As has been the case for a number of years now, this date, 1st October, will pass quietly everywhere in Rwanda. Even then, it marks a day that sparked off an earth-shaking transformation of the people of this land.
Today marks the day when an assortment of young soldiers shed their Ugandan military insignia and crossed back into the country of their origin, which nevertheless was not known to them except in dreams.
Unbeknown to them, these young women and men were setting off on a journey to “that place, the place at the limit of human experience,” to quote a friend of Rwanda, Dr. I. P. Olwoch. After easily overrunning the scantily guarded border post of Kagitumba, they camped in its environs for the night.
However, their first full day in their denied country, 2nd October, greeted them with the shock of a magnitude they could not have imagined. But for the fact of many of them not knowing this, they’d all have cut and run with the fall of their commander and hero, Fred Gisa Rwigema. Doggedly, those senior among them took over command and they all proceeded.
By the end of the third day, the young women and men had thrust into Rwanda as far as Gabiro, 68 kilometres from the border, and were beginning to even entertain the idea of a negotiated settlement, their aim from the beginning. Alas, that dream was not to come!
Habyarimana (then president of Rwanda) ran to François Mitterrand (France) and the latter galvanised his ‘Foreign Legion’ as well as Mobutu (then-Zaïre, D.R. Congo today) and practically all the African ‘Francophonie’ countries for a counter-attack. When it came, the attack was like a hurricane and nothing like that from Habyarimana’s feeble force.
The young rebels that Habyarimana called “foreign enemies of Rwanda” were scattered and many of them disappeared in forests and rivers. By November that year, Habyarimana’s army had even known the truth of Rwigema’s death and was ready to celebrate the defeat of these “foreign enemies”.
What that army didn’t know was that a new commander was on the scene, after joining the rebels where they were holed up in the fringe forests of Rwanda. The new commander, Paul Kagame, put the rebels through a training regime that turned them into living phantoms, so elusive were they as a guerrilla force.
So, on 3rd November 1990 when the Habyarimana army was celebrating at the border town of Gatuna, it didn’t know what hit it. The phantom guerrillas came down and easily forcefully dispersed the celebrating soldiers, after which they took a leisurely walk back to vanish into their forest nooks.
That was in the north, so the Habyarimana army thought that at least it had established the location of the rebels. When they next attacked, however, the rebels could as well have come from thin air! The attack was on Ruhengeri town, to the west of Gatuna, and on that 21st January 1991 the rebels opened the gates of the local prison and freed a number of Habyarimana’s enemies.
With their ranks swelling as more and more Rwandans joined, from inside Rwanda and the Diaspora, and material and moral support accumulating, the rebels took over more territory and got the authority to push for a negotiated settlement by 1992.
However, in the end it was evident that the side of the Rwandan government had no intention of conceding to sharing power in a government of national unity. When the Arusha Peace Talks stagnated, therefore, and the international community showed no capacity to influence them, the rebels struck again.
In a three-pronged assault, they moved to consolidate the whole northern half of Rwanda. From the volcanoes they advanced over the whole area around Ruhengeri; from Ngarama they swept over Umutara area; and from Byumba they gunned for Kigali. On 8th February 1993 when they reached the edge of Kigali, the international community rose in startled alarm.
No, these rebels, an unknown quantity, must not take over, better the devil that you know. So, pushed especially by France in the wings, the United Nations (UN) and the rest of the international community launched a diplomatic offensive. And the diplomatic offensive succeeded in reining in the rebels.
The rebels, Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) cadres and their armed counterparts, Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA), pulled back to their bases in the north and north-east. As talks in Arusha, Tanzania, limped on again, RPF/A members joined the local populace to work the land and to demonstrate their shared values.
Meanwhile, the hardliners among the Habyarimana government used the chance to put finishing touches on their tested, grand programme of exterminating the people they perceived to be RPF collaborators.
As signing became inevitable and the date drew nearer, the tempo of abuse and the call for “work” on radios and in rallies similarly intensified. All that was needed was a trigger, and it was provided at 20h30 in the evening of 6th April 1994.
The rest, as they say, is history. But, in the case of Rwandans, it is gruesome history.
Rwandans went to that “place that exists at the limit of destructive human experience…… Genocide is that place.” (Dr. I.P. Olwoch again)
Now, imagine Rwandans without outside interference. There would have been no bloody, long, drawn-out war; no internally displaced persons camps; no genocide preparations; no genocide; no D.R. Congo camps; no ‘Mapping Report’…… Come to think of it, there would have been no colonialism; no ethnic division; no 1959-through-1993 deaths, et al.
A day that saw an action that finally put an end to the above cycle of death and foreign meddling launched should be celebrated with pomp and pageantry. That that is not the case goes to demonstrate that the RPF government is out to unite Rwandans around their shared values and is far from being authoritarian.
Three cheers to our braves of 1990!