Posted by: Lister | October 6, 2007

France’s Secret War

Johann Hari’s article in the Independent, about France and the Central African Republic.

For 40 years, the French government has been fighting a secret war in Africa, hidden not only from its people, but from the world. It has led the French to slaughter democrats, install dictator after dictator – and to fund and fuel the most vicious genocide since the Nazis. Today, this war is so violent that thousands are fleeing across the border from the Central African Republic into Darfur – seeking sanctuary in the world’s most notorious killing fields.

The story begins with an account of France bombing the city of Birao.

They explain in this blackness that the French-backed troops began firing and the French military began bombing in March for one reason: the desperate locals had begun to rise up against President Bozize, because he had done nothing for them. People here were tired of the fact that “there are no schools, no hospitals, and no roads”. “We are completely isolated,” they explain. “When it rains, we are cut off from the world because the roads turn to mud. We have nothing. All the rebels were asking was for government help.” As I stumble around Birao, I hear this every time: the rebels were simply begging for government help for the hungry, abandoned people. Even the bemused French soldiers and the Bozize lackeys sent to the area admit this privately. Yet the French response was with bombs against the rebels’ pick-up points. Why? What is there here that they want?

[…] This is a forgotten corner of a forgotten country. Birao lies and dies in the far north-east of the Central African Republic. CAR itself has a population of just 3.8 million, spread across a territory bigger than Britain’s, landlocked at the exact geographical heart of Africa. It is the least-reported country on earth. Even the fact that 212,000 people have been driven out of their homes in this war doesn’t register on the global radar.

[…] French flag was first hoisted in the heart of Africa on 3 October 1880, seizing the right bank of the Congo for the cause of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – for the white man.

[…] One horrified French administrator wrote in the 1920s that the locals reacted to being enslaved by the corporations by becoming “a troglodyte, subsisting wretchedly on roots until he starves to death, rather than accept these terrible burdens”. Areas that had “only a few months ago been rich, populous and firmly established in large villages” became, he wrote, “wasteland, sown with dilapidated villages and deserted plantations”.

But in the 1950s, men like Zolo rose and refused to be enslaved. “We followed Boganda,” he says. Barthélemy Boganda was born in a Central African village near here in 1910, and, as a child, he saw his mother beaten to death by the guards in charge of gathering rubber for a French corporation. He rose steadily through the Catholic priesthood, married a French woman, and, quite suddenly, became the leader of the CAR’s pro-democracy movement. He would begin his speeches to the French by introducing himself as the son of a polygamous cannibal, and then lecture them on the values of the French Revolution with a fluency that left them stunned and shamed. He crafted a vision of a democratic Africa beyond tribe, beyond race and beyond colonialism. He was passionate about the need for a plurality of political parties, a free press, and human rights. He rhapsodised about his vision of a United States of Africa, linking together the countries of Central Africa into a USA Mk II.

“And they killed him,” Zolo says, shaking his head and kicking at the earth beneath his feet. On 29 March 1959, not long after the French era of direct rule had ended, President Boganda’s plane was blasted out of the air. The French press reported that there had been “suspicious materials ” found in the remains of the fuselage – but on the orders of the French government, the local investigation was abandoned. The French installed the dictator David Dacko in his place. He swiftly shut down Boganda’s democratic reforms, brought back many French corporations, and reintroduced their old system of forced labour, rebranding it “village work”. French rule over the CAR – the whippings Zolo remembers – did not end with “independence”. It simply mutated, into a new and slippery form, and it is at the root of the current war.

He gives a history of CAR’s President, François Bozize.

The comparison in the lead paragraph comes from this:

This neo-imperial war reached its psychotic apogee in 1994, when the French government used the CAR as a base to fund and fuel the Rwandan genocide, the most bloody since the death of Adolf Hitler. Vincent Mounie is a leading figure in Sur Vie, a French organisation monitoring its government’s actions in Africa. He explains: “The French were totally complicit in the genocide. There were French troops there before, during and after the genocide, backing the most extreme Hutu forces as they murdered the Tutsis. You know the identity cards that divided the Rwandan population into Hutus and Tutsis in preparation for the slaughter? They were printed in Paris.”

The French military base in Bangui had to be abandoned in 1996 after it was burned down by enraged locals, tired of the French ramming tyrants down their national gullet. Today the old base is overgrown, and the French military has shifted to new camps in Birao. But I stare at it now. The French planes that backed the Rwandan holocaust left from here.

President François Mitterrand began his career supporting one genocidal force, and he ended it supporting another. As a young man he rose through the ranks of the Hitler-hugging Vichy regime, only quitting and joining the Resistance when it became obvious the democrats would win. He then became nominally a Socialist and, finally, President – when at last genocide entered his life again. The French government had long seen the Hutu nationalists in Rwanda as Their Men, the people most friendly to French demands for military and corporate access. So when, starting in 1989, the Tutsi refugees who had been driven out decades before started to demand their right to return to their homes, the French were furious. Mitterrand saw this Tutsi rights movement as a creation of the CIA, designed to displace a pro-French regime and replace it with a buddy of Uncle Sam. His own aides told him there was no evidence of a link to the CIA – but he refused to listen. He announced that the Tutsis were a “Khmer Noir” , an evil anti-French force, and began to rapidly build up the Hutu Power forces to fight back.

In just four years, starting in 1990, the French buffed up the Hutu nationalist military forces in Rwanda from 10,000 to more than 40,000. The moderate forces within Rwanda began desperately trying to broker a power-sharing agreement between the two sides, “And the French government deliberately destroyed any attempt at a peace deal,” Mounie says. Then the hacking up of Tutsi men, women and children began. Mitterrand extended bigger loans to the Hutus, which they used to buy more weapons and ammunition. He publicly mocked anyone who talked about a Hutu-led genocide.

Then, when the international outrage became so great even Mitterrand could not ignore it, the French announced they would send in a military force to stop the killing. “It was France’s last lie, and the most cruel,” Mounie adds. “Even at this point, Mitterrand’s real aim was to recapture Kigali and restore the Hutus to power.” In Birao today, many of the soldiers patrolling the city are veterans of this “rescue operation”.

I am sipping sweet tea in one of the local bigwig’s ramshackle houses when a group of local soldiers on patrol arrive. They are working-class men from the Paris and Lyons banlieues, and in the course of the small talk, they admit that they were in Rwanda – and they are still traumatised by what they were ordered to do by Mitterrand and his men. “Children would bring us the severed heads of their parents and scream for help,” one says, “but our orders were not to help them.”

A year after the holocaust ended, Mitterrand told an aide: “Nobody in France cares about the genocide.” These disturbed soldiers, sitting in the waning sunlight, show the old cynic was wrong, at least, about that.

[…] As I prepare to leave the CAR, I am told by senior French and African sources that Paris could be getting ready to ditch President Bozize. Like a string of Central African dictators before him, he has been tugging too hard on the French leash, imagining he is the independent ruler of an independent country. He has decided to nationalise some of the energy companies operating here, including the French mega-corporations Total and ELF. ” If he wants the French to crush his rebellions and keep him in power, he has to do what they say,” my source says. Bozize is trying to deal with this pre-emptively, by offering the rebel leaders a place in his cabinet. As I drive past his presidential palace for the last time, I wonder if the paranoia that kept me from meeting him was justified all along.

But as my plane finally propels me away from this place, one CAR voice – angry, crazed – seems to follow me. In the jungles around Paoua, I was taken to the entrance to a remote burned-out village to meet Laurent Djim-Woei, the spokesman for the rebels in the north-west. He is a man talked about in awe by his followers – and his enemies.

[…] “France is the mother of Central Africa, and we are the child,” he said, oddly picking up the old racist metaphor and making it his own. ” The French must now change sides and support us, not Bozize. The French are our parents, we want them to be good parents.” This is a sentiment that kept cropping up in the rubble of France’s interventions – an appeal to the French to suddenly become a benevolent mother, acting on the side of good, despite all the evidence.

[…] Looking into the far distance, Laurent cries: “We say to France: ‘Mother, we are your child, you must love us like a mother should. Do not beat us.'” In the jungle, his voice echoes for miles, until it dies, unheard.

From the Guardian, April 8th 2004:

France’s representative at a commemoration to mark the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide yesterday left early after accusations that France was partly responsible for the tragedy.

[…] The Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, pointed a finger of blame during his speech, saying that the French “consciously trained and armed” government soldiers and militias who carried out the killings of more than half a million people 10 years ago, and “knew they were going to perpetrate a genocide”.

[…] Earlier yesterday, France’s defence minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, said French troops did all they could to halt the genocide. Accusations that France was partly to blame were “totally scandalous”.

“Even if French soldiers were, unfortunately, unable to prevent all the massacres … they nevertheless made it possible that there was not a total genocide,” he told France-Info radio. “They truly did all they could to prevent an even more dramatic situation,” he said, dismissing allegations against France as “unfounded and scandalous”

[…] France had ties to the regime of extremists from Rwanda’s Hutu majority that carried out the genocide, and its soldiers helped to train the Rwandan army. But French officials have repeatedly denied that France aided or directed Hutu forces that slaughtered Tutsis.

And two events from November 2006:

France to declassify Rwanda files (Nov 2nd 2006)

France says it will release classified documents on the Rwandan genocide, after claims that French troops were complicit in the 1994 massacre. Some 105 documents will be given to a magistrate investigating the claims by four genocide survivors.

[…] The plaintiffs accuse soldiers of rape, murder and complicity “in genocide and/or crimes against humanity”. The Rwandan Tutsis, aged between 25 and 39, have brought their case against the French military in the French courts.

[…] The four survivors say French troops committed crimes themselves, and also let Hutu killers enter refugee camps under their protection.

Rwanda cuts relations with France, (Nov 24th 2006).

A French judge issued warrants two days ago for the arrest of nine aides of the Rwandan leader over his predecessor’s killing – which sparked the genocide.

France-Rwanda Tensions:

The ethnic Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which is now effectively the government of Rwanda, has had appalling relations with Paris for more than two decades.

In the early 1990s the RPF was trying to overthrow the ethnic Hutu-led government of Rwanda.

But the rebels were stopped outside the capital with the help of French commandos who trained the Hutu army and all but pulled the trigger on artillery aimed at the RPF.

This was shortly before the plane carrying the Hutu president was shot down, an event which signalled the start of the genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus by the extremist Hutu regime.

The rebel Paul Kagame subsequently became president when he won the war and stopped the mass killing of the Tutsis.

He describes the French allegation that he shot down the plane as ridiculous and has accused France of putting up a smokescreen to hide its involvement with the perpetrators of the genocide.

[…] Leaks of the prosecution case by the French investigative judge, who has accused President Kagame of involvement in shooting down the plane, suggest that the judge has detailed information about the personnel and weapons systems allegedly deployed.

But those same leaks suggest that much of the information comes from French military intelligence or Rwandans opposed to Mr Kagame.

Rwanda leader defiant on killing claim:

At the time of the genocide, most observers believed President Habyarimana had been killed by Hutu extremists opposed to his peace deal with the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

[Two witness statements]

[…] But could the Bruguiere report provide the evidence for an indictment of Paul Kagame?

The former chief prosecutor for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, Judge Richard Goldstone, thinks not.

“Well I don’t think that case has been made at all. It’s a very political judgement and I don’t believe that it’s borne out by the evidence.

“Certainly the witnesses who spoke to Bruguiere allege that those were statements made by President Kagame himself. Whether he did or not obviously is a matter in dispute, in hot dispute, but the political judgement it seems to me is another matter.”


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