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The Rwandan Civil War was a conflict between the Rwandan Armed Forces, representing the government of Rwanda, and the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The war, which lasted from 1990 to 1994, arose from the long-running dispute between the Hutu and Tutsi groups within the Rwandan population. A 1959–1962 revolution had replaced the Tutsi monarchy with a Hutu-led republic, forcing more than 336,000 Tutsi to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. A group of these refugees in Uganda founded the RPF which, under the leadership of Fred Rwigyema and Paul Kagame, became a battle-ready army by the late 1980s.

The war began on 1 October 1990, when the RPF invaded north-eastern Rwanda, advancing 60 km (37 mi) into the country. They suffered a major setback when Rwigyema was killed in action on the second day. The Rwandan Army, assisted by troops from France, gained the upper hand and the RPF were largely defeated by the end of October. Kagame, who had been in the United States during the invasion, returned to take command. He withdrew troops to the Virunga mountains for several months before attacking again. The RPF began a guerrilla war, which continued until mid-1992 with neither side able to gain the upper hand. A series of protests forced Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana to begin peace negotiations with the RPF and domestic opposition parties. Despite disruption and killings by Hutu Power, a group of extremists opposed to any deal, and a fresh RPF offensive in early 1993, the negotiations were successfully concluded with the signing of the Arusha Accords in August 1993.

An uneasy peace followed, during which the terms of the accords were gradually implemented. RPF troops were deployed to a compound in Kigali and the peace-keeping United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) was sent to the country. But the Hutu Power movement was steadily gaining influence and planned a “final solution” to exterminate the Tutsi. This plan was put into action following the assassination of President Habyarimana on 6 April 1994. Over the course of about 100 days, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were killed in the Rwandan genocide. The RPF quickly resumed the civil war. They captured territory steadily, encircling cities and cutting off supply routes. By mid-June they had surrounded the capital, Kigali, and on 4 July they seized it. The war ended later that month when the RPF captured the last territory held by the interim government, forcing the government and genocidaires into Zaire.

The victorious RPF assumed control of the country, with Paul Kagame as de facto leader. Kagame served as vice-president from 1994 and as president from 2000, winning elections in 2003, 2010 and 2017. The RPF began a programme of rebuilding the infrastructure and economy of the country, bringing genocide perpetrators to trial, and promoting reconciliation between Hutu and Tutsi. In 1996 the RPF-led Rwandan Government launched an offensive against refugee camps in Zaire, home to exiled leaders of the former regime and millions of Hutu refugees. This action started the First Congo War, which removed long-time dictator President Mobutu Sese Seko from power. As of 2019, Kagame and the RPF remain the dominant political force in Rwanda.

Canadian Involvement

In the face of this turmoil, Canada and other UN countries moved to try to end the bloodshed and restore order. The UN undertook peace missions to Rwanda from 1993 to 1996, the largest being the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) in which Canada played a leading role. At different times during the mission, two Canadians would serve as the Commander of the UN mission. They were Major-General Roméo Dallaire and Major-General Guy Tousignant.

Even with the UN mission to Rwanda in place, the bad situation in the country turned into a nightmare in April 1994. The Hutus began to massacre hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The UN soldiers did what they could in this chaotic environment of widespread killing and mayhem, but they were too few in number and hamstrung by their limited mandate. In the end, they could not prevent the worst of the horrific violence. The Canadian and other UN forces did remain in the country for a time to try to help the country with some humanitarian efforts, mine clearing and refugee resettlement before leaving the devastated country in 1996.

Heroes and Bravery

Major Brent Beardsley, the Military Assistant to the Force Commander of the UN mission in Rwanda, was awarded the Meritorious Service Cross for facing armed and hostile civilian mobs and rebel soldiers to rescue people who were being threatened by the crowds. He entered violent crowds to save a family from being swarmed, to rescue a doctor and nurse from being assaulted, to get a severely-wounded man to a hospital and to escort the UN Force Commander to headquarters.

Major-General Roméo Dallaire was awarded the Meritorious Service Cross for his efforts as head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda in 1993-94. He worked bravely and tirelessly in conditions of great danger to negotiate cease-fires and reduce the unrest in the country. He tried to get greater help from the UN to try to prevent the genocide he feared was coming. In the torrent of murder that occurred, he was able to evacuate many foreigners from the country and save the lives of thousands of Rwandans through his actions.

Major-General Guy Tousignant earned the Meritorious Service Cross for his actions as Force Commander of the UN mission in Rwanda in 1994-95. He demonstrated leadership, courage and professionalism in delicate negotiations involving rival factions during a period of great unrest. Tousignant’s work with official Rwandan government representatives facilitated the safe return of thousands of refugees.


To say that Gen Dallaire was a little upset would be a gross understatement