based. In the school courtyard Patrick de Saint ExupÃ©ry met two nuns who told him that two hours from that place there were Tutsi survivors who were living in horrible conditions at Bisesero hills. At that point, Diego joined them and Patrick de Saint ExupÃ©ry asked him to go and see what the nun had told them about.
Patrick de Saint ExupÃ©ry with two other reporters, among them, Dominique Garraud of the daily LibÃ©ration, about ten soldiers and Diego in a minibus and three Jeeps drove towards Bisesero. Midway before arriving at Bisesero, the convoy stopped at Mubuga village where Diego persuaded a teacher called Jean Baptiste Twagirayezu to serve as their guide to Bisesero. Upon arriving at Bisesero hills, they met some ghostly figures that disappeared very quickly. One man approached the French and told them that they were exhausted because they had been fighting their killers who had been hunting them day after day for two months.
Slowly by slowly more and more survivors joined the team, Patrick de Saint ExupÃ©ry noticed that they were very thin, in completely torn clothes and many of them had machete wounds., â€œa child whose left buttock was cut off, a man whose right arm was severedâ€. The survivors showed them a mass grave dug some meters from there, as well as a fresh corpse of a man who had been killed two hours earlier. After that the survivors recognized the guide of the French as being Jean Baptiste Twagirayezu, and accused him of being one of the chief militia who were hunting them down. The French soldiers put him in one of their vehicles for his safety. Then, Colonel Diego informed the survivors that he had to go.
Bisesero survivors say that following their meeting with the French soldiers, attacks increased during the three days that preceded their return. According to Bisesero survivors, at the time when they met Diego they were around 2.000 survivors, and after three days of intensive massacres, only 800 people survived.
Eric Nzabahimana explained what followed the departure of the French:
â€œWhile we were discussing, killers who were placed at different parts of the hills were watching us, almost all of us had come out of our hiding places. The three days that followed, the 28th, 29th and 30th massacres intensified. Many soldiers participated and many more people were killed, yet the French soldiers had promised to ask the PrÃ©fet to stop attacks against us.â€
Pascal Nkusi, a Bisesero survivor too, was also present at the meeting with Diego.
â€œThe following day, they [the French] did not come but we saw a helicopter hovering over the place. From that day, attacks became more intensive and there were more dead people, because almost all of us had come out of our hiding places. [â€¦] On the third day, attacks continued and around 14h00 or 15h00, the French finally arrived.â€