25 Years On: Operation Amaryllis
During the opening stages of the horror that was the Rwandan genocide, the French moved in with a muscular response that, sadly, had too narrow a focus to make a difference for the local Rwandans.
Sparked by the dual April 1994 assassination of Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira, both Hutu, in the same aircraft shootdown, the respective Rwandan and Burundi civil wars kicked into overdrive with violence aimed at Tutsi tribe members.
Two days after the shootdown, some 500 French paratroopers based in the nearby Central African Republic, consisting primarily of members of the 3e Régiment de Parachutistes d’Infanterie de Marine (3e RPIMa) but with some members of the 8eRPIMa and artillerists of the 35e RAP (Régiment d’Artillerie Parachutiste), were deployed to Rwanda on orders from Paris to affect a non-combatant evacuation of French and allied nationals.
Lead by Col. Henri Poncet, 3e RPIMa’s commander, the light battalion-sized force managed to evac some 1,417 people– including 445 French– to Bujumbura in Burundi and Bangui in the CAR within a week.
Dubbed Opération Amaryllis, the mission was a success when judged by its immediate tasking, but history, sobered with the fact that an estimated 1 million Tutsi perished in the ensuing genocide as the French beat feet, has left that benchmark somewhat hollow.
Similarly, the UN mission in the country, UNAMIR, which was established to help implement the Arusha Peace Agreement signed by the Rwandese parties the previous August, commanded by Canadian MG Romeo A. Dallaire, dropped its authorised strength from 2,548 military personnel to only 270 in late April 1994 as Belgium and others pulled their troops from the blue berets– showing it was not just the French who pulled stumps at the onset of the crisis in Kigali.
The French paras did return a few weeks later, as part of a 5,500 military personnel expedition, dubbed Opération Turquoise, near the end of the 100-day genocide, and established the so-called Turquoise Zone meant to stop the mass killings and give a safe haven to refugees. French President François Mitterrand at the time hailed the move and Radio France said that tens of thousands were saved through its efforts– although Turquoise has since joined Amaryllis on the heap of “mistakes were made” operations when judged by after-action historical documents.
For a haunting further look at the international cockup by all involved in 1994 Rwanda, read Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, by LG Roméo Dallaire.
Notably, while United Nations peacekeepers have been deployed for more than seven decades, it was only in 1999– five years after Rwanda and four after the horrible failure in Bosnia that led to the Srebrenica massacre — that the UN Security Council issued resolutions (1265 & 1270) which put the Protection of Civilians (POC) at the heart of UN Peacekeeping. Today, peacekeepers have an actual mandate to protect civilians.