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Claude Gatebuke on surviving the Rwandan genocide | The World Weekly

Today, Claude Gatebuke is the executive director of the African Great Lakes Action Network (AGLAN) and works tirelessly to raise awareness of the problems facing this tumultuous region. He was 14 years old when he was forced to flee Rwanda amid genocide. Those early years of the Rwandan civil war are still vivid in Mr. Gatebuke’s mind.

The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded the country from northern Uganda in October 1990. Up until this moment, Claude Gatebuke remembers growing up in Rwanda as a peaceful time, but he’s well aware that this was not the full picture. “It was a balloon waiting to explode,” Claude tells The World Weekly. The collapsing scenery of the Habyarimana regime was nothing to romanticise, he says.

As a result of the war, one million people fled from the countryside into the capital Kigali and arms followed them, leading to greater violence. “Robberies became armed robberies,” Claude says. “It was cheaper to get a grenade than it was to get a bottle of soda or a loaf of bread.”

He recalls assassinations, as well as terror attacks, followed by massacres. But the killing would not yet reach its terrifying climax until the president’s death.

Rwanda’s nightmare

On April 6, 1994, the plane carrying President Habyarimana and his Burundian Hutu counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot down. By most accounts, the forces responsible were extreme Hutu nationalists; by others, the RPF downed the plane. Some have even pointed the finger at the president’s wife Agathe Habyarimana. Whatever the case may be, the assassination of the two presidents was a catalytic moment and what followed would haunt the rest of the world to this day.

At the time, however, teenage Claude had other things on his mind. “I didn’t think a lot of it,” he says. “My serious first reaction when my mum told us about it: I thought ‘I hope the president is not dead because that’s probably going to ruin our soccer tournament’. We had just qualified for a final in the city-wide tournament. So that was my biggest worry.” But the terrible consequences soon came.

That night in Kigali, the sky was lit up by the flashes of gunfire and explosions. Everywhere the shelling could be heard. The rebels were making gains in the countryside so as to encircle the capital, and the most extreme elements of the regime made their move against the Tutsi minority. Within the first hour, the Hutu militias set up roadblocks to single out their targets. It was easy as Rwandan citizens were issued with identity cards - first introduced under Belgian colonial rule.

The bones of thousands of genocide victims inside one of the crypts at the Nyamata Catholic Church, in Nyamata, on April 4, 2014

“The city was covered with smoke from the bombing… the smell of burnt buildings, gunpowder and decomposing flesh” as the violence spiralled out of control, Claude recalls.

Quickly, neighbours were turned against one another. “We had a next door neighbour, who would order people into his house and kill them at night. He would beat anyone who resisted with a club.” Piles of bodies began mounting up in the streets.

The well planned and organised killing machine required mass participation from ordinary citizens. Many Hutu civilians feared the Tutsi rebels would slaughter them once they took over. Mixed communities were suddenly pitted against one another.

Although the Gatebuke family was protected by some neighbours, they were a target for others. It was clear they could not stay in Kigali.

Escape from Kigali

As Claude and his mother were trying to get out, they had to pass through checkpoints and they were eventually stopped and identified as Tutsis. The militia singled them out for execution. Handing them shovels, the militiamen ordered 14-year-old Claude and his mother to dig their own graves. This is how the story ended for so many Rwandans. But at the last minute, neighbours intervened and talked the men out of the execution.

Luckily, Claude, his sister Alice and their mother sought refuge in Zaire (now the DR Congo), where an American aid worker connected to Claude’s father helped to smuggle them into Uganda and apply for asylum in the United States.

Most Rwandans were not so fortunate. As the civil war reached its bloody end, between 500,000 and 800,000 people - mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus - were slaughtered in 100 days.

Rwanda’s future president and RPF leader Paul Kagame is pictured in Kigali, just after winning the civil war, on July 20, 1994

Many analysts saw the direction in which Rwanda was heading, but few, if any, believed the slaughter would go as far as it ultimately did.

The story goes back to how Rwandan society was organised, by Belgian colonialists, to divide and rule the population between Hutu and Tutsi. This ethnic division became the focus of Hutu nationalists, who sought independence from Belgium, but also the end of Tutsi minority rule.

Senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Dr. Keith Somerville, tells The World Weekly that the distinctions of Hutu and Tutsi can be seen in terms of social class and not ethnicity. Hutus and Tutsis speak the same language, have the same customs and intermarry. The historic criteria for distinguishing a Tutsi from a Hutu was wealth and ownership of cattle. Yet Belgian rule enforced the Hutu-Tutsi divide as an ethnic difference, and this idea became ingrained in the society.

As part of the push towards independence, the rise of Hutu nationalism led to the expulsion of many Tutsis to neighbouring Uganda, laying the basis for the future civil war. In the meantime, a new set of Hutu elites maintained power in Rwanda. President Gregoire Kayibanda based his power on a southern Hutu base, and when General Habyarimana toppled him in 1973 power shifted to the north. Initially, the new government was much more moderate, even though it was aligned with radical nationalists.

By the late 1980s, the Rwandan economy was losing out due to falling international coffee and tin prices. That emboldened the most chauvinistic elements of the regime and President Habyarimana began making concessions.

Claude Gatebuke calls for the end of ‘strongman’ regimes

By then, the Tutsi refugees had helped oust the Ugandan government and brought rebel leader Yoweri Museveni to power. He would return the favour and supported the Rwandan Patriotic Front to the hilt.

On July 4, 1994, the RPF overcame the government’s forces and captured Kigali. The day would become a public holiday called Liberation Day, as Paul Kagame’s men secured the capital and the genocide was finally brought to a halt in the days that followed.

For many, Mr. Kagame is a hero who waged a just war against a genocidal regime, heralding a new era of stability and prosperity in Rwanda.

Mr. Gatebuke, however, takes issue with this view.

The Congo Wars

Although the 1994 genocide was over, the mass killings in Rwanda were a pivotal moment as power shifted throughout the region. In the last days of the civil war, two million Rwandans streamed across the border into Zaire, fearing a bloodbath. 

As Mr. Gatebuke puts it: “The genocide opened the floodgates, not only of refugees, but of invasions into the Congo.”

Once an ally of Hutu nationalism, Mobutu welcomed the Rwandan refugees, knowing that the genocidaires were among their ranks. However, the Mobutu regime was in its last years, the Cold War was over and apartheid was being dismantled in South Africa. Consequently, Mobutu was no longer seen as a valuable asset to Western powers. In Mr. Gatebuke’s words, Mobutu had become an “expired tool” by 1994.

The ground was set for a realignment of alliances. “When Museveni came to power in Uganda, and Kagame in Rwanda, it was time to replace the old with the new,” Mr. Gatebuke tells The World Weekly. “Kagame and Museveni came in as a replacement for Mobutu.”

Friends of the Congo presents the documentary Crisis in the Congo: Uncovering the Truth (2011)

So when Rwanda and Uganda decided to invade, the US had little qualm. The pretext was that the refugee camps were controlled by the old regime and its deadly militias. The RPF argued that the camps could be used to stage a new invasion of Rwanda.

Today, Rwanda and Uganda remain allied to the US. Congolese activist Kambale Musavuli tells The World Weekly why the two countries are vital to US interests: 1) They advance neoliberal policies in the region, 2) they can be counted on for support at the UN; 3) they provide soldiers for peacekeeping efforts; 4) in the case of Uganda, they provide personnel for private US military companies; 5) they support the US in its operations on the continent.

“I think the stated reason for invading the Congo, which was to find those who committed the genocide and bring them to justice, was just an excuse to go into the Congo in the first place,” Mr. Gatebuke says. “If you look at the UN mapping report that came out in 2010, the report talks about how [the RPF] was rounding up blind people and handicapped people, and women and children, and killing them. They indiscriminately shelled the refugee camps.”

Following the 1996 invasion, Rwanda and Uganda made short work of the Mobutu regime and within a year Laurent Kabila was brought to power. Almost overnight, the country’s name was changed from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Much like the RPF, the new Congolese government draped itself in the rhetoric of liberation. What hope there may have been was soon lost, as a new tragedy unfolded.

Once in power, President Kabila moved to expel the Rwandan and Ugandan forces still in the country and his old allies opted to overthrow him and led a new invasion in 1998. In response, Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe intervened on the side of the Kabila government. The fighting led to the widespread use of child soldiers and war rape. Much of the country became a lawless battleground for territory and minerals.

“Every time they invaded,” Claude notes “Uganda and Rwanda would go right to the sites of the minerals, coffee and timber, and empty these areas of resources and take them back home. The exports of both countries grew exponentially in the late 1990s and early 2000s. At one point, Rwanda and Uganda even fought each other - killing 3,000 people - over a diamond mine in Kisangani.”

“The primary reason was to plunder the resources and install a friendly government,” Mr. Gatebuke argues.

A DRC soldier finds a Rwandan army badge after repelling the M23 rebels at Chanzu hill, near Goma, on November 5, 2013

The country has immense resources and it has been estimated that the untapped mineral wealth may be worth as much as $24 trillion. It includes the world’s largest deposits of coltan, as well as massive reserves of gold, copper, cobalt and uranium. These resources are vital for the production of everything from mobile phones and game consoles to engines and nuclear reactors.

In 2001, President Laurent Kabila was shot dead in his office by a bodyguard. He became a martyr in the Congolese political discourse, although his death has never been fully investigated. His son Joseph Kabila was flown in to take over. Eventually, the Second Congo War ended in 2003 through negotiations, but the fighting has never really ended in the Eastern Congo. Rwanda and Uganda have continued to support rebel movements, such as the M23 rebellion in 2012.

Despite its economic importance, the DRC does not loom large in the public consciousness. It was estimated in 2008 by the International Crisis Group that 5.4 million people had died as a result of the Congo Wars. A 2011 study approximated there were on average 48 rapes every hour in the DR Congo.

Yet this suffering goes largely unnoticed. As Claude tells The World Weekly: “If CNN isn’t calling you out, and Al Jazeera isn’t calling you out, and all other major media isn’t calling you out, you can get away with a lot”.

“The war in Rwanda and the wars in the Congo were not just Africans killing each other,” Mr. Gatebuke says. “There were major geopolitical implications. The Western backing was not incidental, or about stopping genocide, it was a very well calculated investment.”

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