By Pauline Moullot
"It was the summer of the genocide … One of the three soldiers broke my little finger, threw me on the bed, and raped me. When the first one was done, the second raped me as well. The third was looking; he didn't seem interested even if I was crying."
The scene is Rwanda in 1994, but these soldiers aren’t local; these are French troops—the very people supposed to be protecting Rwandans in the civil war. This quote comes from the November issue of the French feminist magazine Causette, which tells the story of Irene, a 54-year-old Rwandan Tutsi woman who accuses French soldiers of raping her during "Turquoise," a military operation led by France under a UN mandate to protect civilians.
Two days before this story was published, the magazine’s computer system was hacked, according to Causette’s director who filed a complaint for "fraudulent access into the informatics system and for deleting files." The magazine says all the files regarding French military actions in Rwanda disappeared and that a journalist's emails were broken into.
The hacking, even if it can't be proved, reveals that speaking of France's ambiguous role in Rwanda is still taboo there.
For many years, the French have been silent about their involvement in the Rwandan genocide. In 1994, more than 800,000 Tutsis were killed in just three months. Many of the Rwandan leaders who ordered the murder and rapes of thousands went to military school in France, and a few French officers were advisers to the Hutu transition government that started the genocide. Like the rest of the international community, France did nothing to stop it.
While Belgium and the U.S. apologized for not doing enough, France has never questioned its role in the massacre of hundreds of thousands and has even tried to place the blame on the current Rwandan government. Hutus are believed to have shot down the Rwandan president’s plane, and it was this assassination that sparked the Tutsi extermination campaign. But the crew of that plane was French, and so France opened an investigation to find who was responsible. In the end, France accused current Rwandan President Paul Kagamé of having ordered the murders. In 2006, Kagamé responded to the French accusations by breaking off diplomatic relations and ordering its own report on the French role in the genocide. It concluded that the French knew what was going on and even aided powerful Hutus—the so-called "brains of the genocide”—to escape the country.
But until 2010, there was an omerta—a code of silence—about Rwanda in France. Then in 2010 on a trip to Rwanda, Nicolas Sarkozy said he hoped to turn "an extremely painful page.” The French government announced it would create a "pole génocidaire." This special court is supposed to investigate genocide and crimes against humanity and should be launched at the beginning of 2012.
"There is no doubt that admitting some part of responsibility is a really important step… It's really huge compared to the silence that ruled in France since 1994," says Annie Faure. A doctor in Rwanda in 1994 with Médecins du Monde, Faure heard many accounts of sexual assault and helped the victims find a lawyer in France to sue the French military.
Causette magazine reported the story after three Rwandan women came to France for a trial last June. They first filed the complaint in 2004, but the case was taken to the wrong court. It took six years, but Faure found a new lawyer, and the case will be tried in the next few months.
Because the sexual assaults happened during wartime, the women have accused the French military of a "crime against humanity." Causette magazine reported soldiers acting like invaders in a colonized country, where sexual assault is the reward of the soldier. Colonel Jacques Hogard, who commanded one of the refugee camps during the Turquoise Operation even told Causette, "Of course dirty things can happen in a corner … but if this happened, they were isolated cases not a whole system."
But if Hogard is wrong and these rapes were found to be "systematic" and common among French soldiers during the Turquoise operation, it could legally constitute a crime against humanity.
"Of course we are used to seeing the military block the trials, but it is also because they are under the orders of the politicians. If the military talked, it could come up to the political involvement of France. It's the same thing about the trials of potential Hutu killers, as they can say things that could blame some French politicians. It's easier for everyone if their trials never come to an end," explains Stephanie Dubois de Prisque, a member of Survie association, a group that advocates on the behalf of survivors of the Rwandan genocide.
"These trials are highly political. You need judges well armed to attack the French military," says Faure. She says one of the judges who investigated a case about six Rwandans who accuse French soldiers of torture even had to go to Rwanda herself to hear the witnesses. "Prosecuting that case was quite a bummer for her," Faure says frankly. Yet the judge insisted that justice be independent, no matter the financial and procedural constraints.
Even if the justice is slow—there has been no significant progress since 1994—public debate in France has begun. While the attack on Causette is an assault on the fourth estate, it pushed the Rwandan issue into the French consciousness. Now, French citizens need to demand from their leaders that the truth come out and that the Rwandan women have their chance to be heard.
Pauline Moullot is an Editorial assistant at the World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of UK Department for International Development]