Rwanda: the truth about the assassinations that triggered the atrocities. Interview with Charles Onana

by Revue Conflits, June 25, 2021

Translated by Dennis Riches

Translator’s note: The title and some of the content of this interview have been lightly edited to provide background and context that may be needed for English-speaking readers.


25 years after the genocide in Rwanda, we know more about those responsible for the attack [the political assassinations] that triggered the outbreak of the massacres. After searching in numerous archives and conducting a rigorous investigation, Charles Onana reveals the underbelly of this case that continues to shake the African Great Lakes region.

In 1990, French President François Mitterrand chose to make credible a guarantee of stability for Rwanda by supporting the regime of President Habyarimana against the forces of the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front). Those forces, supported by a foreign power [Uganda, the United States, and the United Kingdom] and largely composed of the exiled Rwandan Tutsi ethnic minority, appeared to be a tangible threat. In 1991-1992, a second component opened, that of peace negotiations between the two parties, largely motivated and accompanied by the French effort. By August 4th, 1993, this action had led to the Arusha Accords, various clauses of which were very favorable to the Tutsi minority (40% of the army had to be Tutsi, half of the ministers, etc.). These agreements were destroyed by the missile attack of April 6th, 1994 in which a Falcon 50 aircraft was shot down during its landing approach in Kigali, killing the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, respectively Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntanyamira, as well as, in particular, the three Frenchmen of the crew. It is truly this event that nullified the Arusha Accords and triggered the escalation that led to genocide.

Though the Duclert Report does not state that France collaborated in the genocide, it recognizes “a set of heavy and overwhelming responsibilities” [1] testifying, according to the report, to a “failure of thought”, and an “ethnicist understanding” that led to a “set of ethical, cognitive and moral responsibilities”.

After many years of investigation, Charles Onana has been able to reveal much about the course of this process. The interview below was conducted by Rémi de Francqueville as Charles discussed his book Rwanda—Investigations into an attack, April 6, 1994: twenty-five years of investigations ended with case dismissed (L’Artilleur, 2021). Enquêtes sur un attentat—Rwanda 6 avril 1994 : vingt-cinq ans d’investigations pour un non-lieu.


In your book you are concerned with the event triggering the events of 1994, the attack of April 6th, 1994. You go over one by one the various investigations that have systematically led to a dismissal of the case. The Duclert Report itself states “The French archives do not make it possible to identify with certainty the perpetrators of the attack.” [2]. You have pointed out in several interviews that you do not believe that it is impossible to identify the perpetrators of the attack, but that the political will for doing so has been lacking. Could you discuss this idea and explain the implications of it?

First of all, the various investigations which I have studied did not lead to a dismissal. In particular, these are the investigation of the Belgian military prosecutor’s office, the two investigations of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), the investigation of the Spanish judiciary and two French investigations. It was only the French investigation conducted by judges Trévidic, Poux and Herbaut that resulted in a dismissal of the case. All other investigations led to a clear identification of the suspects in this attack.

Thus, all judicial investigations, without exception, attest that the Falcon 50, carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi as well as their staff and the three French crew members, was shot down by an SA-16 missile at Kigali airport. Therefore, it remained to be found who wished to shoot it down and who would have been in a position to shoot down the presidential aircraft on April 6th, 1994, in Rwanda. Objectively, the research was carried out on the two belligerents, that is to say the Rwandan Government Armed Forces (FAR) and the rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) whose military wing was led by the current President Paul Kagame. They and the peacekeepers of UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda) were present in Kigali that day. When we dismiss as suspects the UN peacekeepers, who were in Kigali for the peace mission and who were not in possession of SA-16 missiles, what remains is to suspect the soldiers of the government army and those of the rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. All investigations, with the exception of the French investigations conducted by Trévidic, Poux and Herbaut, maintain that only the RPF rebels had the military and technical capacity to shoot down the Falcon 50. It is therefore very surprising to see a decision of dismissal, as was the case with these last two magistrates [Poux and Herbaut]. On the other hand, in the light of the evidence contained in the investigation file and the work carried out by their predecessor, Jean-Louis Bruguière, it is indisputable that, in order to dismiss the case, Magistrates Trévidic, Poux and Herbaut did not conduct thorough investigations. Another surprising thing about this case is that the ICTR (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda), whose mandate was to prosecute the perpetrators of all crimes committed between January 1st and December 31st, 1994, automatically excluded the attack from trials and proceedings on the pretext of a totally unjustified lack of jurisdiction.

Finally, since Judge Bruguière’s investigation concluded that the RPF rebels were responsible for the attack, it is surprising that his colleagues Poux and Herbaut managed to dismiss the case in their investigation. The least we can say is that having two contradictory decisions of the same jurisdiction [France] on the same criminal facts raises questions. The implications of this situation are very specific: the lack of justice for the civil parties [the families of the victims] and the impression that we do not want to designate the perpetrators of the attack because we want to conceal the truth about the event that triggered the Rwandan tragedy. This desire for concealment is also clearly displayed in the famous Duclert Report, which ignores all the facts reported in numerous archival reports of the French Ministry of Defense obtained by Judge Bruguière on the technical capabilities that enabled the RPF to shoot down the aircraft. Similarly, it ignores all relevant work of the ICTR and the Belgian Air Force on the subject. Being politically oriented, this report is far from authoritative on the attack and even on the entire Rwandan tragedy.

Let’s talk about what is in the news recently relevant to the substance of your book, to which we will return. What do you think of Emmanuel Macron’s speech at the Gisozi Memorial where he declares he came “to recognize the magnitude [of the French] responsibilities [for the genocide]” [3]? In this context, what do you think of the position of former Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine, who denies any negative responsibility, not only for the genocide, of course, but more broadly in all the events from 1990 to 1994?

President Macron is in a political position, which is very different from that of a researcher or historian. He can therefore say everything that allows him to get closer to the current regime in Rwanda. The only problem is that by ignoring Rwandan responsibility for the murder of six Frenchmen in 1994, including those killed in the attack on the plane, some might think that the French head of state is in some way helping to dispel or conceal the truth.

On the scientific level, what he calls “French responsibilities” is in no way demonstrated, either by the French archives or by those of the United Nations, and even less by those of the ICTR. It should also be noted that on this precise point former Prime Minister Édouard Balladur is not in agreement with him, nor even former ministers François Bayrou and Paul Quilès. They all argue that the France has little to be blamed for in this tragedy. In this, Hubert Védrine’s position is neither incongruous nor isolated. On the substance, it must be stressed that this position is defended by people who do not share the same political opinions or necessarily the same interests in this case. It is essentially based on the political and geopolitical reality of the time and on the facts. Therefore, Mr. Védrine’s position is consistent with the reality of historical facts, regardless of his detractors.

A number of protagonists have argued that the Rwandan Patriotic Front, RPF, and its armed wing the Rwandan Patriotic Army are behind the shooting at the Falcon 50. What would the consequences be if the movement from which the current President Paul Kagame came was indeed the perpetrator of this crime?

This would be extremely serious, as the official version of the tragedy would be false. The ICTR prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, publicly argued that if it was the RPF that shot down the plane on April 6th, 1994, the entire history of the Rwandan tragedy would have to be rewritten. This means in clear terms that the history of these events in its current official and media version would be tainted with untruths and should be completely revised. It is therefore this rewriting and revision of history, seen from a new angle, that seriously worries the supporters of the judicial status quo about the perpetrators of the attack. The current regime in Rwanda has no interest in accepting a thorough examination of the facts concerning the attack, as it risks exposing itself to the analysis of its own responsibilities in this tragedy, and this would risks making it lose its “hero” status, artificially constructed for the last twenty-seven years.

It is on this myth that all his political legitimacy is naturally based, and the stakes for him are high. In other words, the continuation of judicial investigations and independent and well-documented scientific research are now a real danger for Paul Kagame. This is why smear campaigns are systematic against all researchers and journalists (Europeans, Americans, Canadians, or Africans) who attack the official version of the Rwandan tragedy or who raise questions about the identity of the perpetrators of the attack.*

As your investigation progresses, one gets the impression that the identity of the perpetrators of the attacks is actually an open secret in decision-making circles. The very murky part played by the United States also raises great questions. Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who wrote the preface of your book, readily draws attention to the long history of subversive US actions abroad. What do you conclude about the role played by them?

The role of the United States has been and remains crucial in the ins and outs of this tragedy, as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel points out. One only has to look at the archives declassified by the US government itself to be convinced. Paul Kagame and some members of his movement were trained in the United States with the support of the Pentagon before the RPF’s military offensive against the ruling power in Rwanda in 1990.

They benefited from the advice of some American officers during the peace negotiations until the RPF took power in July 1994. It is therefore not surprising that the United States is very present in this matter, even if its role has been largely overlooked.

It is also an American researcher Helen Epstein who first revealed the secret role of the United States in 2017, sixteen years after the declassification of the first archives of the US State Department in 2001. In Europe, researchers have hardly produced any work on this aspect, which has remained almost taboo. It was while conducting my own research on the Spanish judicial procedure that I discovered the diplomatic cables showing the multiple cases of interference by American diplomats in this case, the latter not hesitating to ask the Spanish Minister of Justice to intervene with the judge investigating the perpetrators of the attack. They asked him to cancel the arrest warrants issued against Paul Kagame’s relatives. US authorities also intervened with German and British diplomats in Madrid to exert pressure on Spanish leaders to have the same arrest warrants annulled. Paul Kagame himself went so far as to solicit George W. Bush on this issue. All these initiatives appeared suspicious in a case that, it seems, does not concern the United States or American nationals. Why would they do this if Paul Kagame and his men are beyond reproach as suspects in the assassinations? It is therefore clear through these multiple interventions that the United States is at least working against truth and justice in this matter and probably for the protection of the Kigali regime.

You dedicate the last chapter of your book to the families of the victims who are waiting for justice to be done, especially in France, despite the fact that the case was brought in 2018. Don’t you actually think that the subject is closed?

No, the subject is not closed since the civil parties have appealed in the court of cassation. On the other hand, who has an interest in the subject being closed? Of course not the French, Rwandan or Burundian victims. It is the people who want to hide the truth, but who, at the same time, apparently say they are not the perpetrators of the attack. It is therefore not a question of closing the file, but of clarifying it by allowing the perpetrators of the act that triggered the horror in Rwanda to be formally identified and tried, just as the perpetrators of the genocide were.

* Translator’s note: Charles Onana could have mentioned also that it is not only a matter of journalists and researchers being subjected to smear campaigns. As he relates in his book, several key witnesses who wanted to testify in the judicial investigations, dissenters within the RPF and Rwandan government, have been assassinated in Rwanda and abroad.

See also:

A review of Charles Onana’s previous book: “Rwanda, the Truth about Operation Turquoise–When the Archives Speak”


[1] Duclert, Vincent, Rapport de la Commission de recherche sur les archives françaises relatives au Rwanda et au génocide des Tutsis (1990-1994). Ed. Armand Colin, 2021, p. 972

[2] Ibid. p. 331