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France looks to put ghosts of Rwandan genocide to rest

Here is what Edward Cody of Washington Post Foreign Service writes about Rwanda and France after last month’s visit of French President Nicolas Sarkozy to Rwanda.

For years, the ghosts of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide have haunted France, finally intruding even into this tidy suburb of Bordeaux and the comfortable home of Sosthene Munyemana.

Munyemana, a French-trained gynecologist, was arrested here in January on an international warrant from the Rwandan government, which is seeking his extradition to face charges of rape, genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide and association with criminals to carry out genocide. The 55-year-old physician was released pending the outcome of a court hearing scheduled for June.

Munyemana’s case, which raised anew the issue of France’s long-criticized attitude toward the genocide, could hardly have been more poorly timed. After years of estrangement, the leaders of France and Rwanda have sought to reconcile despite lingering resentment over France’s close military and diplomatic ties to the Hutu-run government that was blamed for the massacre of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis during a civil war in 1994.

For Rwanda, now controlled by Tutsis, the rapprochement has meant an opportunity to deal normally with one of the main diplomatic and economic actors in Africa, where France retains numerous allies and considerable influence among its former colonies.

For France, renewal of relations has carried another message as well: hope for an end to the accusations at home and in Africa that French soldiers and political leaders stood by while Tutsis were being slaughtered by the thousands.

An official Rwandan investigation concluded two years ago that France had been “politically and militarily complicit” in the genocide. But a French parliamentary investigation in 1998 affirmed that the government at the time, headed by President François Mitterrand and Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, did nothing wrong.

Against that uneasy background, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, during a landmark visit to Kigali, the Rwandan capital, and Rwandan President Paul Kagame vowed last month to put the blood-soaked debate behind them — or at least to act as if the chapter were closed.

Acknowledging ‘errors’

Using carefully negotiated language, Sarkozy acknowledged for the first time that France and its troops in Rwanda at the time committed “errors” as the Tutsis were being killed by France’s Hutu allies. In return, Kagame, a former Tutsi rebel leader, dispatched an ambassador to Paris and promised to work with France in pacifying Congo and other areas of Central Africa’s war-racked Great Lakes region.

Munyemana, a Hutu who lives in France with his wife, said he has little faith in the reconciliation effort because it is based on “too many lies.” Too many people, in France and Rwanda, have something to hide, he said, and neither France nor Rwanda’s now-governing Tutsis have come to grips with everything that happened during those four bloody months.

The prosecution against him, he said in an interview, is based on a friendship gone sour, a Tutsi classmate at the University of Bordeaux who after the genocide decided to make Munyemana pay because he is a Hutu. Guided by the erstwhile friend, Munyemana said, French human rights activists went to Rwanda and gathered false testimony linking him to massacres in Tumba, where he worked at the time.

Much of that testimony ended up in Rwandan courts, where Munyemana was sentenced in absentia in 2008 to life in prison. In addition to unspecified rapes, the extradition request accused Munyemana of killing three people on the University of Butare campus and of cooperating with known genocide leaders in drawing up plans for many other killings.

“Everything is false,” he said. “There are people in there I didn’t even know. And there are people I know but that I never associated with. Sure, I knew some of the people involved in the massacres. But should I be held responsible for what they did?”

The main document alleging his involvement, Munyemana said, was later proven to be an unofficial compilation of charges and not a U.N. report as alleged. But the harm was done, and the reputation he built during 16 years of study and medical practice in France has been ruined, he added.

“The issue is not judged yet,” he said. “Waiting for the justice system to move, it’s a real pain.”

Munyemana’s attorneys have led him to expect a favorable ruling. So far, all extradition requests such as the one he is fighting have been turned down by French courts, which consistently have held that the Tutsi-run Rwandan justice system cannot guarantee a fair trial to Hutus accused of participation in the genocide.

Slow to act

Alain Gauthier, who heads the Civil Plaintiffs Collective representing genocide survivors, said that if French courts will not extradite exiles accused of participating in the killings, the government should put them on trial in France. Several Rwandans have been tried in Belgium and Switzerland, he noted, but the French justice system has been slow to move.

So slow, in fact, that the European Human Rights Court accused France of dragging its feet in the case of Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, a priest accused of encouraging the genocide in his onetime Kigali parish who found refuge in France and now lives in a vicarage at Gisors, northwest of Paris.

Gauthier, who is married to a Rwandan Tutsi woman, said, however, that several encouraging signs have emerged in recent months as France and Rwanda negotiated their reconciliation. Four investigating magistrates have traveled to Rwanda to gather evidence for cases brought by the collective, he said, and the Justice Ministry has promised to set up a special cell equipped to investigate such crimes with more speed and efficiency.

In addition, French police this month briefly arrested Agathe Kanziga, the widow of Juvénal Habyarimana, the slain Rwandan president, in response to a Rwandan warrant accusing her of helping plan the genocide after his assassination. Like Munyemana, she was brought before a French court to decide on extradition and is awaiting a ruling.

Gauthier’s group has brought charges against 16 Rwandans living in France but estimates that several times that number could be present in the country without having been identified. Some of them, he said, particularly military officers with friends among French forces, were spirited out of Rwanda in French military aircraft after it became clear that Kagame’s rebel group was about to take power.

“If we had not filed complaints, those guilty of genocide would be living happily in France,” he said in an interview at his home in Reims. “Government prosecutors have not opened a single case. Nobody in France wants all these things to come out.”

In fact, he noted, the most prominent case brought by the French government was an indictment handed down against Kagame, accusing him of complicity in the April 1994 shooting down of an airplane carrying Habyarimana. Habyarimana’s killing, which outraged his fellow Hutu leaders, became the spark for the genocide.

Edward Cody –


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