Rwandans will on July 4th celebrate 24 years since the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) rebel troops marched into the capital Kigali and ended genocide against Tutsi.
It is liberation day.
Below is an exclusive but candid conversation on the liberation journey with Defence Minister Gen. James Kabarebe just a year after he had been appointed to head this ministry.
In September 1990, I was staying in Bugolobi, a Kampala suburb near Mbuya military barracks, when the rumour spread that we would soon go; we had already been mobilized and on standby for four months, but we didn’t know which day the attack would be launched.
I had just finished a cadet course at a military training base in Jinja when the day came. At my graduation ceremony in Jinja we had taken an oath that we would uphold certain values, but all along when I was reciting it I was thinking, “You’re doing this, but soon you are going to desert.”
Although I had participated in the National Resistance Army’s military struggle to liberate Uganda, I had never had a strong allegiance to the NRA; my career was not in the NRA. If there had not been hope of coming to Rwanda, I would have deserted NRA for greener pastures abroad. I was not comfortable in NRA; the prospect of returning to Rwanda kept me going.
Before the cadet course, which was a favour to me, not a right, I did an interview to join the prestigious Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in the UK. Over fifty NRA soldiers had applied to attend the course, but only two soldiers passed the initial interview—me and Charles Kayonga.
However, when Leopold Kyanda conducted the last briefing and discovered that we were Rwandan he said, “To hell with you—you can disappear from my sight.”
In the days leading up to the attack, I had already been a rebellious soldier and hadn’t considered myself a Ugandan soldier bound by Ugandan laws.
During our time in the military, Rwandan refugees had established clandestine communication as we mobilised to leave and attack Rwanda. Messages were always passed on from one member to another verbally. At the time there were no mobile phones.
On the day of departure, I found out around midday from a friend where we would gather and that we would be leaving that night.
That evening we were initially ten soldiers that gathered at a residence in Lubaga. Maj. Gen Fred Rwigema briefed us and at about midnight we started leaving. There was no structure, no military formation, just a group of junior and senior officers and non-combatants.
By the time we left Lubaga, there were about 200 enthusiastic Rwandans at the compound ready to deploy. I don’t know how the order came. There were no logistics. We just started jumping on one of the jeeps.
Normally, military orders are given through a chain of command but here it was just people shouting out. Nevertheless, we had faith and belief in the command, whichever way it was given. I felt excited and happy—I had wanted to go for a long time.
I knew, however, that Ugandan authorities would not be happy with us if they found out about our departure, and I wasn’t sure how they would react. But I knew they wouldn’t try to stop us from going home. If they stopped us I knew we would have to fight or negotiate to get out of it.
Another part of me thought Uganda would be happy to see us depart and that they would be sympathetic to our cause. Perhaps they would be offended that they had not been part of the process, but I suspected that they would support the mission.
I knew deep in their hearts that they were not happy having Rwandans in their army. Maybe they had been conditioned to be with us, but it was not going to be sustainable for long. Although it wasn’t official government policy, some people in the NRA would not hesitate to show you that you are not a Ugandan.
We had served our purpose of helping to liberate Uganda; but with stability, at some point someone would question the Rwandan presence. So I think our departure was a relief to them in disguise.
We reached Masaka at day break and we reached Mbarara at 10am. We refuelled and relaxed for a moment, but I was concerned that we were still in the country at that hour.
While in Ntungamo district of Uganda, we stopped at Kyamate primary school to establish communication with Bunyenyezi who was already at the border. By the time we left, Bunyenyezi had already crushed the Rwandan border security with a small group of RPA soldiers.
They struck around 4 pm and around 5 pm we entered Rwanda. I was in the same convoy as Rwigema but not in the same vehicle. Although many of the departing Rwandan refugees I was with didn’t know much about Northern Rwanda, I knew the area well because I had been born there.
Nevertheless, I didn’t know the first thing about our objective. I was just an excited second lieutenant in my late 20s who had recently graduated from Makerere University in Kampala.
On the night of the first attack, everybody slept at the border. We had little protection because we were disorganised and the people who were deployed to protect us were not deployed in the right place. They deployed along the tarmac road rather than in places of tactical importance. I don’t think anybody expected the Rwandan army would organise a counter attack so quickly.
During the night, activities were done to organise the fighters into four battalions—ninth battalion was under Sam Kaka, sixth battalion under Byaruhanga, fourth battalion under Ndugute and first battalion commanded by Bunyenyezi.
Because of the enthusiasm, so many refugee soldiers deserted the Ugandan Army to join the RPA. On the first day we were 800, but in the proceeding days the number rose to about 4,000 fighters, many of whom were battle hardened soldiers who had been in combat against insurgencies in East and Northern Uganda.
As a consequence, at the border, thousands of fighters and youths lacked what to eat. There was no organised logistics.
I personally don’t remember if I found food; I just remember eating some few biscuits. That night we slept under a tree. When you looked at faces of fighters you could tell they had so many unanswered questions like “What next?”
The first attack gave us a false sense of confidence that the Rwandan army was weak because with just one shot they had been dispersed from the border. It had been a surprise attack and when we reached there the soldiers were drinking alcohol and playing cards.
The following morning Rwigema addressed us and told us to be ready to fight a war that might not be straight or conventional. However, before he could even finish briefing us, the enemy made a counterattack.
The first shell fell one kilometre away from the briefing area, the next one 500m and the third even closer.
We couldn’t conclude our preparation. The next move was determined by the enemy. Rwigema took the lead and left us behind, which I didn’t think was right. He walked straight towards the enemy and we ran after him.
The first and fourth battalions attacked along the tarmac and the sixth and ninth battalions branched off through Nyabweshongweizi. The operation plan was for the four battalions to converge at Matimba, several miles away from Kagitumba.
Rwigema was standing on a bare hill in Kagitumba, crowded by his escorts, when he was shot by a stray bullet. He was the tallest of the group, which made him an easier target, and he died instantly.
Personally I felt it was a mistake that Rwigema walked to the hill, but I was too junior a soldier to give advice to a general. I wondered why senior commanders didn’t advise Rwigema to the contrary, but if I had dared to stop him I would have been labelled a coward.
Only his escorts knew he had been shot and they kept it as secret as possible. Even when we converged at Matimba on the second day, very few people knew Rwigema had been killed.
However, you could tell by looking at the commanders faces that something had gone wrong. However, the fighters kept morale and dispersed the enemy; even after Fred was shot, we captured RPGs.
I think Rwigema’s death affected senior leaders more than the fighters. Somehow it did not affect us. I knew that people would die. I maybe didn’t expect Rwigema to die, but I had thought that I would die. But once in the situation, nobody thought about it.
Kayizari Ceasar, with whom I was in the same unit, knew about Rwigema’s death and I knew he knew. We even stayed together overnight, but we were used to secrecy. He knew I knew and he knew I knew he knew, but we didn’t discuss it.
There was meat somehow the second night and we tried to roast it by burning grass. But meanwhile, in my view, nobody had taken over. Nobody had announced anything so it wasn’t appropriate for the soldiers to discuss anything.
At 10 am on the third day, we found ourselves progressing ahead. The first and fourth battalions went towards Gabiro and the sixth and ninth towards Nyagatare. It was a spontaneous decision to go there—everything was spontaneous. I don’t think anybody thought beyond shooting the enemy and moving forward, but there were no plans as to how to make that movement.
At Nyagatare we got stuck. Soldiers started drinking recklessly and there was no discipline. Munyaneza tried to take over but he couldn’t control the troops. By the time Kagame arrived the enemy had retaken everything. Many casualties were dispersed all over the national park, soldiers crossed over the border and some were arrested. It was a total mess.
Kagame arrived on October 13 and this was the situation he encountered. After Fred’s death, everybody had been waiting for Kagame, but we didn’t know if he had plans to come.
When he arrived, his presence alone changed things and boosted morale. Kagame was more cautious and more serious than Fred. Although Fred had been popular, he wasn’t the best at enforcing orders.
Kagame immediately tried to organise people and establish communication. Ultimately he decided to pull back towards Kagitumba and organise a new front at Gatuna.
When Kagame came I was called back and became the commander of his protection force. That was the biggest task, but it was made easy for me because he was so cautious. When the youth started streaming in for training, I was tasked to train them.
Eventually we moved our operations to the mountains to start the war afresh. Short of that we would have all dispersed. Kagame knew the territory because he had visited relatives in the region.
From the mountains order was established. Kagame would call in commanders, assign and communicate with them. He was often on the front during ensuing battles, but didn’t personally shoot although he carried a gun always. He was making the decisions and that changed the whole face of the command.