Rwanda: Liberation Day – the Capture of Mont Kigali and Fall of the Capital

Twenty-eight years ago today, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) took Mont Kigali, the last major bastion of the genocidal forces in the City of Kigali, effectively liberating the capital.

According to the official archives of the liberation war and campaign to stop the Genocide against the Tutsi, Paul Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) attacked Mont (Mount) Kigali from different directions at around 6a.m on July 4, 1994, dislodging FAR from the hugely strategic terrain around 10a.m the same day.

The capital fell three months after then Chairman of High Command of RPA Maj Gen Kagame ordered his 600-strong forces at the former CND (Parliamentary Buildings) in Kigali to break out of their positions and all the other RPA troops to advance and engage the enemy on three-pronged axes.

When the RPA forces advanced from their positions from the north of the country they took three directions, the main being the Central Axis (from Byumba-Kigali). Kagame had identified Kigali as the centre of gravity for the genocidal forces (FAR), explaining why he committed more troops and logistics to this axis.

Aside from the ‘600’ troops that were already in Kigali under a peace deal that effectively collapsed when the Genocide started, five Combined Mobile Forces (CMFs) advanced toward the capital as the RPA launched the campaign against the Genocide. The five CMFs were led by Sam ‘Kaka’ Kanyemera (Alpha), Dodo Twahirwa (Bravo), Charles Ngoga (59), Charles Musitu (21) and Charles Muhire (101).

The two subsidiary axes included the Southeastern Axis (Nyagatare-Gatsibo-Kayonza, from where the forces split into groups, with the Wilson Bagire’s 7 CMF also heading to Kigali through Rwamagana, and Fred Ibingira’s 157 CMF advancing further southwest through Kibungo-Rusomo-Nemba-Gako-

The third main axis of advance was the Northwestern Axis, which saw Charlie Mobile Force, under Thadee Gashumba, take the direction of Ruhengeri-and Gisenyi.

All of the RPF forces had advanced with the objective of defeating the genocidal forces and rescue victims of the Genocide against the Tutsi, with the main strategic end state being a situation whereby the Genocide is stopped, the genocidal government overthrown, and peace restored throughout the country.

Mount Kigali, one of the three imposing hills overlooking the city, was one of the key strategic positions of FAR and their last in the capital.

“Mont Kigali was the base of FAR’s long-range artillery and it was instrumental in the genocidal forces holding onto other positions like Camp Kigali,” said one former RPA commander who was part of the battle for the capital.

Notably, while the fighting at Mont Kigali lasted for about five hours, the RPA had gradually weakened the base, following the capture of several other key military installations in and around the city.

“Some of the RPA troops had bypassed Mont Kigali and advanced as far as Runda, whose capture effectively left Mount Kigali fully encircled,” said the former commander, who has since retired from the army. “And so when it was time to attack Mont Kigali, the FAR units there were already in a weakened position.”

According to the liberation war records and military experts, five RPA battlefield wins were particularly instrumental in the eventual capital of Mont Kigali and the capital on July 4, 1994:

1. Mt Rebero – April 12

The capture of Mt Rebero by the companies of the 3rd Battalion (‘the 600’) and several failed attempts by FAR to retake the position marked the first major blow to the genocidal forces deployed across the city, including on Mont Kigali. In the context of military warfare, Mt Rebero was not only a dominating feature in the capital, but it was the base of elite FAR artillery positions. “Rebero was the jewel in the crown of FAR,” commented one army veteran.

2. Kanombe Barracks and Kigali International Airport on May 22-23

RPF forces overran and captured Kigali International Airport and Kanombe Barracks on the night of May 22/23, 1994. Kanombe was FAR’s main logistics base and home to para-commandos (special forces), and its capture meant cutting off vital military supplies to other FAR positions, including Mont Kigali.

3. Mount Jali – June 20

Standing at an altitude of 2071m (6795ft), Mount Jali is the highest mountain in Kigali, a dominating feature to the southwest of the capital. Its fall on June 20 – as well as the capture of the nearby Mt Shyorongi around the same time – put a huge dent in FAR defensive positions not only at Mont Kigali but across the city.

4. Gitarama – July 13

The liberation of Gitarama on July 13, 1994 meant that Mont Kigali had effectively been isolated, encircled and weakened from all directions. The RPA units that marched on Gitarama had tactically avoided Mont Kigali and strategically went behind the enemy lines. They took Runda and then Gitarama (where the genocidal government had relocated to when they left Kigali earlier on), before attacking Mont Kigali from the rear. Gitarama was liberated by units from different RP’s Combined Mobile Forces, including Ibingira’s 157, Muhire’s 101 and 59 under Ngonga.

5. Seizure or weakening of FAR position across Kigali

By the time the Genocide against the Tutsi was set in motion on April 7, 1994 after extremists in the Habyarimana regime launched an attack on his Falcon-50 plane, killing him and his Burundian counterpart – thus creating a pretext for the imminent slaughter -, Kigali was a heavily fortified city.

Aside from the FAR positions at Kanombe Barracks, Mt Rebero, Mt Jali and Mont Kigali, the city was teeming with other heavily armed FAR positions. They included Kami (military police), Kimihurura-based Camp GP (presidential guard), Camp Kigali and Camp Kacyiru (Gendarmerie), as well as military installations in the elevated terrains on margins of the city, namely; Gikomero, Bumbogo and Kabuye.

In what has been hailed by many military experts as a strategic masterstroke, the RPA tactically avoided some of the military installations, choosing instead to buy time by just fixing and isolating them.

“For instance, the RPA did not directly attack Camp GP; they just kept them at bay and isolated them until the presidential guards pulled out by themselves,” observed M├ędard Bashana, the Manager at the Campaign Against Genocide Museum, which showcases extraordinary acts of bravery and courage by RPA forces during the liberation struggle.

Kami was another position to be vacated by FAR forces without a fight early on (around April 21), as was Camp Kacyiru.

Camp Kigali, which had severely been weakened following the seizure of Mt Rebero, is said to have fallen in the hours following the capture of Mont Kigali.

“The fall of Mont Kigali was the final nail in the coffin for FAR’s case,” Bashana said. “The battle for Mont Kigali did not take long because all the RPF forces’ concerted efforts were focused on it as the only remaining key terrain guarding the capital.”

Maj Gen (rtd) Kaka was RPA’s Overall Operations Commander for Kigali when the capital fell.

Now-President Kagame, who was based at Musha, just outside of Kigali when the capital was taken on July 4, 1994, was on the same day seen leading the RPA liberators in a triumphant walk through the city centre, a moment captured in one of the most iconic pictures from the liberation days, on display at the museum.

The capture of Kigali marked the liberation of Rwanda and stopping of the Genocide against the Tutsi, although some parts of the country in the northwest, west and southwest (including Zone Turquoise regions), were taken later.

The defeat of the genocidal machinery saw the bulk of the regime and perpetrators of the forces and militia behind the slaughter of over a million people during the Genocide against the Tutsi cross into DR Congo (then Zaire).

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