The plane crash that killed six million people

2012-04-06 00:00

AFRICA has been plagued by aircraft crashes with political consequences. They have accounted for the deaths of Mozambique’s Samora Machel, South Sudan’s John Garang, United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld and the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi­, Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira. All of them involve a degree of unresolved mystery, but none was as significant as the deaths of the last two, 19 years ago on April 6, 1994.

Their Mystère-Falcon aircraft, a gift from French president Francois Mitterand­, was shot down by a Soviet-made SA-16 surface-to-air missile as it attempted to land at Kigali Airport in the Rwandan capital. The missile hit a fuel tank and turned the aircraft into a fireball. With awful symbolism the wreckage landed in the grounds of the presidential palace. This brought to an abrupt end any hope of Hutu-Tutsi power sharing through the Arusha Accords, but more immediately triggered a 100-day genocidal nightmare in which at least 800 000 (possibly a million) Tutsi and moderate Hutu died. Five percent of the population were slaughtered in three months.

The allocation of responsibility for the missile attack is no small matter. Directly and indirectly those involved triggered a sub-continental disaster, the Rwanda genocide, and the great war in the Congo that followed in which five million people died over four years during two invasions and widespread civil strife. The Rwanda genocide came to an end in July 1994 with the capture of Kigali by the Ugandan-backed Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the Tutsi liberation army that had first invaded in October 1990. But this in turn was the catalyst for a surge of two million Hutu Interahamwe (militia) and civilian refugees into eastern Congo.

The regional instability this caused, particularly for Congolese Tutsi (Banyarwanda and Banyamulenge) in North and South Kivu, led to a joint invasion of Mobutu Sese Seko’s tottering Zaire by Rwanda and its Congolese ally Laurent Kabila in 1996. And along the way to the capture of Kinshasa, deep in the Congo there occurred a lesser-known genocide. This time the victims were Hutu. Furthermore, there is an international dimension. The returning Tutsi invaders had long been based in Uganda and Tanzania and were Anglophone. France and Belgium were allies of Habyarimana: the French had troops in Rwanda and were anxious to maintain its Francophone character. However, this did not prevent Rwanda and Uganda fighting one another­ in Kisangani in 1999 over the diamond trade. For the embittered Congolese their country had become the doormat of Africa.

Paul Kagame’s RPF was immediately blamed for the assassination of Habyarimana, but provocation of a Tutsi pogrom was not in its interests. Suspicion then focused on extremist Hutu who regarded Habyarimana as too moderate. This was more plausible since the apparently spontaneous killing of Tutsi had been carefully planned and incited by the media­ for several months. It simply needed a convenient pretext for the Interahamwe with their death lists to swing into action.

The crew of Habyarimana’s plane were from France and in 2006 an inquiry headed by French judge Jean-Louis Bruguière­ decided that RPF forces were responsible. This was a move widely believed to be designed to deflect attention away from French involvement, especially since Bruguière was known to be antipathetic to Kagame. The verdict was based on technically flawed evidence that the missile had been fired at a distance of four kilometres from the aircraft and the testimony of a defector from Kagame­’s administration. Kagame was furious and broke off relations with France for three years. The findings of Bruguière’s investigation were widely discredited.

The latest report issued early this year by another French judge, Marc Trévidic, has vindicated Kagame. It employed ballistics experts, air accident investigators, surveyors and a sound engineer. Based on analysis of the missile’s trajectory they concluded that it was fired from Kanombe, a government army camp occupied by presidential guards and French troops, and significantly an anti-aircraft battalion, just a kilometre from the aircraft. This area would have been inaccessible to Tutsi rebels. And the battalion was commanded by Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, named by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda as an architect of the genocide. United Nations troops under the legendary Canadian general Roméo Dallaire were denied access to the crash site and 10 families who were the closest witnesses were murdered.

Trévidic’s findings excluded RPF-held areas as possible sites for the missile launch, although the question of precisely who was responsible remains open. The prime suspects remain Rwandan government troops, mercenaries, and French officers embedded with the presidential guard. Under French president Nicholas Sarkozy relations with Rwanda have improved, but not a single Rwandan genocide suspect has been prosecuted in or extradited from France.

For 18 years the issue of responsibility for the crash has deflected attention from the genocide. Evidence now points in one direction. A total figure of six million dead has an evocative and chilling Holocaust ring to it. Genocidal murder and widespread instability in the Great Lakes region may be over, but insurgency and war crimes, including mass rape, continue in the eastern Congo. When those who organised the missile attack are finally identified it will be possible to complete a chain of events lasting nearly two decades that have constituted a human rights disaster for central and eastern Africa­.

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