photo of kagameGhosts of Rwanda
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paul kagame

Now the president of Rwanda, in 1994 he commanded the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the Tutsi rebel force which toppled the genocidal Hutu regime and brought an end to the slaughter. In this interview, he responds to those who say that once the genocide started, the invading RPF forces were set on taking over the country and would have opposed any outside intervention designed to get the two sides back to the Arusha peace process. He also talks about the genocide and its personal impact on him. "I have lived in a world of injustice. Perhaps the only responsibility I have is to try my best that I don't get involved in what one would call injustice, because I have lived it. I know what it means." This interview was conducted on January 30, 2004.

In 1990, when you launched offensive operations, did you, at that stage, have any sense that extremism would rise so dramatically in Rwanda?

Not exactly. But we knew there was extremism in the politics of Rwanda all along, because that's why some of us had been refugees since 1959. Over the years, in early 1960s and 1970s, there had been killings of Tutsis in different parts of Rwanda over and above the plight of other refugees, other Rwandans who are refugees, as I have said, in the neighboring countries.

The extremists were bent on going ahead to kill people and to delay the whole peace process. But nobody saw that.

So we mainly focused on the very factor that there was a need for change in the country, and that these stateless people - ourselves -- were everywhere in the neighboring countries and beyond, needed to come back home. Their problem needed to be addressed. So that's what mainly we actually focused on.

When the Arusha accords were signed and the first U.N./UNAMIR forces came on the ground, what was your sense of the mandate in place and time and the resources available to General Dallaire? Were they enough to do what was going to be required [for the mission]?

We always [were cautious] with the U.N., General Dallaire himself, and other people who used to visit us from Europe, from United States on this point of, one, whether the U.N. force had the actual mandate to [act] out the responsibility of assuring the security for the Rwandans, and whether they had enough capacity in terms of forces and equipment to carry off that responsibility.

We had always been worried that the presence of U.N. was simply going to give a false sense of security to people when they are actually not protected. All along, it was an argument, and we always brought it up in every meeting we attended.

What was General Dallaire's response to that?

First of all, I think he did not understand the magnitude of the program at the beginning. Secondly, he thought whatever capacity he had was perhaps enough to deal with whatever problem that would occur. I think he didn't fully understand the magnitude of the problem.

With these deaths, and when you tried to install the broad-based transitional government in the postwar time in Kigali, were you telling General Dallaire and others that the extremist movement was growing [stronger?]. What were the signals you were sending?

We always told him that. And we had specific intelligence that extremism was on the rise. There were camps for militias and their training to carry out the killings. We had the specific intelligence we shared with the U.N., after at some point, we realized the U.N. had similar information. Dallaire himself told me he actually had similar information, and he had had witnesses testifying to that.

So it was common knowledge that the extremists were preparing themselves; that extremism itself was on the rise, and we actually had to prepare for that.

When we interviewed Boutros-Ghali, he said that, at the time, in retrospect, the U.N. as an institution on the ground [was biased]; not Dallaire, but [Special Representative] Booh-Booh was biased, pro-Hutu, pro-government.

That was very true. Perhaps in your discussion with Dallaire at some point, if you haven't discussed it already, I did raise that with the General Dallaire himself. I even gave him information, which he later on corroborated and found to be true -- that Jacques Roger Booh-Booh had spent a couple of nights at Habyarimana's house on his invitation … and they were there planning how to use the U.N. presence to their advantage, and not there to deal with the problem.

I interviewed Prudence Bushnell. She talked about her trips to Rwanda in March 1994, and talked about U.S. policy at the time, and the pressure being put on the RPF to accept the extremist party in the parliament. She now says that that policy was wrong. Could you describe the message, the pressure you were getting from [the United States]?

It was wrong from the beginning, and we told them. In actual fact, that was not the only problem. You can imagine; we are fighting the extremists, and we are fighting for our own rights to go back home. All the international community did was to simply sandwich us, because they brought the U.N. forces to monitor the border, because they are saying we were getting arms to continue fighting the war.

So they brought U.N. forces to man the border behind us, on the Ugandan side. Then you had the forces of the government in front of us, who are free to get arms, because arms are not being stopped from entering into Kigali. So we are caught up right in the middle.

Every time visitors like Prudence Bushnell visited -- there are many others who used to come from Europe and other places -- we always pointed out that unfairness of how they were dealing with the problem, or the lack of understanding of the problem, and therefore, they will not easily deal with such a problem. We were very firm on saying that we cannot bow to the demand of the extremists, because all it meant -- whether you actually considered and agreed to whatever their demands were, or whether you didn't -- the fate was going to be the same. The extremists were bent on going ahead to kill people and to delay the whole peace process. But nobody saw that.

General Dallaire talks about the message that you gave to him -- you notified him that, in 48 hours, unless certain conditions were met, offensive operations would be launched. What was the message that you gave to him [regarding the hostilities]?

Very clearly. When the plane went down and we learned of the killings that had started in Kigali, we were getting a lot of information from Kigali, from people either related to those being killed, or from our own people who were at the parliamentary building, where we had a force guarding our politicians who had wanted to prepare the transitional government

So the information very clearly came in very fast, showing how targeted killings were being carried out and how these were spreading out; not only in Kigali, but going beyond Kigali to other parts of the country. We knew that was the usual style of massacres that had started.

Therefore my request to Dallaire, and very clearly I was telling him, "It is your job, it is the U.N.'s job. Since you have forces there on the ground, and you have always reassured us that the forces who are there [are] to give Rwandans security, then your job has started. You have to give Rwandans security. At least create some sense of peace, so that we can understand what has happened, who has killed Habyarimana and why."

But very clearly the killings went on. At some point then, because we used to talk on the phone, I told him the way I'm seeing things develop, demanded that, "If you don't take action, somebody is going to take action."

In this case, we are directly concerned, and we have to take action. Within the means we had, within whatever capacity we had, we could not sit there and watch the situation unfold the way it was unfolding without anybody doing anything about it.

You anticipated killings. Your intelligence told you the extremists [were engaged in] killings. But did you anticipate genocide, the extermination of the Tutsi population?

Well, all along, the people who had been targeted were actually the Tutsis. From the 1960s, I talked about -- In 1959, it was all of us who became refugees. It was that kind of categorization we could talk about in 1960s, in 1973. Even when we had started the peace process in 1992, end of 1992, killing started in the north. You know [Tutsis] were killed in the north, and actually that disrupted the peace process. So we were very sure that these massacres had the kind of connotation relating to genocide.

I don't know whether genocide just becomes -- I don't know. I cannot be able to say it's only when such a number has been killed that you call it genocide. But what I think is more the intent and the philosophy and the ideology behind the killings that describes anything to be a genocide. So we were sure the massacres were being carried out, and the Tutsi were being targeted, and it had happened before.

What we were not sure of was … the full magnitude and scope of the problem. We didn't fully understand it at the start. But we knew it was the same kind of thing that was [going on] at this time.

Once you started offensive operations, General Dallaire now says that he believed your intention was to go all the way to Kigali and to take power, and that you would have opposed any intervention that was simply designed to go back to the Arusha process. What was [your intent?]

You see, sometimes even in hindsight, I find this whole approach as being, at best, being very stupid. The issue at stake here was saving people. Their approach, whether it was to take over the government, whether it was --whatever -- I think there was urgency to save the people that were being killed.

You can see the difference here. While for us, we were worried about the people being killed; somebody else were thinking about whether the government was going to fall, and who was going to take over and blah, blah, blah. But that simply would have come as a result of whatever actions that could be carried out. But the process of saving people, [that was] a most urgent priority. That's what for us we were focusing on.

Whether as a result of the actions we were taking militarily on the ground to save people, to result in the genocidal government collapsing and therefore allowing us to take power, that simply was how indeed it came as a result of those actions.

The first thing was to save people. We didn't mind if the saving of people was to be done by Dallaire and his forces; in which case, if he had saved these people, we are not looking at him as leading a force that will take over power, but as a force under the U.N. that was simply carrying out his responsibilities.

What about a force that would have required going back to the Arusha accords? Was Arusha dead by April 7?

Yes, but what was the purpose of Arusha? The purpose of Arusha was to bring back peace to Rwanda, and allow the process of negotiations to take place so that a national unity government can be formed.

Now the moment one of the parties to the agreement or to the process had reneged on the process and started killing people and started the fighting, I think logically Arusha was dead; at least in this specific time when people are being killed.

In the first few weeks, Prudence Bushnell called you and you talked to her. She [recalls] when the call came through, she was at a friend's house on a Sunday, standing in the kitchen, when the call came through to Rwanda. She had to deliver the official U.S. demarche calling for a cease-fire, and that you said, in response to her, "Madame, they are killing my people." Do you remember that?

I do, very well. I actually remember it was [difficult] at the time. In fact, just close by, there was somebody -- I remember very well -- Roger Winter who was working for USAID. At that time, he was in Rwanda, and he had come to see me and, indeed, I talked to Pru Bushnell.

I hate remembering the conversation I had with her, because it always brings back those memories that, while for us we were focusing and seeing that hundreds of thousands of people are being killed, somebody was talking about something else that had nothing to do with saving the lives of these people who were being killed.

Therefore the message I was trying to give, to pass on to her, was that perhaps, first of all, we look at things differently. We are affected by what is happening on the ground different because I am Rwandese; she wasn't. Maybe she didn't understand what I was feeling myself, like other Rwandans [who] had similar feelings as mine. The priorities of people other than Rwandans was different, was somewhere else.

I think it had a lot to do with the indifference, total ignorance of what was happening, or lack of sensitivity to what was happening. So that was the message I was putting across to her -- that while for her, she's a diplomat, she's talking about different sorts of things that really had no bearing on what was happening, or what we should be seriously concerned about. I, as a Rwandan, deep in what was happening and deeply being affected -- My preoccupation was totally different.

Indeed, people were being killed. I used to pass dead people who had just died. Their bodies were still kind of fresh and warm, and some of these people are people we knew, we used to see. The soldiers who were fighting alongside me, some of these people were their relatives, their parents, their sisters. So we were in a totally different situation from that of Bushnell.

I've spoken to people at very high levels at the White House and the Pentagon about this very issue. They say, "Well, the fact is the official cease-fire line was just an act, and that there was a decision made [unofficially] that really, the best way to stop the genocide was to let the RPF continue their offensive." Did you have any conversations with people--

Such a clear message was not communicated to me. If that was the feeling, maybe, to simply act without my full knowledge that that was the case.

Can I ask you about this one particular case we're looking at in the film, about a senior U.N. employee, Florence Ngirumpatse, who was trapped in Kigali. What was your relation with her and tell us the story?

I have blood relationship with her. She comes from my auntie's family, and we knew each other. Some of my sisters had been brought up together with her, and some of her relatives brought up in my own family. It was a very close kind of relationship. I learned, first of all, when the genocide started and these militias were closing in on her house, she had with her about nine other people, if I remember correctly, most of them women and girls, young girls who were in school studying.

When that happened, through my sister who was staying in Brussels -- she was living there for a long time and now she lives in Rwanda -- she got my contacts, got my satellite telephone number. Through [my sister, she] managed to get my contact [information] and called me and talked to me. She told me how her house was surrounded by militias, and they are not sure for how long they would stay alive.

The immediate thought that came to my mind was to call General Dallaire just to see if she can be saved by the U.N., because I knew she had also been working for the U.N. for quite a long time. She was an employee of UNDP. She had worked for them for quite a long time. Dallaire promised to me he was going to try, but he didn't sound [very] convinced that he'd be able to save her. In any case, I left it to him to decide what to do, and we agreed he would call me back to tell me what had happened in case he had managed to save them.

But that phone [call] from Dallaire never came, so I made an attempt, I think, after two or three days to ask him what had happened, whether he had actually managed to get to these people and to save them. He told me when he tried, he actually saw militias around the house and therefore he had not wanted to attempt to rescue them in the case that that would actually result in their death.

Around the same day, I got the phone again. It seems they had cut off some of the telephone lines, but it seems she still had a line in her house that was not known to the killers. So she called me again very briefly, and she told me -- I remember she actually said -- she told me that they are already more or less dead. They haven't actually physically died as such, but they are dead according to her.

I asked her, "What do you mean?" She told me how all the women in the house had been raped by the militias who would just come in, sleep with them, then leave, then come the next day, and so on. So according to her, she said living like that is like being dead. So she said she doesn't know how long they want to stay alive, so she kind of said bye-bye.

I said, "Well, that's fine. I have tried my best." I told her that I had tried to tell Dallaire to come and rescue them, and that he had failed. I said, "Well, that's life. For us who are in a safe place, we can just keep on fighting to save those we can save." That was the end of the story.

I wanted to ask you about your strategy during the war. General Dallaire has called it a textbook guerilla war. One of the questions that's still in my mind is, how was it that you were able to win the war against a force that was actually much larger than yours? The flip side of that -- why did the government lose the war, when it [had a larger force]?

I think it was a combination of many factors. One of them was that we were convinced we are fighting for a just cause, and we were determined to win that war. We were very determined all along. We thought we would have -- First of all, we had no other alternative but to fight and win the war, or the consequences would be very grave to us and maybe to those we represented that wanted to restore the rights to their country. Thirdly, a force that is fighting on the basis of injustice can hardly win a war of that kind unless the forces against them are actually very weak, in my view.

But across the board, in our force and in Rwanda, was who supported our struggle in the diaspora. Everybody was convinced we had to fight the war, and we had to win that war. Then the other fact is perhaps, the master[y] of the situation we had in terms of how to fight the guerilla war. It took time, and it took patience, which also took courage and conviction -- that what you are fighting for was right and, therefore, if you fought correctly, if you had the right strategy, if you use the correct tactics, then it was a matter of time.

I heard a story that, after the war in Kigali, you met with General Dallaire, and said something to the effect that if you had been in his shoes, you would have acted and risk[ed] a court martial. He said he couldn't do that, and it pained him to know that that was what you would have done, and wished that that's what he had done himself. Do you remember that?

I remember that. We had the conversation with him. There was somebody else in that conversation, one of my staff whom I'm with here. I remember it was in my house, the first house I occupied when I came to Kigali. He had come to [see me] because he was supposed to be going to Canada, and I remember he was taking notes.

I told him first of all, that I thought generally, he maybe as a person was a good man. But he was serving a very hopeless organization, an organization maybe that has no principles, that follows no principles, that is just, in my view, useless, though it serves all of us and serves the international community. I was talking about the U.N. I told him how I thought personally that was wrong for him as a general with an army, armed, to see people being killed, and you don't save them because there is something called a mandate? So if a mandate does not address saving people, what is it for?

I told him, I said if I was ever to serve the U.N., and that situation developed, I would cease to be a member of the U.N. and just say I'm leaving, or I will disobey the orders of the U.N. and try to save the people until they sacked me. I told him I cannot serve as a general who will sit there and see people being killed and do nothing about it.

What will be the judgment of history on the men and women during those crucial moments, and the failure regarding Rwanda?

I can't tell, but I think it is a shame they might live with for a long time. How it affects them is a different matter. I don't know how different people are affected by different things. Those who are not very sensitive to such a thing and, therefore, as long as the roles they are playing and the jobs they are holding earn them money, then maybe that's all that matters to them.

But I'm in a different type of situation, where my worry was about my people in need. The Rwandans were just killing each other and the blood [was] flowing all over. So we seem to be in different worlds in this one world we live in.

As a head of state now, has the international system learned the lessons of Rwanda? If it happened again -- not in Rwanda, but somewhere else -- would the world respond any differently this time?

I have my doubts. My only message to people wherever they are is, if a such an issue came up or such a problem developed, they would really have themselves to blame if they didn't stand up to challenge it and deal with it and [not] wait for other people to come and handle it for them. That is the lesson we learned -- we, the people in Rwanda.

I'm not sure about what the U.N. or other members of the international community have learned about our situation. I am not sure. I don't see any sign that a lot of lessons were learned from it.

One final question, Mr. President. You know the village of Nyarabuye -- like so many villages across Rwanda, decimated by genocide. Survivors are now having to live in that village alongside people who had killed their families. Is it fair to ask them to do that?

I don't think it's very fair, but I ask them to do it. So it looks like we are also involved with some unfair things for higher goals in trying to rebuild the country. I think I have asked too much from the survivors of the genocide. They actually bear almost the full burden of reconciliation. The others, the perpetrators, or those associated with them, or those who didn't care what happened -- they have less they [actually] are doing to remedy the situation.

The burden is always put on the shoulders of the survivors. They are the ones we have to ask more than we are asking of others. But that's a very high price to pay. It's understandable, but that's also the cost of the reconciliation and the rebuilding process we have to be involved in for a better future for all of us. So we shall always feel indebted to the survivors, even ourselves, and in that indebtedness we only have to show that it doesn't happen to other people, and [maintain] still [that] it shouldn't happen again to those it has happened to before.

I just want to ask one final question. I've asked this of most people I've interviewed. As you look back now 10 years on -- just emotionally, not as a former general or as president, but just as a man who lived through this -- how has it affected you personally, and how do you reconcile the fact that humanity is capable of such evil?

Well, perhaps I do not fully realize or understand the full extent of the toll it has taken on me. But it's very difficult to understand how human beings can have [acted] at the cost of many lives, hundreds of thousands, millions, and get away with it; because, as we have a lot of developed countries, and we call ourselves a civilized group of human beings -- how collectively [can] we bear that responsibility of allowing such a things to happen and, later on, treat the situation as normal? It's heavy, it's painful, and I'm saying it at this time just from my personal viewpoint.

But the two are fused together -- whether I am a politician or president or whatever -- I am a person, so sometimes these different aspects, they are just fused into one. Each one either helps or affects the other to move forward. But in my inner feeling as a person, I have lived in a world of injustice. Perhaps the only responsibility I have is to try my best that I don't get involved [in what] one would call injustice, because I have lived it. I know what it means.

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posted april 1, 2004

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