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History, Civil War

RPF army, Pasteur Bizimungu, Lake Kivu, Gisenyi, Tutsi

In April 1994, shortly after concluding peace negotiations with the RPF that called for UN peacekeeping forces to be stationed in Rwanda, President Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira were killed when their plane was shot down near Kigali. Responsibility for the attack has not been established. Habyarimana’s death provoked a wave of ethnic violence, prompting UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to accuse the Hutu-dominated Rwandan Army of genocide against the Tutsi. At the height of the violence, the UN forces, lacking a mandate to protect civilians, abandoned Kigali. Over the next few months, it is estimated that between 500,000 and 1 million Rwandans, mostly Tutsi, were massacred. The RPF army pushed toward Kigali, and a civil war ensued. In June the French government sent 2,500 troops to Rwanda to establish a safe area in the southwestern part of the country. But attempts to mediate a cease-fire failed as the RPF mounted a successful final assault.

After capturing the capital of Kigali, RPF troops began to drive the Rwandan Army and Hutu civilians northwest, toward the Rwanda-Zaire border. Retaliatory violence by Tutsi claimed several thousand lives, including that of the Roman Catholic archbishop of Kigali. By mid-July, an estimated 1.2 million Rwandans had fled the advancing RPF army across the border and into Zaire, forming enormous refugee camps around the city of Goma. By early August, an estimated one-quarter of the prewar population of Rwanda had either died or fled the country. International relief efforts were mobilized to care for the refugees, but available supplies were inadequate and outbreaks of disease were widespread. In the midst of the squalor of the camps, more than 20,000 refugees died in a cholera epidemic.

A cease-fire was declared in July, and an RPF-backed government was established with Pasteur Bizimungu, a moderate Hutu, as president. The RPF made a point of including other groups in the government. Many Tutsi refugees began to return to Rwanda, including refugees who had fled in the 1960s, but the repatriation of Hutu refugees was slower, as many feared reprisals.

Former United States president Jimmy Carter sponsored a summit in Cairo, Egypt, in November 1995, on the issue of Rwandan refugees. The summit was attended by the presidents of Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zaire, and a representative from Tanzania. An agreement was reached to work to return refugees to Rwanda. In the next months refugees began returning in large numbers from Burundi and Tanzania, but few returned from Zaire. The UN mission in Rwanda ended in March 1996.

Throughout 1996 more than 1 million Rwandan refugees, most of them Hutu, remained in camps in Zaire. The civil war that erupted in eastern Zaire in late 1996 revealed that these camps contained small percentages of armed Hutu militias. These Hutu, likely the same who led or participated in the 1994 massacres of Tutsi, used the huge refugee camps as places of refuge while they organized raids into Rwanda with the goal of overthrowing the RPF government. The Hutu refugees remained in the camps either out of fear of Tutsi retribution in Rwanda or because they were held against their will by the militias. The militias clashed with the largely Tutsi eastern Zairian rebels around Lake Kivu, often very close to the border between Rwanda and Zaire. The Hutu militias were aided by the Zairian government, the Tutsi rebels in Zaire by the Rwandan government. Cross-border artillery shelling was reported near Gisenyi, north of Lake Kivu.

In October and November 1996 the Tutsi rebels successfully routed Hutu militias in several huge refugee camps near the border. Some 800,000 Rwandans poured home, but several hundred thousand remained in Zaire. As the civil war spread and the rebels gained territory, the Rwandan refugees were forced west, deeper into the jungles of Zaire. Despite international outcry over their plight, the constantly moving refugees remained largely beyond the reach of aid workers. By the end of Zaire’s civil war in May, tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees had been killed in the fighting, or had died of disease or starvation.

The UN voted in late 1994 to establish the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which opened in Arusha, Tanzania, in 1996. Trials began in early 1997, but the UN tribunal has been criticized for mismanagement, poor organization, and its slow pace. The RPF government began its own trials of more than 120,000 people accused of crimes related to the 1994 massacres in 1996. Meanwhile, Rwanda was again plagued with outbursts of ethnic violence in 1997. Hutu guerrillas, who presumably returned to Rwanda from Zaire with the flood of Hutu refugees in late 1996, slaughtered Tutsi in a series of attacks in 1997.

In March 2000 Bizimungu resigned the presidency after clashing with the RPF over the composition of a new cabinet and accusing parliament of targeting Hutu politicians in anticorruption investigations. Bizimungu was succeeded by vice president and defense minister Paul Kagame. Kagame, the former head of the RPF rebels, had long been considered Rwanda’s real political leader. Kagame became the first Tutsi president since the nation’s independence.



Article key phrases:

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