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Rwanda Civil War

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Rwanda Civil War

Rwandan Civil War

Map of Rwanda with towns and roads
Date 1 October 1990 - 4 August 1993
(first phase, up to Arusha Accords)
7 April 1994 - 18 July 1994
(second phase, up to RPF victory)
Location Rwanda
Result Military and political victory of the Rwandan Patriotic Front:

Rwandan Patriotic Front Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)

Supported by:


Rwanda Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR)
Coalition for the Defence of the Republic (CDR)

Supported by:

Commanders and leaders
Rwandan Patriotic Front Fred Rwigyema 
Rwandan Patriotic Front Peter Bayingana 
Rwandan Patriotic Front Paul Kagame
Rwanda Juvénal Habyarimana 
Rwanda Théoneste Bagosora
Rwanda Augustin Bizimungu
20,000 RPF[1] 35,000 FAR[1]
Casualties and losses
5,000 killed 5,000 killed

The Rwandan Civil War was a conflict within the Central African nation of Rwanda, between the government of President Juvénal Habyarimana and the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The conflict began on 1 October 1990 when the RPF invaded and ostensibly ended on 4 August 1993 with the signing of the Arusha Accords to create a power-sharing government.[2]

However, the assassination of Habyarimana in April 1994 proved to be the catalyst for the Rwandan Genocide, the commonly quoted death toll for which is 800,000. The closely interrelated causes of the war and genocide led some observers to assume that the reports of mass killings were in fact some new flaring of the war, rather than a different phase. The RPF restarted its offensive, eventually taking control of the country. The Hutu government-in-exile then proceeded to use refugee camps in neighboring countries to destabilize the new RPF government. The RPF and its proxy rebel forces prosecuted the First Congo War (1996–1997), which led in turn to the Second Congo War (1998–2003), all of which involved a Hutu force with the objective of regaining control of Rwanda. Thus while the civil war officially lasted until 1993, some literature has the war ending with the RPF capture of Kigali in 1994 or with the disbanding of the refugee camps in 1996, while some consider the presence of small rebel groups along the Rwandan border to mean that the civil war is ongoing.


The ethnic tensions between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority had their roots in the Belgian colonial era, where the ruling Belgian authorities empowered the Tutsi aristocracy, and cemented the second class status of Hutus, in what had previously been a fairly fluid social system. Upon leaving Rwanda, Belgian diplomats stirred the pot by reversing their favoritism, encouraging nationalist Hutu uprisings in the name of democracy. Episodes of violent attacks and reprisals between Hutus and Tutsis flared up in the first two decades following Rwanda's independence, building tensions and resentment that would explode in the civil war and genocide of the 1990s.[3]

A new wave of ethnic tensions were unleashed in 1990. One of the main causes was a slumping economy and food shortages. Throughout the year, the country was subject to bad weather and lessening coffee prices. These problems helped create a dangerous political climate. Further political tension was evident following a call by the for increased democracy in Francophone Africa. France, though not traditionally associated with Rwanda, began to show that it would put political pressure on Rwanda if it didn't make concessions to democracy. Many Rwandans heard the call, and began forming a democracy movement which protested during the summer.

Another source of mounting tensions in 1990, were the grumblings of the Tutsi diaspora. Those Tutsi who had been exiled over thirty years were now coming together in an organized group known as the RPF. The Hutu in Rwanda considered these Tutsi an evil aristocracy which had rightly been exiled. They pointed out that the descendants of these Tutsi no longer had any knowledge of Rwanda, and spoke English instead of French. The exiled Tutsi, however, demanded recognition of their rights as Rwandans which included the right to live there. These Tutsi began to pressure the Rwandan government, and eventually forced the Habyarimana government to make concessions. The RPF was under the command of Major-General Fred Rwigyema, who had risen to be deputy minister of defense in Uganda. However, growing xenophobia had led to his removal and new legislation prohibiting non-Ugandan nationals, including Rwandan refugees, from owning land. It was this "push" factor from Uganda, as much as the "pull" of their ancestral homes, that led the RPF to fight for citizenship in Rwanda.[4]

Habyarimana found himself forced to set up a national committee to examine the "Concept of Democracy" and to work on the formation of a "National Political Charter" which would help reconcile the Hutus and Tutsis. During this crucial point in negotiations the situation went bad. The RPF was simply unwilling to wait any longer for the Rwandan government to come through on its promises.

Preparation for war

The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) was formed in December 1987, as the successor organisation to the Rwandan Alliance of National Unity (RANU).[5] The new organisation's goals included facilitating the return of all Rwandan refugees to Rwanda, using force if necessary,[6] and to establish national unity and democracy in the country.[7] The RPF, composed primarily of second-generation Tutsis, numbered over four thousand troops who were well-trained in the Ugandan army and had combat experience from the Ugandan Bush War. The RPF rebels were organized in a clandestine cell structure.


1990 invasion

At 2:30 pm on 1 October 1990, fifty RPF rebels deserted their posts and crossed the border from Uganda into Rwanda, killing a customs guard at the Kagitumba border post.[8] They were followed by hundreds more rebels, dressed in the uniforms of the Ugandan national army and carrying Ugandan weaponry, including machine guns and rocket launchers.[8] RPF demands included an end to ethnic segregation and the system of identity cards, as well as other political and economic reforms that portrayed the RPF as a democratic and tolerant organization seeking to depose a dangerous and corrupt regime.[4] Both President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and President Habyarimana of Rwanda were in New York attending the United Nations World Summit for Children.[9] The role of Uganda was immediately brought into question. It is likely that Museveni knew of the RPF and its planned invasion, but did not explicitly support it.[10] Museveni had several motives for not interfering, including stability in western Uganda and the possibility of a strengthened position in future refugee negotiations with Habyarimana.[11] Museveni denies any knowledge however, stating years later in a conference with fellow African heads of state, that the RPF had launched the invasion "without prior consultation".[12] Museveni also said later that "faced with [a] fait accompli situation by our Rwandan brothers," Uganda went "to help the RPF, materially, so that they are not defeated because that would have been detrimental to the Tutsi people of Rwanda and would not have been good for Uganda's stability."[12]

In the first few days of fighting, the RPF made significant progress, advancing 60 km (37 mi) south to the town of Gabiro.[13] Their Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) opponents were numerically superior, with 5,200 soldiers, and possessed armoured cars and helicopters supplied by France, but the RPF benefitted from the element of surprise.[13] The RPF suffered a significant reversal on the third day, however, when commander Fred Rwigyema was killed. It is likely that Rwigyema was killed by his subcommander Peter Bayingana, following an argument over tactics,[14] although the current RPF-led Government of Rwanda contend that he was killed by a stray bullet.[15]

The offensive failed after France and Zaire militarily intervened. Zaire sent several hundred troops of the elite Special Presidential Division (DSP) to fight alongside Rwandan government troops. In a military operation code-named Noroît, France deployed the 1st and 3rd companies of the 8th Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment, consisting of 125 soldiers, who were based in the Central African Republic, to support the Rwandan government.[16][17] These forces were later joined by elements of the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment, 3rd Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment and 13th Parachute Dragoon Regiment.[17] France, which had signed a defense pact with Habyarimana in 1975, insisted that its forces had been deployed strictly to protect its nationals, but the parachute companies set up positions blocking the RPF advance to the capital and Kigali International Airport. Col. René Galinié had command of the initial deployment, but was replaced by Col. Jean-Claude Thomann on 19 October. France also supplied the Rwandan government with shipments of artillery, mortars and other military equipment, along with financial aid. France claimed to be countering "aggression launched from an English-speaking country."[18] At first, Belgium also supported the government but cut all military aid shortly after hostilities began, citing a domestic law prohibiting their military from taking part in a civil war. France, in contrast, supported the regime and gave significant military and financial support, thus replacing Belgium as Rwanda's major foreign sponsor.[18][19]

On 7 October 1990, the government forces launched a counter-offensive. The RPF who had only prepared for a short war began to fall back when it became clear that they did not have the heavy equipment needed to face the government forces in a conventional conflict. Major Paul Kagame, who was in the United States taking a course at the Command and General Staff College, was contacted and returned to take control of the rebel forces. To make matters worse, on 23 October, two more RPF commanders, Major Peter Bayingana, who had taken de facto command, and Chris Bunyenyezi, were arrested by Salim Saleh, the Ugandan president's brother, for the murder of Rwigyema and brought back to Uganda for interrogation and eventual execution.[20] The RPF force was thrown into confusion and by the end of the month, had been pushed back into Akagera National Park in the northeast corner of the country.[21][22] French spotter planes were used to find retreating RPF units so they could be destroyed by the FAR.[19]

On the night of 4 October, the Rwandan government staged a fake attack on Kigali with gunfire and explosions around the city. This piece of theater was intended to frighten the populace into supporting the war and encouraging the reporting of suspected RPF sympathizers among the Tutsi. Over 10,000 people were arrested. The reaction also included directed killing. A witness testified that, on 2 October, para-commandos under Major Aloys Ntabakuze separated civilians fleeing the fighting at Umutara into Hutu and Tutsi, and used grenades to kill the Tutsi. Eight days later, another witness testified that Ntabakuze ordered the ethnic cleansing of a village called Bahima. Ten days after the invasion, local officials in Kibilira were told to kill the local inyenzi and burn down their homes because of the threat of the RPF offensive. At least 348 civilians were killed in 48 hours.[23]

The RPF regroup

On his arrival, Paul Kagame began to reorganize the RPF forces, which had been reduced to less than 2,000 troops, and decided to develop a guerrilla warfare in the north of the country.[24] Museveni granted permission for the RPF to retreat back into Uganda for one night, during which Kagame and the troops completed a tiring overnight march west to the Virunga mountains, a high altitude area in which the Rwandan army could not attack them.[25] The RPF spent two months in the mountains, without engaging the government forces. Conditions were harsh and some members of the army perished due to freezing temperatures.[26]

The time in the Virungas was spent reorganising the army and rebuilding the leadership that had suffered so much during the fighting. Alexis Kanyarengwe, a Hutu and former ally of Habyarimana, was appointed RPF chairman; however, Tutsis continued to make up the majority of the leadership.[26] During this time, the RPF also recruited from the Tutsi diaspora. In addition to Ugandans, new members arrived from Burundi, Tanzania, Zaire, the United States, and Europe.[27] By early 1991, the RPF had grown to 5,000; by 1992 it had reached 12,000 and during the 1994 offensive it numbered 25,000.[28]

In addition to recruiting personnel, the RPF carried out fund raising activity. The Tutsi diaspora worldwide contributed, as did some businessmen within Rwanda who were the victims of corruption by the Habyarimana regime.[29] The RPF rearmed itself, both by purchasing arms on the international market and relying on clandestine supply from former colleagues in officer corps of the Ugandan army.[30]

Guerrilla war

By January 1991, Kagame restarted the war. The first move, on 23 January 1991, was a surprise attack on the northern town of Ruhengeri. Ruhengeri was chosen due to its proximity to the Virunga mountains and its perception as being a stronghold of the Habyarimana regime.[31] The RPF captured the town, benefiting from the element of surprise, and held it for one day before retreating back to the forests.[32] During the occupation they captured weapons and equipment from the Rwandan army and stormed Ruhengeri prison, freeing political prisoners.[32] The attack succeeded in creating a climate of fear in Rwanda.[32]

Following this action the RPF withdrew and began to carry out a classic hit and run style guerrilla war. Low intensity fighting dragged on with neither side managing to inflict any major defeats on the other. The RPF started broadcasting from Uganda into Rwanda on its own radio station, called Radio Muhabura in 1991. It was monitored by the BBC starting in 1992, and was mostly a propaganda instrument for the RPF. It accused the Habyarimana government of genocide as early as January 1993, even before the Arusha accords. Over the next few years there were numerous attempts at ceasefires, though they achieved little and the fighting continued until 13 July 1992 when a cease-fire was signed in Arusha.

Arusha accords and after

Main article: Arusha accords

The war dragged on for almost 2.5 years until a cease-fire accord was signed on 12 July 1992, in Arusha, Tanzania, fixing a timetable for an end to the fighting and political talks, leading to a peace accord and power sharing, and authorizing a neutral military observer group under the auspices of the Organization for African Unity. The cease-fire took effect on 31 July 1992, and political talks began 31 September 1992.

Over the course of the following months negotiations continued, though without any serious breakthroughs and with the tension on both sides mounting. Finally, following reports of massacres of Tutsi, the RPF launched a major offensive on 8 February 1993.

This offensive forced the government forces back in disarray, allowing the RPF to quickly capture the town of Ruhengeri, and then to turn south and begin advancing on the capital. This caused panic in Paris (a long term supporter of the Habyarimana regime) which immediately sent several hundred French troops to the country along with large amounts of ammunition for the FAR artillery. The arrival of these French troops in Kigali seriously changed the military situation on the ground. Implicit in their support for the government and their rapid deployment was the threat that, should the RPF advance on the capital, then they may find themselves fighting French paratroopers as well as Rwandan government soldiers. On 20 February, with the RPF only 30 km (19 mi) north of Kigali, the rebels declared a unilateral ceasefire and over the following months pulled their forces back. By that time, over 1.5 million civilians, mostly Hutu, had left their homes. .

An uneasy peace was once again entered into, which would last until 7 April of the following year. Over the following months the peace process developed. One of the stipulations of the agreement was that the RPF would station a number of diplomats in Kigali at the CND parliament building. These men were to be protected by between 600-1000 RPF soldiers.

The Tutsi diaspora miscalculated the reaction of its invasion of Rwanda. Though the Tutsi objective seemed to be to pressure the Rwandan government into making concessions which would strip Tutsi of their largely 'second class' status, the invasion was seen as an attempt to bring the Tutsi ethnic group back into power. The effect was to increase ethnic tensions to a level higher than they had ever been. Hutu rallied around the President. Habyarimana himself reacted by instituting genocidal programs, which would be directed against all Tutsi and against any Hutu seen as in league with Tutsi interests. Habyarimana justified these acts by proclaiming it was the intent of the Tutsi to restore a kind of Tutsi feudal system and to thus enslave the Hutu race.[33]

Military operations during the 1994 genocide

This section details the conduct of the war during the 1994 genocide. For details of the genocide itself, see Rwandan Genocide.

On 6 April 1994, President Habyarimana returned from negotiations in Dar es Salaam when his presidential jet was shot down, killing all inside. Interahamwe and the presidential guard began to kill opposition politicians and prominent Tutsi. Over the following days, it became clear that the target of these killings was the entire Tutsi population along with certain moderate Hutu. The Rwandan Genocide had begun and would last three months, killing hundreds of thousands of people, about 937,000 according to the RPF.

The nature of the genocide was not immediately apparent to foreign observers, and was initially explained as a violent phase of the civil war. Mark Doyle, the correspondent for the BBC News in Kigali, tried to explain the complex situation in late April 1994 thusly,

Look, you have to understand that there are two wars going on here. There’s a shooting war and a genocide war. The two are connected, but also distinct. In the shooting war, there are two conventional armies at each other, and in the genocide war, one of those armies, the government side with help from civilians, is involved in mass killings.[34]

By the evening of 7 April with killings becoming widespread and the RPF battalion in the parliament building coming under attack, the RPF renewed its offensive south. The RPF troops within the parliament building had fortified their defences during the previous months, in case they were caught in the capital with their supply lines cut and under attack. Now, these troops were engaged by the Rwandan army in the nearby army camp at Kanombe, near the airport. The rebel forces within the parliament complex, commanded by Lt Col Charlis Kayonnga, began to fight their way out and began to attack the surrounding government-held districts. Their primary focus, however, was to move north and link up with the main rebel army.

The main RPF forces in the north began a three pronged attack on the morning of 8 April. One group moved west to Ruhengeri and Char Mobile Force commanded by col Gashumba engaged government forces there, although they would make little progress and were more likely a defensive force securing the right flank of the RPF advance south. The second group under the command of Colonel Eugen Bagire (Commanding officer of the 7th Battalion) and Lieutenant-Colonel Fred Ibingira (Commanding officer of the 157 Battalion) moved down the eastern border of the country towards Kibungo. The third group under the command of Colonel Sam Kaka (commander of ALFA Mobile Force), Col. Charlis Ngoga (59th Battalion), Col. Musitu (21st Battalion), Charlis Muhire (101 Battalion) and Ludovic Twahirwa (known as Dodo, commander of the Bravo Mobile force) managed to make a major advance towards the capital by the evening of 11 April. Both sides began to reinforce and strengthen their positions, with the RPF beginning a slow but effective encirclement of the city. On 12 April, the provisional government fled to Gitarama in an attempt to escape the fighting.

In the east, the RPF faced little government resistance and reached the Tanzanian border on 22 April. However, with almost all of the RPF's heavy equipment focused on the battle for Kigali, the western advance on Ruhengeri stalemated.

In the capital, the RPF advance continued its slow yet methodical encirclement of the city, forcing the airport to close on 5 May due to intense shelling. A further sign of the success of Kagame's troops was the cutting of the Kigali-Gitarama road on 16 May. This was followed six days later by the capture of Kigali International Airport. In an attempt to reverse the defeats that it was suffering, the FAR launched a counter-attack on 6 June, although this was halted almost immediately and failed to achieve any significant gains.

The RPF forces, having control of the northern, eastern and southern suburbs, began to move north around the south-western edge of the city. This put further pressure on Gitarama which fell on 13 June. At this point, the RPF began to close in on the center of the capital, hoping to defeat the government forces in the field. This took the form of putting pressure on three sides of the city with infantry and light artillery and mortars, allowing the defenders no respite. Heavy fighting continued through June and into the first week on July. However, on 3 July the government forces began to withdraw from the capital, taking with them the majority of the civilian population. According to UN sources, they had almost completely run out of ammunition. The following day, after a three-month long battle, the RPF moved in and captured the entire capital.

In the meantime, the RPF's eastern forces had reached the south eastern edge of the country and then swung on an axis, hinged on Kigali, westward. Through June they pushed the government forces west through the southern region, along the border with Burundi. They finally stopped following their capture of Butare on 2 July and the arrival of the French, who blocked their path with the implementation of Opération Turquoise.

With the fall of Kigali, the government forces began to disintegrate. The army lost cohesion and began to rout, being closely pursued by the RPF. This made defending the last two northern towns of Ruhengeri and Gisenyi almost impossible. With his forces in the capital now freed up from the battle for Kigali, Kagame moved the bulk of his army north to capture the government's new power base. On 13 July, Ruhengeri finally capitulated, followed on 18 July by Gisenyi.

In the south-west of the country, French forces from Operation Turquoise controlled a large area, which was given over to the RPF on 21 August 1994, thus giving the RPF complete control of the country.


The Tutsi rebels defeated the Hutu regime and ended the genocide in July 1994, but approximately two million Hutu refugees - some who participated in the genocide and feared Tutsi retaliation - fled to neighboring Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zaire. Thousands died in epidemics of cholera and dysentery that swept the refugee camps. The international community responded with one of the largest humanitarian relief efforts ever mounted. The Rassemblement Démocratique pour le Rwanda, composed of Hutu troops and militia members, began to militarize the camps, using them as bases to overthrow the new RPF-dominated government.

Its patience exhausted, Rwanda sponsored an invasion of Zaire in 1996. Its chosen proxy force was the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL) led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila. The AFDL and Rwandan forces, supported by Uganda, cleared the border refugee camps easily. However, many Hutu militants fled westwards, away from the border. The AFDL followed behind, marching towards Kinshasa as the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko collapsed. The AFDL overthrew the government and Kabila proclaimed himself the new president of the renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in May 1997.

Kabila soon turned on his Rwandan and Ugandan supporters, who reinvaded the DRC in 1998 to overthrow Kabila. Kabila formed an alliance with the Army for the Liberation of Rwanda, the successor organization to the Rassemblement Démocratique pour le Rwanda. After Kabila was assassinated in 2001 and his son Joseph became president, Hutu militants reformed into the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).

The war ended officially in 2003. However, the remnants of the FDLR and possibly other Hutu militants maintain a presence in eastern Congo. While not strong enough to pose a threat to the Kagame government, they continue to destabilize the Rwanda-DRC border region.



  • Dallaire, Romeo. "Shake Hands With the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda". Arrow Books (2003). ISBNJ 0-09-947893-5
  • Steele, Jon. "War Junkie: One Man`s Addiction to the Worst Places on Earth" Corgi (2002). ISBN 0-552-14984-5

External links

  • Rwanda Civil War,
  • Human Rights Watch report of 1992
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