By Jude Idada
They call them the ‘600’.
These rugged men who did the unimaginable.
Who paved the way for the end of the genocide.
They were soldiers who had accompanied the senior politicians of the Rwanda Patriotic Front to Kigali for the implementation of the peace accord that had been signed in Arusha, Tanzania.
The transitional government of President Juvenal Habyarimana had insisted that they only had light arms.
A submachine gun for each soldier.
And one long range high caliber machine gun for the entire contingent.
Unknown to them and the politicians they accompanied.
President Juvenal Habyarimana had no intention of honouring the peace accord.
He had no interest in sharing power with the Rwanda Patriotic Front.
The plan was already hatched.
That dastardly strategy to rid the country of the Tutsi minority.
A strategy that first consumed the President himself who had been one of the planners.
His plane was shot down as it approached Kigali airport.
Ironically the plane crashed into his own compound.
His death was the signal for the evil that was to be unleashed.
The interahamwe death squads.
Escorted by government soldiers.
But the first place to be attacked was the parliament building and the adjoining hotel where the contingent of Rwandan Patriotic Front politicians were staying as they awaited the commencement of the implementation of the Arusha Peace accord.
The Parliament building and hotel that was being guarded by the 600 strong Rwandan Patriotic Army.
Who were dug into their trenches in the hill upon which both buildings sat.
The interamhamwe death squads and government soldiers were over 20,000 strong.
Armed to the teeth with modern weapons.
They shot at and shelled the buildings over and over again.
The politicians took shelter in the basement.
While the 600 soldiers who protected them returned fire, holding the enemy at bay.
600 lightly armed fighters against over 20,000 well armed soldiers and countless interamhamwe.
For four days they held the hill and the buildings.
These 600 men.
At the same time other members of the death squads were spreading across Kigali and the rest of the country killing every Tutsi they could find.
Some of the Tutsi’s escaped to the stadium where the United Nations peacekeepers were camped.
They wanted safety.
But they were shocked when the peacekeepers refused to intervene.
And instead obeying orders from the United Nations secretariat in New York, they began to evacuate the country.
Leaving the Tutsi’s who had gathered there to be slaughtered by the murderous interahahmwe.
Fearing the hill upon which the Parliament and the adjoining hotel where the politicians were would be totally surrounded by the government soldiers and the interamhamwe death squads, and unable to bear the thought of the fate of the civilians who were being abandoned at the stadium.
General Paul Kagame, the head of the Rwandan Patriotic Army and current President of Rwanda, gave the order for the 600 dug in soldiers to break their cover in the trenches, protect themselves, protect the politicians and save as many civilians as they could find.
The 600 soldiers came out of their trenches.
Broke into 4 groups and took the fight to the enemy.
Whilst holding the high ground, a group shot through heavily armed barricades of government soldiers and interahahmwe whilst heading to the stadium to save the civilians who were going to be murdered by the death squads.
Another group, attacked the soldiers that were firing at them from the Presidential guard camp
Another group, went on the offensive to take the mountain camp from where the government soldiers were firing at them.
While the last group while protecting the mountain attacked another camp.
All this while, just 2 fighters from the Rwandan Patriotic Army remained behind.
They were with the high caliber long range machine gun and were stationed on the roof of the parliament.
Firing in all directions as they held off the attacks.
At a point during the attack, one of the Rwandan Patriotic Army fighters on the roof was killed and the remaining fighter kept on fighting alone from the roof, reloading and firing the machine gun at the enemy positions while also providing cover for the four groups that were advancing in all directions to repel the attacks, seize new grounds and rescue civilians.
The tide turned in favour of the 600 soldiers when the group that were sent to seize the government camp on the mountain achieved their objectives.
And opened a safe corridor for the reinforcement that was sent by General Paul Kagame from the north.
A reinforcement that had marched on foot for 4 days.
Evading enemy positions.
To help their 600 comrades.
Even when they finally arrived, they were still outnumbered by the interamhamwe and the government soldiers.
Yet they kept fighting.
They rescued the civilians at the stadium.
Civilians amongst which was the man that will become the future Prime Minister of Rwanda.
They protected all the politicians in the hotel, including the man who will become the future President of Rwanda and the predecessor of President Paul Kagame.
8 of them were sent to rescue a lot of civilians who had been surrounded in a catholic church by hundreds of interamhamwe death squads.
All the civilians were rescued and only one of the Rwandan Patriotic Army died in the rescue attempt, because he had returned to rescue an old woman who had been mistakenly left behind in the church. And even though he died, he succeeded in rescuing her.
These 600 and the reinforcement that came resisted several attempts of the government soldiers to regroup and attack, instead they drove them out of Kigali and in a 100 days they had liberated the entire country from the strangle hold of the interamhamwe and the government soldiers.
They had few weapons and wore rain boots because they didn’t have enough money to be better kitted.
And they took the weapons of the fleeing government soldiers and interamhamwe to arm themselves in order to fight even harder.
These indomitable fighters ably led by the brilliant tactician and consummate warrior; General Paul Kagame.
A 37 year old soldier.
Who left his place of refuge in Uganda, to lead a group of warriors to save his motherland from itself.
These men whose feats of sacrifice and acts of courage are immortalized at the Campaign Against Genocide Museum in Gasabo District in Kigali.
One of the 600 is now the Special Adviser to President Kagame on national security.
One is the ambassador to China.
And on and on.
The fighter who after his partner had been killed, singlehandely manned the high caliber long range machine gun on the roof of the parliament for one week of no food and little water as he provided cover for the other hundreds of Rwandan Patriotic Army fighters as they advanced against the enemy retired as a highly decorated Major in the army and is now a frequent visitor at the museum were he regales visitors and staff of the exploit of him and his comrades.
There are others too many to mention.
All honoured and reverred by their nation.
Respected in awe as the 3rd Battalion.
The warriors who held the bastion called The Parliament for 4 days with indiviidual sub machine guns, one machine gun and little food and water while fighting against an overwhelmingly powerful force of over 20,000 soldiers and countless interahamwe death squads.
Men who even had the courage and fighting brilliance to still rescue civilians at the stadium and secure the airport.
Before reinforcements arrived.
Men of imaginable courage and true grit.
Who kept fighting even when they were outnumbered and outgunned with the weapons recovered from the enemy they had killed.
Men who looked death in the eye every second but overcame their fear to defeat evil.
They didn’t save the over a million Tutsi and moderate Hutus that were murdered.
But if it wasn’t for the 600 fighters and the reinforcements that joined them.
And the end they put to the carnage.
Millions more would have died.
In a 100 days they liberated the entire country, city by city, town by town, viĺlage by village, even when their enemies were being indirectly supported by France.
But it was not only them, there were also other brave civilians who hid Tutsis and moderate Hutus, clerics of all religious persuasions who hid people, and others who laid down their lives, that others may live.
It was a deeply moving experience as I was ushered through the museum by the guide.
And when he said.
“We have learnt to forgive, because that is the only way we can rebuild our country and move it to greater heights, but we know that we cannot afford to forget, because it is in forgetting what happened to us that we will be ensuring that something even worse will happen to us in the future. This is why we have all these museums. This is why we remember the genocide. This is why we ensure that we can talk about the time when the worst of us reigned without fear that somehow we are encouraging something dangerous to rise to the surface. We must shine the light on our past, because if we don’t, our enemy will take the darkness of ignorance that will instead exist, and use it as a tool to bring out worse again the worse in us and when they do, we might not be as lucky to survive and rebuild as we have. Our museums are our protection from evil. It is a reminder that evil thrives in ignorance. We and our future generations cannot afford to be ignorant. Please go out there and let people know about what you have seen here today. About the courage of the 600 and all the Rwandans who have looked at evil in the eye, and chose to love instead of hate, to stick together instead of break apart, to hope and believe instead of despair and give up. This shows you that our story is not a miracle, it is instead a child of courage, hard work and choosing to do the necessary instead of the expedient. We are love personified.”
May 4, 2019