By James Stairs
Kigali (dpa) – A security guard sits behind large metal gates, listening to a radio at the French cultural centre in downtown Kigali. ‘It’s closed,’ he says, a smirk spreading across his face. ‘Not much happening here these days.’
In November, 2006, France and Rwanda cut diplomatic ties as a row between the two countries over France’s role in the 1994 genocide escalated. Since then, the countries have traded sharp words and indictments, accusing each other of revisionism to suit their own agendas.
For Venuste Kayimahe, a Rwandan writer, the building has dark memories that time cannot heal. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says, glancing at the gates and shaking his head, ‘but you’ll understand that I cannot go into that building.’
For over 20 years, Kayimahe was employed as a technician at the cultural centre.
On April 6, 1994, Rwanda descended into mayhem in the aftermath of the airplane crash that killed the president, Juvenal Habyarimana.
Within hours, Kigali was in chaos. Hutu radicals incited their supporters with radio broadcasts, instructing them to exterminate Tutsis.
When the killing was over, as many as 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were dead.
Kayimahe was at the centre with his wife and two of his children when the genocide began. His five other children were on the other side of Kigali.
Outside, on the main street, horrific scenes began to unfold. Gangs roamed the streets demanding identification cards, abducting and killing Tutsis.
Up the hill, the Milles Collines hotel, made famous by the 2004 Hollywood movie Hotel Rwanda, was under siege, packed with terrified refugees.
Just below, the infamous Saint Famille church, also filled with people seeking asylum. Shortly after, it became the site of large-scale massacres.
Its priest, Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, reportedly donned a flak jacket and wielded a pistol as he joined in the killing.
Trapped, Kayimahe was desperate with worry over the fate of his children.
Yet his employers were nowhere to be found. He telephoned his supervisor, Anne Cros, but she ignored his pleas for help.
When she showed up several days later to collect and destroy official documents, she again refused.
Kayimahe would later learn that his 13 year-old daughter had been killed.
French soldiers eventually arrived, but only to evacuate their own nationals, he said. Rwandans were left to themselves.
For days, Kayimahe and his family managed to avoid attacks by hiding in the ceiling of the centre.
They were eventually smuggled out of the country by Belgian troops, concealed under a tarpaulin in the back of a truck.
The horrific images of the time will never leave him, he says.
Rwanda has long accused the French of backing the Hutu militias to maintain their influence in the region. In August, they released a 500-page report detailing France’s complicity.
French troops, the report claimed, were sent to Rwanda during the genocide, not to stop the killing as claimed, but to reinforce the new Hutu regime.
France also trained the militias, was aware that plans for the genocide were being laid and intervened only to facilitate the escape of the killers, the authors said.
Some 33 high-ranking French political and military officials were named, including the late president Francois Mitterrand and former prime minister Dominique de Villepin.
France has levelled accusations of its own. President Paul Kagame’s rebel army, it claims, killed thousands during its campaign to re-take Rwanda.
A 2006 indictment of nine Rwandan leaders by French judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere caused fury in Kigali.
The French court alleged that Tutsi rebels, led by Kagame, were responsible for shooting down Habyarimana’s airplane.
The fact that French citizens died in the crash gives them jurisdiction, the court said.
In November, Rose Kabuye, Kagame’s director of state protocol and a former officer in the Rwandan Patriotic Front, was arrested at a German airport and extradited to France.
The former mayor of Kigali was charged under French anti-terrorism laws and agreed to face trial. The Rwandan government has described the charges as ‘a farce.’
For Kayimahe, seeking justice is the only way to rid himself of the ghosts of the genocide.
He has written extensively about French involvement in the genocide, drawing on the time he spent organizing events at the cultural centre.
‘The French are guilty of crimes in Rwanda,’ he says.