Two Missiles in 1994: Assassination, Genocide, and a Continent at War
With four million people packed into 1,600 square kilometers, the city of Dar es Salaam, a sprawling urban metropolis on the shores of the Indian Ocean, is the economic pulmonary of Tanzania. But twenty years ago, it served as the often-overlooked stepping-stone to a brutal saga of war and genocide that continues to envelope Central Africa. On April 6th, 1994, after a summit of regional leaders in the city, President Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda glided off the tarmac at Dar es Salaam International Airport into the spotless sub-Saharan sky on a sleek French-made Dassault Falcon 50, arcing west towards Kigali. Aboard was a motley collection of French crew members, Rwandan military officers, and Burundian dignitaries including President Cyprien Ntaryamira. A few hours later, they would be charred corpses. Making a pass over a cityscape of mud-walled tenements and tin-roofed hovels, the presidential jet had been cleared for landing at Kigali International and was on the final approach when unknown assailants launched two surface-to-air missiles.
Both struck, and plane went down on fire. Everyone on board died. No party or person—no faction embroiled in Rwanda’s civil war or any foreign entity—has yet claimed responsibility for the assassination, but theories range from Rwandan Patriot Front (RPF) fighters to Hutu extremists to a fumbled CIA coup d’etat. Nonetheless, the assassination sparked Rwanda’s infamous Hundred Days—the genocide of upwards of one million ethnic Tutsis that reduced the country’s population by fifteen percent and catalyzed the world’s worst war since 1939. The crash of the Falcon 50 was the climax of a story that began with modern history’s favorite reactants: white imperialists and black “savages.
” First incorporated into German East Africa, World War One saw another European colonial government installed on Rwandan territory, one based in Brussels, not Berlin. The Belgians had perfected their imperial routine across the border in the Congo; in essence, the Congolese system was boxed, stamped, and shipped across Lake Kivu to be offloaded on the Rwandan side. Society was stripped. Hutu and Tutsi—once synonymous with “rich” and “poor”—became racial segregators. “The conquest of the earth .
. . means . . . taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves .
. .” (Conrad 13). Backed by cordite and lead, the Belgians conformed with Joseph Conrad to the final syllable, categorizing Tutsis as those they saw as more “European” and using the catch-all “Hutu” to divide the rest into a state of arbitrary apartheid. Tutsis were gifted a monarchy, and Hutus were relegated to veritable serfdom. Flash-forward five decades and Rwanda achieves its independence.
The year is 1961, and the Belgians leave with a Hutu president in power. A common story for most African nations carved out a continent gutted in the wake of European colonialism, the presidency devolves into a de facto dictatorship—a UN-forged democracy corrupted into autocracy. Waves of ethnic violence swept through Rwanda and neighboring Burundi, forcing hundreds of thousands of Tutsis to flee from the countries that were once their dominion and settle in shanty cities. But the minority rebelled. The RPF, led by current president Paul Kagame, begins its insurrection in 1987, streaming from diaspora camps across the southern Ugandan border to start a bush war in Rwanda’s northern provinces. The United Nations Assistance Mission For Rwanda (UNAMIR) was deployed in 1993 to enforced the Arusha Accords—a ceasefire between government forces and the RPF.
Their mandate stressed the “observance of the cease-fire agreement” and the “repatriation of Rwandese refugees and resettlement of displaced persons,” but they were nowhere near ready for the Hundred Days. UNAMIR peacekeepers, under the command of Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, were useless without a mandate to protect civilian lives. In the end, Belgium withdrew its 200-strong contingent, leaving the embattled general to weather the genocide with less than 300 men. Militia groups—namely the Interahamwe—aided by a vast Hutu radio network and large shipments of cheap Chinese machetes, systematically raped, murdered, and terrorized an entire population. Spurred to action, Kagame’s RPF took Kigali in June, three months after the instigation of hostilities.
Surviving remnants of the Hutu paramilitaries fled across the border into the Eastern Congo. When asked about the US role—or lack thereof—in Rwanda, President Clinton replied “. . . I believe we could have saved at least a third of the lives that were lost .
. . it (lack of intervention) had an enduring impact on me.” But Rwanda was not the beginning. Nor was it the end.
Ruling a pariah state from Kinshasa, Zaire’s crumbling capital on the shores of the Congo River, President Mobutu Sese Seko was losing his nation. He was an old man dying of prostate cancer, a dictator imbued with an outmoded Cold War mentality forced to live out his days trying haplessly to rein in a nation flirting with the razor edge of revolution. Ascending to office in the aftermath of a joint US-Belgian coup, Mobutu centralized his one man regime through a policy of corruption, economic exploitation, nepotism, and an almost Stalin-esque cult of personality. But the early 1990s saw an inundation of rebel groups, especially in the Eastern Congo, rubbing shoulders—and trading precious minerals—with Rwanda. Genocide was the match in dry hay that sent the region up in flames.
For a year and a half following June 1994, exiled Hutu genocidaires conducted a campaign of terror against local Congolese Tutsi that ended in October of 1996 when a coalition of Rwandan and Ugandan soldiers, and General Laurent-Desire Kabila’s rebel forces began their march through the Congo Basin towards Kinshasa. Mobutu fled to Morocco where he died, and Kabila took control, changing his country’s name from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Paul Kagame, Africa’s balding Napoleon—a ruthless commander and even more bloodthirsty politician—used genocide as Rwanda’s blank check, playing to Western guilt and sympathy to force a blind eye towards his military invasion of the Congo. When the smoke cleared in September 1997, the human tally was skirting another million. Though installed by Rwanda, Kabila’s government quickly became cold to foreign intervention.
July 27th saw Rwandan and Ugandan troops issued an ultimatum by the fledgling Kinshasa government: withdraw. Airlifts ferried the fighters back to bases in their home countries as tensions in Kinshasa boiled. Foreigners, months before hailed as liberators, were now uninvited trespassers. Embryonic, a violent cocktail of political upheaval and poverty brewed in the DRC, focusing in on the border city of Goma, a cancerous coagulation of shanties built in the shadow of an active volcano. On August 2nd, 1998, Tutsis in Goma mutinied against the newly-christened Kinshasa establishment.
An Uganda-Rwanda alliance was quick to respond, arming a fresh wave of rebels and sending in the armies they had just pulled back. Quickly advancing, the haphazard coalition of Mai Mai irregulars, foreign mercenaries, and war-tested soldiers nearly encircled Kinshasa. General Kabila’s tenure would have been brought to a premature end had Zimbabwe and Angola not intervened on the pro-government side. The war dragged on, claiming more than five million lives and involving nine nations across the breadth of Africa. In 2002, Joseph Kabila—new to the presidency after his father’s assassination at the hands of a bodyguard—finalized the Sun City Agreement in South Africa, a treaty among numerous warring factions to establish a multi-party republic in the DRC, with elections planned for the near future. Thabo Mbeki, the second post-apartheid executive of South Africa, cemented the global community’s obligation, stressing “processes to ensure that the political dialogue among the Congolese themselves takes place so that the people there can decide their future.
” Such dreamy-eyed idealism had to wait. With the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC) deployed, the situation in the Congo degraded from a full-scale war into a whirlwind of minor territorial clashes among rebel groups—a near-endless sea of acronyms. Like their UNAMIR predecessors, MONUC was useless, a wasteful byproduct of UN posturing stripped of the ability to ensure stabilization or prevent further atrocities. They were 20,000 blue helmets in white armored cars, idle observers on the sidelines of the world’s most underreported continuous conflict. April 6th, 1994 in Kigali is analogous to eighty years earlier, on June 28th in Sarajevo—the day Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot to death by a nineteen-year-old Serbian, sparking the First World War. The watershed moment of modern African history, President Habyarimana’s assassination spiraled the region into the world’s worst recent humanitarian crisis.
In total, the loss of human life from the Hundred Days and the two consecutive Congo wars sums to roughly seven million—an unimaginable number—and most of those from sickness or starvation. Victims still die today, as HIV-positive soldiers used rape as weapon, infecting the victimized population with AIDS. With violence unabated, the democratic republic promised by Kabila in 1997 has not materialized. If anything, the DRC has become the opposite, a purgatory where bullets determine legality and democracy is a reduced to a silly Western fantasy. Is there a solution? Maybe, but with MONUC, now MONUSCO, barricaded in their UN compounds, peace in the DRC becomes more distant by the day.
The US State Department, in a memo concerning hostilities in the Eastern Congo “fully supports the Peace, Security, and Cooperation Framework . . . as the basis for a political dialogue to resolve the longstanding conflict in the region.” In essence, an exercise in classic disengaged diplomacy—maintaining a humanitarian-friendly face while doing absolutely nothing—that quintessentially echoes the UN approach.
On the other hand, the massive influx of international aid and support for the RPF-established government in the wake of the genocide has transformed Rwanda from a cold sore to a crystal. It is the poster-child of a new Africa, with a real per capita income more that double that of 1994, one of the continent’s lowest unemployment rates, and a national economy that shows no sign of slowing its expansion. For a small landlocked country embroiled in the heart of darkness, Rwanda has outperformed itself. If nothing else, Central Africa’s hope is its future. The past has been written. Penance cannot be paid for torture under Belgian whips or murder beneath Hutu machetes.
Whatever reparations promised by the Arusha Accords or the Sun City Agreement will not bandage or mend a countryside of ransacked villages, starved mothers, and dead children. Violence is woven into the history of Africa—violence like Auschwitz on a continental scale. Two missiles can instigate destruction, but it takes much more to rebuild.