Was France complicit in the Rwandan genocide?

The question has dogged France since the 1994 mass slaughter. President François Hollande announced Tuesday that the country will declassify official documents that could finally shed light on its role at the time. 

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
French President François Hollande announced France's plans to declassify documents related to the 1994 Rwandan genocide on Tuesday.

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France plans to declassify documents related to the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which hundreds of thousands of people died, French President François Hollande announced Tuesday. The move could shed light on unanswered questions over the mass killings in which Rwanda accuses France of being complicit.

The documents from 1990-94 include files from then-President François Mitterand’s advisors as well as notes from ministerial and defense meetings, Reuters reports. The files will be available to researchers and victims’ organizations.

"The Franco-Rwanda political, diplomatic and military relationship during the 1990-1995 period has been a tightly guarded domain," Rwandan Minster of Justice Johnston Busingye told Agence France-Presse Wednesday.

"Perhaps the goings on at the time will finally be opened up, and it will shed light on the many dark and grey questions still unaddressed. One only hopes that the declassification is total."

More than 800,000 ethnic Tutsi and politically moderate Hutus were killed over the course of a three-month rampage that began in April 1994 after the president, a Hutu, was killed when his plane was shot down.

Rwanda has repeatedly accused France of an indirect role in the genocide: The former colonial power was allied with the Hutu nationalist government. It’s a claim that France denies, insisting its soldiers worked to protect civilians, but the controversy lingers: French officials did not attend last year’s 20th anniversary commemorations of the genocide.

Despite praise for the move to declassify the French files, Rwandan President Paul Kagame called this week for more action by international peacekeepers in Congo. He said rebels who carried out the genocide are still walking free across the border in eastern Congo, and more international political will is needed to overpower them, reports The Associated Press.

The Rwandan leader said that at the end of 2013 the U.N. forces in eastern Congo crushed the M23 rebel group, which was barely a year old. Yet the rebels blamed for the genocide, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, continue to exist across the border in eastern Congo 21 years later.

Kagame complained that the U.N. had vowed to eradicate several rebel groups "causing havoc" in eastern Congo, "but this has not happened." He said the U.N. has made excuses for not dealing with the remaining rebel groups.

There have been, however, widespread efforts over the past several years to bring a sense of justice to victims and to promote reconciliation between Tutsis and Hutus. Many hope that the declassification of French documents could further help the process.

“It is something that we see every year in April, during the official mourning month – people whose experiences come back to them very strongly,” Charles Mudenge, a psychiatrist at the University Teaching Hospital in Kigali, told The Christian Science Monitor before last year’s 20th anniversary. 

More than 2 million cases were heard before local Rwandan village courts, named gacaca; at a higher judicial altitude, some 49 of the genocide’s worst offenders were convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which sits in Tanzania.

The question remains whether all this is enough to avoid anything like a repeat of the genocide, in a country which had a history of mass killings between its people stretching back to its colonial era.

The answer probably lies with Rwanda’s expanding, tribeless, educated twenty-somethings who are too young to remember the genocide or the politically incited ethnic hatred that caused it.

“The divisionism of before is gone. All of us now have equal access to opportunities,” says Jonathan Inyandemye, a 20-year-old who grew up in a two-room house with a leaky tin roof but who has just been accepted to Harvard to study civil engineering. “It means we all see that there is just too much to lose if there is anything like that fighting ever again.”

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