By 1993, it was clear that the peace agreement signed during the Arusha talks had not yielded the results everyone had hoped it would.
There was still agitation among the people for a change in living conditions, belligerents continued to arm themselves and extremists continued to dangerously split the country along the old Hutu-Tutsi ethnic divide. Tension was in the air.
Wednesday, April 6, 1994 had been a normal working day and the first three days of the week had passed with no major incidents reported.
Slightly earlier, on Easter Sunday, April 3, 1994, I had invited some friends to my house in Kacyiru for a drink.
They included Joe Felli (Ghana) from the defunct Organisation of African Union office, Makokha (Kenya) from the Kenyan Embassy in Kigali, Peter Kallaghe (Tanzania) from the Tanzanian Embassy, a young British lady who was a BBC reporter, but whose name I have forgotten, and a friend from the Rwandan ministry of foreign affairs.
The atmosphere was generally calm and our get together had passed without any incident, although people had to retire quite early because of the overall tense security situation.
In the previous week, however, grenades had been hurled at innocent people in bars belonging to opposition supporters and running battles had been fought in the streets of Kigali between the Interahamwe and youth-wingers of parties opposed to Juvénal Habyarimana’s iron hand.
That Wednesday afternoon, I left my office shortly after 4pm, slightly earlier than usual, hurrying home to watch that day’s Africa Cup of Nations football match.
Rwanda television was telecasting the matches live from Tunisia. I went along with three colleagues from the office, Fred Muwanga and Douglas Katende (both Ugandans) and Emilienne, a Burundian lady.
We settled down to watch the match. But just before the end of the first half, there was a power failure.
This did not come as a surprise. A that time, the national water and electricity company, Electrogaz, had been experiencing a serious shortage of power, mainly because the country’s hydroelectric power station at Ntaruka in Ruhengeri was functioning below capacity.
Although the government had not given any official explanation, the rumour mill in Kigali had it that the dam and the turbines at Ntaruka had been bombed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in a sabotage move.
It was common knowledge that some parts of Ruhengeri préfecture were already under RPF control.
The shortfall in production had forced Electrogaz to ration power in a load-shedding plan, supplying certain parts of the city at a time, while the rest remained in the dark.
It was Kacyiru’s turn to be in the dark that evening. The match we were watching was a crucial tie for qualification to the semi-finals [I think it was between Zambia and the hosts, Tunisia].
We decided to go somewhere else and watch that match to the end. We thought of going to Hotel Chez Lando, but we remembered that just a few days earlier, two youths on a motorcycle and clad in the notorious MRND kitenge uniform, had hurled a grenade in the bar at Chez Lando, injuring a number of people. That was a no-go area.
During that period, many Interahamwe, armed with an arsenal of deadly weapons that included pistols, grenades, machetes and nail studded clubs, among others, roamed the streets of Kigali and attacked people with absolute impunity.
Grenade explosions in places associated with the opposition had become a common occurrence and all foreigners had been advised to restrict their outings to the strict minimum.
Lando (Landoald Ndasingwa) was the head of the mainly Tutsi Liberal Party and owned the popular Chez Lando Hotel, regarded by Habyarimana and his supporters as a meeting place for Tutsi and other opposition supporters.
The Interahamwe leaders had sworn that they would do anything to silence those who used to drink from that place.
We discarded the idea of going to Chez Lando, and even considered abandoning altogether the idea of going out to look for a place to watch the rest of the match.
But just as we were about to give up, a friend called me. He was Peter Kallaghe, the First Secretary at the Tanzanian Embassy in Kigali, who resided in the Kiyovu neighbourhood, where most diplomats lived.
We had earlier talked on telephone and he had complained that he could not watch the match from his house, because of a power outage in that neighbourhood that entire day.
He was now calling to tell me that power ‘was back’ and that he was watching the match. That news was music to our ears. We immediately decided to drive to his house.
Within seconds, I was already on my way to Kiyovu. But I had travelled with only Fred, because Douglas Katende and Emilienne had dropped out of the arrangement, citing security concerns and trying to discourage us from going out of Kacyiru that late, arguing that the whole thing was a dangerous venture. We did not listen to them…!
We were in Peter’s house within less than 10 minutes and together, we watched the rest of the match, over a glass of beer.
When the match was over, we stayed on for a chat. But at 8.30pm, just as Fred and I were planning to leave for Kacyiru, we heard some two distant explosions.
Being inside the house, we could not easily guess from which direction the sound of the explosions had come.
In any case, we did not feel bothered, because such explosions had become a regular occurrence over the past couple of weeks. Fred’s reaction was: “Poor Tutsi, that’s another grenade, again!”
But Peter sarcastically replied in Kiswahili: “Kweli nyinyi waganda, hamuwezi kutambua grenedi na bunduki? Hiyo ni sauti ya silaha kubwa!”, meaning: “But surely you Ugandans, can’t you distinguish between a grenade and a gun? That sounds like a big gun!”
Anyway, since that did not appear to be an important issue to us, we quickly dropped the subject and turned to a more interesting matter – analysing the just concluded match and speculating on who would lift the trophy in Tunis that year.
Although the security situation was tense in those days, being home before 10pm was quite reasonable.
So, my intention was to drive out of Kiyovu by around 9pm. But, all of a sudden, Peter’s houseboy, Anastase, came rushing from the kitchen and asked his boss in Kiswahili: “Patron (boss), umesikia habari? Wanasema kwamba ndege ya President imepigwa wakati ilikuwa inatoka Dar es Salaam. Eti imeanguka kwenye uwanja wa ndege wa Kanombe”, meaning: “Boss, have you heard the news? It is being said the President’s plane has been shot down as it was returning from Dar es Salaam. They say it crashed at Kanombe Airport”.
“Nani amekwambia?” Peter asked, almost furiously, meaning: “Who told you?”. Anastase then said the news was being announced on the RTLM radio.
That was not the best news to hear! The time was around 8.45pm. We switched on the radio and tuned to RTLM. A duo of irate Kinyarwanda presenters were announcing that President Habyarimana’s plane had been shot down at Kanombe Airport and that none other than the RPF could have committed such an atrocious and barbaric act.
They added that for those who were in the vicinity of Kanombe, or within the neighbouring Remera and Kicukiro neighbourhoods, the wreckage of the plane could be seen smoldering on the runway.
In obvious anger, the presenters frantically repeated the message, adding that their radio had all along been warning the people that the Tutsi and their Inkotanyi fighters were about to do something nasty to the Hutu, but their warning had not been heeded.
This was the time, they said, the rubanda nyamwinshi (the popular majority) rose up and defended themselves.
“The biggest Hutu in the country has been killed”, they cautioned the people, “if you don’t rise up and defend yourselves, the guns will now be turned to you, the smaller Hutu”.
On its part, Radio Rwanda, the national radio station, was saying nothing about the incident. However, it had suspended its normal programmes and was instead playing what sounded like martial music.
We started analysing the situation. Was Habyarimana really dead? Was it an accident, an ordinary air crash? Had the plane been shot down?
Who could have been that crazy to do such a thing? Could it have been the RPF? Or had the extremist elements in the Army organised a military coup, in order to torpedo the implementation of the Arusha Agreements, which they were so openly opposed to?
We now remembered the explosions. Those were certainly the two distant explosions we had heard some 15 minutes earlier.
And Peter was right: those were not mere grenades, it must have been a real ‘silaha kubwa’ (big gun).
We had to map out an immediate strategy!
The book, 90 Days in Hell is published by the author and is on sale in leading bookstores.
In Saturday Monitor, the gravity of what had happened becomes apparent to James Luyinda-Miti and his friends.
Early 1990s: The exodus of Rwandans people to neighbouring Uganda started way back during the early colonial days.
Right from the 1920’s and 1930’s, some adventurous Rwandans and Burundians had started heading northward in search of employment in Uganda
1960s: Rwandan refugees become part and parcel of Ugandan society; and of the country’s turbulent military history. Some of these later went on to form the Rwanda Patriotic Front.
October 1990: Young Rwandans living out of the country became impatient about returning to their country.
Rwanda Patriotic Front invades Rwanda, starting a guerilla war.
1992-1993: The Arusha Peace Talks between Rwanda’s government and the Opposition take place. A 100-page peace agreement is signed.