Belgium defends actions in Rwanda genocide
Belgium defended Thursday its decision to pull peacekeepers out of a Rwandan school during the 1994 genocide, abandoning 2,000 refugees who were hacked and shot to death by militiamen.
Lawyers for the Belgian state and three former Belgian officers argued at a civil trial in Brussels that Belgium had no other choice but to withdraw in order to protect its troops and Belgian citizens.
"Their choice was to either leave in order to save their lives and those of expatriates who they were in charge of evacuating, or try to save as many (refugees) as possible with little chance of succeeding," said a lawyer for the officers, Emmanuel Degrez.
"They fulfilled their duty," Degrez said.
On April 6, 1994, the first day of the three-month ethnic bloodbath, around 2,000 Tutsis and Hutu opposition members took refuge at the Official Technical School in Kigali where 100 Belgian UN soldiers were stationed.
But five days later, after 10 Belgian peacekeepers were killed, the soldiers were ordered to withdraw to the headquarters of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR).
The refugees were then killed by Hutu extremists armed with machetes and machineguns, a massacre that inspired the critically-acclaimed 2005 movie "Shooting Dogs".
"We could not imagine for one instant that 2,000 people would be massacred," Captain Luc Lemaire, the commander of the Blue Helmets stationed at the school, told the court.
Lemaire said he had no idea that a genocide had begun and that he had only been warned by his higher-ups that "limited riots" could take place between Rwandan rival factions.
Colonel Luc Marchal, who headed UNAMIR troops in Kigali and ordered the withdrawal from the school, said his men had "taken risks" to proceed with certain evacuations.
The UN mission, deployed after a peace agreement between Tutsis and Hutus, lacked the military means, the mandate and the "rules of engagement" needed to evacuate Rwandan refugees to safer places, which were also lacking, he said.
"We regret not having done more, not saving everybody, but it was not our mandate and we had already lost 10 comrades," Marchal said, referring to the paratroopers killed on April 7 while trying to protect a Rwandan politician.
A lawyer for the Belgian state said that the soldiers would have been accused of taking sides in the conflict if they had intervened, putting the UN mission at risk.
Belgium had asked for a mandate to protect both Belgians and the local population, but the request was rejected, said the lawyer, Nicolas Angelet.
"They abandoned us like cowards to the mercy of bloodthirsty militias," one of the survivors, Florida Ngulinzira, told the court on Thursday. Her husband, foreign minister Boniface Ngulinzira, was killed.
Ngulinzira and another survivor have sued Belgium, seeking to hold the country responsible for the massacre because it "failed to act" on its duty to prevent or end human rights violations.
© 2010 AFP