Early in the New Year, a French judge, Marc Trévidic, will release the report of his investigation into the causes of a 17-year-old plane crash that killed the former president of Rwanda and was used as the pretext for the 1994 Genocide.
In Kigali, there is tempered optimism that Trévidic’s findings will bring to an end a campaign by some in the French establishment to muddy history’s waters — an effort designed specifically to downplay France’s role in the genocide and, worse, place blame at the feet of the mostly Tutsi victims for the horrific fate that befell them.
Before the million dead had been buried, apologists and deniers — not to mention the perpetrators themselves — began to lean heavily on the counterintuitive assertion that it was the Tutsi-led Rwanda Patriotic Front that downed president Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane in April 1994.
If true, some argued, this established that the killings that took place over the subsequent three months were not premeditated acts of genocide as much as violent retribution by a grieving people on behalf of a fallen leader.
To many among the French military and political elite, the RPF made an irresistible target since it helped draw attention away from their own role in training, arming and advising the Hutu extremists who orchestrated the genocide.
The plane crash conspiracy theory also helped reinforce the prevailing view — a very useful one for culpable parties — that Africans are inherently prone to senseless violence and, in the words of former French president Francois Mitterand when asked about Rwanda, “In such countries, genocide is not too important.”
Genocide deniers found a hero in Marc Trévidic’s predecessor, Jean Louis Bruguière, whose 2006 report into the plane crash — which concluded that the RPF and current Rwandan President Paul Kagame were responsible — led to the indictment of several senior members of the Rwandan government. The report created a whirlwind of media attention but has failed to withstand the slightest waft of scrutiny.
Bruguière failed to examine the site of the crash, or indeed visit Rwanda at all.
He neglected to conduct even the most cursory examination of the available physical evidence. He didn’t even bother questioning the officials he made the subject of his grandstanding indictments.
Instead, the report comprised a handpicked selection of dubious eyewitness accounts, most of which have been retracted since.
The sloppiness and highly politicised nature of Brugiere’s methods is not limited to his work on the Rwandan genocide.
Since taking on Brugiere’s caseload, Trevidic has uncovered a disturbing pattern of evidence tampering and political meddling. In one case, Trévidic revealed how Bruguière suppressed video evidence that the Algerian military, and not radical Islamists, were responsible for the beheading of six Trappist monks in 1996; in another, he stands accused by victims’ families of a politically-motivated cover-up in the case of a bomb in Karachi that killed 11 French nationals.
Turning his forensic eye to the Rwanda case, Trévidic moved to suspend the RPF indictments pending the completion of his investigation. His meticulous approach to pursuing the truth — whereby he relied heavily on scientific evidence and independent expert analysis — stands in admirable contrast to the now disgraced efforts of his predecessor.
There is no way to know what the report will contain, but Rwandans are encouraged by what they see and hear of Trévidic’s methods and reputation. In July, Time Magazine praised his “honesty, determination, [and] hostility to political meddling,” a necessary combination of virtues for anyone standing for truth against powerful forces arrayed in favour of potent fictions.
This is why Trévidic matters.
Rwandans don’t need the French judiciary to explain what happened in April 1994 or to justify the nation’s path in the years since. Other investigations, notably the extremely thorough Mutsinzi Report, have already made Bruguière something of a laughing stock.
But, as the government of Rwanda showed by severing diplomatic ties with France in protest at Bruguière’s wrecking ball assault, it concedes very little when it comes to reckoning with the genocide.
(Least of all, the point has been made to me, from countries that could have intervened to stop the bloodshed but had other priorities at the time.)
The lies that permeate the Bruguière report stung mostly because they served to energise the forces of denial and distortion that, in turn, imperil Rwanda’s recovery. By repairing the historical record, Trévidic can allow Rwanda to proceed, undaunted, along that road.
Phil Quin is a writer and commentator based in Kigali. E-mail: www.thenewtasman.com Twitter: @philquin