On Tuesday, December 28, 1993 at around 11.00 am in Mulindi, near the Rwanda-Uganda border, a battalion of 600 battle-hardened refugees chanted as they waited to be escorted by Unamir (the UN Bluehelmets in Rwanda at the time) to Kigali. The battalion was under the leadership of Lt. Gen. Charles Kayonga, now Rwanda Defence Forces Chief of Staff.
These soldiers were part of the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) the military wing of Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) Inkotanyi which was formed in 1987 by the sons and daughters of Rwandese refugees who had been denied the right to live in their country since 1959. They invaded Rwanda in 1990 until they pushed the government in place then to agree to negotiations that led to Arusha Peace Accords signed on August 4, 1993.
"Both parties agreed to form a transitional government based on power sharing between the ruling party, opposition parties and RPF Inkotanyi," says Senator Tito Rutaremara, who was RPF's Political Activities Coordinator (interchangeably also referred to as Secretary General) at the time. "It was initially about the Government and Parliament. The military merging would come later."
In the negotiations, the RPF requested that the transitional government operates in Byumba but the request was rejected. The genocidal regime wanted to give them Camp Kami which the RPF refused because the road to the camp was not tarmacked. The fear was that land mines might be planted along the road.
RPF then asked for Camp Kigali but the Government - seemingly fearing that it would be easy for them to take over Radio Rwanda just in case things change, as well as the fact that they would look weak by ceding the main military camp in Kigali - once again denied the request.
"They proposed that we stay at Parliament House (called CND at the time). The RPF came to investigate the area and we were satisfied. The only thing that mattered to our soldiers was the fact that the place would allow them to defend themselves if they came under attack," says Senator Rutaremara. "They hastily and happily agreed because they knew that we were surrounded."
They were in the middle of Mont Kigali, Camp Kigali, Camp Kanombe, Camp Kami, and Camp GP... - all positions that could be used to shell them.
The battalion and politicians left Mulindi escorted by Unamir's Belgian contingent, in front and back. Soldiers were transported in buses while politicians went in jeeps. It was a long convoy. Wherever they passed, people, even though Government soldiers desperately tried to stop them, stood by the roadside, welcoming and waving at them.
"We also waved at them. They were very happy to see us. There were many people when we entered Kigali; we met a large group of cheering motorists who were waiting for us in Gatsata. We continued along the entire road from Nyabugogo to Kacyiru, but were blocked passing near the ministerial area - they maybe didn't like the idea that government workers would leave offices and come out and watch us too."
Eventually, they went through Kimicanga and arrived at Parliament House at around 3.00 pm. They camped in the current Senate Section. Soldiers started digging their bunkers right away. They woke early for morning drills, and politicians who wanted to stretch muscles were free to join them.
The Parliament House was cut into two sections. RPF Inkotanyi occupied the current Senate House and used the gate that faces Gishushu (opposite RDB). The whole of the remaining section was occupied by the Government, with law makers working as usual. The RPF's gate was guarded by Belgian Bluehelmetss and there was a fence separating the 2 sections.
Everything, from food and cooking wood, came from Mulindi. These, RPF Inkotanyi soldiers brought to Parliament House, under the watchful eyes of the heavily-armed Belgians. Government soldiers also checked the trucks which were then rechecked by the Bluehelmets once the team arrived at CND's entrance.
"There was baseless propaganda that we used to pack guns inside the trucks of cooking wood. Anyone can see that that would be impossible. Every soldier was allowed only to carry his Kalashnikov to defend himself," Rutaremara says.
"I remember one evening when the team, coming from Mulindi, arrived at Gatsata, and came under attack. The Belgians ran away in panic and left our team alone; they headed for Byumba, where they spent the night. What our troops did was to take positions into road trenches and start responding to the enemy's fire. The enemy fired from hillside houses and forests."
The team that came under attack sent radio messages to the remaining soldiers at Parliament House. When the latter arrived at the gate in pickups, Unamir objected, saying they could not go anywhere unless they have authorization.
"Our soldiers told them that there's no way they could sit there while fellow comrades, after being abandoned by Unamir, are being shot at. They went, fought the enemy, and saved the troops from that ambush. Unfortunately, we lost one man in that incident."
The Bluehelmets at the entrance reported to their commander Gen. Romeo Dallaire that RPF Inkotanyi's troops had gone out without authorization. He came in the following morning to ask what had happened. But Senator Rutaremara and Patrick Mazimpaka who met him requested that he investigates the incident first. He did and came back the next day to apologize.
Fall of Habyarimana
On April 6, 1994, one of the soldiers on patrol told us that he had seen something burning in the skyline of Kanombe, and that he had been shot at right immediately afterwards.
"We didn't know what was happening until we got the news from RTLM that the plane carrying President Habyarimana had beenshot down. The enemy started incessantly shelling our building that same night and for several days to come," Rutaremara recalls. "We the politicians and other guests including the President of Red Cross International were shown bunkers that were left by soldiers who went out to take positions near the Ministry of Justice, and Kimihurura roundabout, in order to prevent the enemy from advancing towards the building."
Throughout the country, Interahamwe militias and soldiers immediately started to hunt down politicians from opposition parties. Prime Minister Agathe Uwiringiyimana was already brutally murdered. RPF politicians urged Unamir, because it was the only force that could go wherever they wanted at anytime, to try and rescue opposition politicians but they refused. Even as the Genocide was taking place, RPF Inkotanyi was not allowed to fight yet.
"Unamir later conceded to our request to fight. We asked them to go and look for the family of Alexis Kanyarengwe, then Chairman of RPF Inkotanyi. We asked them to also go and look for Faustin Twagiramungu."
Both were rescued and sheltered at National Amahoro Stadium among thousands of refugees who were gathered there. The stadium was guarded by Unamir's Bangladeshi contingent. Interahamwe and Presidential Guards later attacked the stadium, disarmed and confiscated everything from Unamir. Hearing the news, RPF soldiers attacked the killers and rescued many people (including Twagiramungu and the family of Kanyarengwe). They stayed in the newly-expanded strongholds that went as far as Chez Lando.
"Gen. Dallaire complained that we had sent troops to the stadium without his permission. We replied that his troops had laid down their arms and left us no choice. We could not allow people to be butchered while we were there to rescue them. That was the first time our troops were sent in broad light," Rutaremara says.
After a few days, shelling on the building intensified. It was hit almost every second. That's when a special battalion - that was tasked to move forward and meet the initial 600-men battalion - came from Mulindi for reinforcement. They came all the way crushing the enemy, carrying their casualties, and moving forward. They didn't bother following the fleeing, terror-stricken enemy. They were tasked to advance until they connected with the battalion at Parliament House.
There were thousands of refugees harbored in the cave of the Parliament House. They stayed there during the day and soldiers had to go out every night to find them what to eat.
"The battalion reached us at around 5.00 pm; they were very tired and had many casualties. They stayed at Parliament House, taking care of the wounded, protecting refugees and looking for food. The initial battalion is the one that went out to gain more strongholds until they captured Mount Rebero - a strategic mount that would later play a significant role in the fall of Kigali. That prompted the Government to immediately flee to Gitarama."
RPF politicians and refugees were afterwards evacuated to Byumba via Rebero, while soldiers continued their mission of rescuing people. It was on June 15 that the battalion sent troops to rescue 3,000 people who were in St. Paul Church - located right in the middle of heavily-guarded ruthless genocidaires strongholds in the city center - in one of the audacious operations in the history of the military.