Army for the Liberation of Rwanda

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Army for the Liberation of Rwanda

ALTERNATE NAME: Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda

LEADER: Tharcisse Renzaho


USUAL AREA OF OPERATION: Rwanda; Democratic Republic of Congo; Uganda


The Army for the Liberation of Rwanda (ALIR; also known as Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, FDLR) is an irregular force representing the 1994 amalgamation of Rwanda's Former Armed Forces (FAR) and the Interahamwe, a Hutu civilian militia. Both groups are held largely responsible for the deaths of 937,000 Tutsi and other regime opponents in Rwanda's 1994 genocide. The group in 2005, mostly in exile in the Democratic Republic of Congo, seeks to replace Rwanda's Tutsidominated government with Hutu control and possibly complete the genocide.


Rwanda's 1994 genocide was one of the defining events of the twentieth century, ending the illusion that genocide belonged to the past. Just as shocking as the deaths of nearly one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus, was the intensity of the killings—most were carried out within a period of just 100 days—and the complicity of the United Nations, France and the United States, each of which ignored warnings about the massacres and/or refused to intervene.

The genocide owed its origins to a postcolonial power struggle, but it is initially difficult to fathom given the inherent similarities between Hutu and Tutsi peoples. As Human Rights Watch's definitive and exhaustive report on the killings "Leave None to Tell The Story" makes clear: "For centuries they had shared a single language, a common history, the same ideas and cultural practices. They lived next to one another, attended the same schools and churches, worked in the same offices, and drank in the same bars. A considerable number of Rwandans were of mixed parentage, the offspring of Hutu-Tutsi marriages."

Rwanda was one of the few African nations to follow its historical borders. The kingdom of Rwanda had been controlled by a Tutsi royal family, but Hutus had also held places in the nobility. Despite holding power, Tutsis historically made up a minority within the country, albeit a significant one, accounting for between a sixth and a fifth of Rwanda's population.

The country was governed by German, then Belgian, colonial overlords, but the Tutsis were favored, particularly by the Belgians, who heightened racial divisions with a divide and rule policy. By giving the Tutsis some of the scraps of colonial rule, they could control the Hutu majority, but they accentuated divisions by getting the Tutsis to do their bidding for them. They gave credence to the writings of the nineteenth-century anthropologist, John Hanning Speke, who believed that Tutsis had "nobler," more "naturally" aristocratic features than the "coarse" and "bestial" Hutus. The view of the first bishop of Rwanda, Leon Classe, was typical. He warned in 1930 that any attempt to replace Tutsi chiefs with "uncouth" Hutus "would lead the entire state directly into anarchy," adding "we have no chiefs who are better qualified, more active, more capable of appreciating progress … than the Tutsi."

After World War II, Rwanda was placed under UN trusteeship, although the Belgians essentially remained power-brokers until 1959 when free elections brought the Hutu Nationalist Party of the Hutu Emancipation Movement (PARMEHUTU) to power. Racial tensions built up over the preceding half century were played out during the elections, with some 20,000 Tutsis killed and a further 200,000 fleeing the country. PARMEHUTU established one-party rule until 1973 when a military coup brought Juvenal Habyarimana to power, but he too relied on Hutu nationalism for his power base. Pogroms carried out against the Tutsi minority in 1964 and 1974 killed large numbers.

Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) a.k.a. Army for the Liberation of Rwanda (ALIR), Ex-FAR/Interahamwe


The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) in 2001 supplanted the Army for the Liberation of Rwanda (ALIR), which is the armed branch of the PALIR, or the Party for the Liberation of Rwanda. ALIR was formed from the merger of the Armed Forces of Rwanda (FAR), the army of the ethnic Hutu-dominated Rwandan regime that orchestrated the genocide of 500,000 or more Tutsis and regime opponents in 1994, and Interahamwe, the civilian militia force that carried out much of the killing, after the two groups were forced from Rwanda into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC—then Zaire) that year. Though directly descended from those who organized and carried out the genocide, identified FDLR leaders are not thought to have played a role in the killing. They have worked to build bridges to other opponents of the Kigali regime, including ethnic Tutsis.


ALIR sought to topple Rwanda's Tutsidominated Government, reinstitute Hutu domination, and, possibly, complete the genocide. In 1996, a message—allegedly from the ALIR—threatened to kill the US ambassador to Rwanda and other US citizens. In 1999, ALIR guerrillas critical of US-UK support for the Rwandan regime kidnapped and killed eight foreign tourists, including two US citizens, in a game park on the Democratic Republic of Congo-Uganda border. Three suspects in the attack are in US custody awaiting trial. In the 1998–2002 Congolese war, the ALIR/FDLR was allied with Kinshasa against the Rwandan invaders. FDLR's political wing mainly has sought to topple the Kigali regime via an alliance with Tutsi regime opponents. It established the ADRN Igihango alliance in 2002, but it has not resonated politically in Rwanda.


Exact strength is unknown, but several thousand FDLR guerrillas operate in the eastern DRC close to the Rwandan border. In 2003, the United Nations, with Rwandan assistance, repatriated close to 1,500 FDLR combatants from the DRC. The senior FDLR military commander returned to Rwanda in November 2003 and has been working with Kigali to encourage the return of his comrades.


Mostly in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.


The Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo provided training, arms, and supplies to ALIR forces to combat Rwandan armed forces that invaded the DRC in 1998. Kinshasa halted that support in 2002, though allegations persist of continued support from several local Congolese warlords and militias (including the Mai Mai).

Source: U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Terrorism. Washington, D.C., 2004.

By the 1980s, up to half a million Tutsis lived in exile, many in refugee camps in neighboring Uganda. In their own right, they were a powerful force, fighting alongside Ugandans to depose Uganda's dictator, Milton Obote, in 1985. A Tutsi-dominated Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) was established in 1985 under the leadership of Paul Kagame, with the aim of bringing out their right to return and as a force to bring recognition of Tutsi rights.

The RPF invaded Rwanda from their Ugandan base in October 1990, plunging the country into a 22-month-long civil war. President Habyarimana played out the conflict as a Tutsi attempt to enslave the Hutu race; Hutu nationalism escalated, racial tensions increased. Peace was nevertheless agreed in August 1992, with accords signed 12 months later that gave a timetable for power-sharing.

Tensions, however, remained high, and Hutus, with government backing, began to organize into a militia, called the Interahamwe. By 1994, this was 30,000 strong and heavily armed.

On April 6, 1994 the jet carrying President Habyarimana was shot down. Who carried out this attack remains a mystery. It has been suggested that it was probably Hutu extremists close to Habyarimana concerned at moves to share power with the RPF. Either way, the attack was blamed on Tutsis. The following morning, the moderate Hutu Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, along with the 10 Belgian UN troops protecting her, was murdered by the Presidential Guard.

The murders seemed to provide the signal for the onset of an extraordinary period of killing by the FAR and Interahamwe militia. From that point until the start of July, the army and militia embarked upon a massacre that would claim 937,000 lives. Most victims were Tutsis, but some moderate Hutus were killed too (the term "moderate" encompassed those who backed power-sharing on a political level, or merely those—and their families—who refused the exhortations to join the bloodletting in the towns and villages of Rwanda). The orgy of violence seemed even more horrific given the Hutu weapon of choice—the machete—and the torture, rape, and mutilation that often accompanied killings.

The UN (UNAMIR) force in Rwanda appealed to its Security Council for reinforcements, but was rebuffed. Many have since laid the blame at the door of U.S. President Clinton, who sought to avoid a repeat of U.S. peacekeeping failings in Somalia a year earlier. Kofi Annan, the UN's future Secretary General, but then undersecretary for peacekeeping operations, insisted on his organization's "impartiality," even in the face of genocide. Indeed, the frustrated and impotent UNAMIR force was depleted to just 260 men after the withdrawal of Belgian troops following the murder of 10 of its men with Uwilingiyimana. Even when the UN belatedly sent reinforcements, their deployment was delayed further by wrangling over cost.

Indeed, it was only RPF forces that repelled the genocide. Its battalion based in Kigali came under immediate attack following the presidential assassination, but fought its way out to the north of the country where it was joined by RPF forces previously based in Uganda and Tanzania. Over May and June 1994, it battled FRA and Interahamwe forces, with the massacres going on concurrently, until, at the start of July it exacted victory with two million Hutu refugees and defeated soldiers and militiamen fleeing to Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zaire.


Murder of Rwandan President Habyarimana is the pretext for Rwanda's Armed Forces (FAR) and the Hutu Interahamwe militia to embark on an extraordinary murder spree of Tutsi and moderate Hutus. The genocide lasts 100 days.
Rwandese Patriotic Front repel the genocide and force the army and militia into neighboring Zaire. ALIR formed.
Border raids launched by ALIR (later Democratic Republic of Congo) against Tutsis in Rwanda, and also against Zairian Tutsis.
Murder of eight tourists in Uganda.

It was in Zaire that the Army for the Liberation of Rwanda (ALIR) formed from the remnants of FRA and Interahamwe forces. Essentially, it was a broken force at first—albeit one consisting of upwards of 30,000 men—with its downtrodden members living in appalling conditions in the refugee camps of Zaire. However, the ALIR soon began initiating raids against Zairian Tutsis and across the border into Rwanda. In 1996, it also issued a death threat to the U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda and other U.S. citizens. The motivation behind this was seemingly the fact that the United States had been among the first countries to recognize the RPF government.

In November 1996, the increasingly embattled Tutsi population of the South Kivu Province of Zaire was expelled on the threat of death. They erupted into rebellion, which spread across Zaire, and joined Laurent Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Zaire (AFDL), which was also given support by the Rwandan and Ugandan governments. This became known as the "First Congo War," and although ALIR fought against AFDL forces, theirs was a small role. In July 1997, Kabila succeeded in defeating the forces of Zairian President Mobuto Sese-Seko.

Once in power, however, Kabila soon changed tack—wary of Rwandan presence within the new Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)—and, in August 1998, ordered all ethnic Tutsis from his government and all Rwandan and Ugandan officials out of the DRC.

Rwanda and Uganda then turned on their former ally, invading almost immediately. This marked the onset of four years of war, which would prove more bloody and horrific than even the Rwandan genocide.

During its course, Kabila provided extensive support to the ALIR, which not only fought with his forces, but continued to direct assaults on Tutsi populations on each side of the Rwandan/DRC border. They also carried out its threat against U.S. citizens when it orchestrated the kidnapping and murder of eight foreign tourists, including two Americans, in a Ugandan nature reserve in 1999.

Under the terms of the treaty that brought an end to the Second Congo War in 2002, the ALIR were meant to disband in exchange for a Rwandan exit from the DRC. Officially, Congolese support was ended, although the U.S. Department of State has published allegations that the ALIR receives backing from a number of Congolese warlords.



Tharcisse Renzaho was Prefect (Mayor) of Kigali prior to the genocide, and held control over the city's police force. Yet far from using his position to prevent the genocide, it has been alleged that he was zealous in coordinating the planning of the slaughter in the city, and served as a colonel in the KAR forces. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda indictment against him accuses him of having "de jure and de facto control over the armed forces who were under his authority, whom he could order to commit or to refrain from committing unlawful acts, and whom he could discipline or punish for unlawful acts or omissions."

Following the genocide, he fled to Zaire where he was among the most active of the Hutu genocide suspects in exile, serving as a divisional commander of ALIR until 1996. He was arrested by DRC officials in September 2002, and handed over to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. He currently awaits trial.


The ALIR's avowed aim is to topple the Rwandan government of Paul Kagame and return Hutu power to the country. An assumed aim is that they also wish to finish the 1994 genocide.

However, because it has fought in so many conflicts and in so many guises, pinning down the tactics of the ALIR is rather more difficult.

During the Rwandan massacre, Rwanda's Former Armed Forces (FAR) and the Interahamwe organized the killing by manning road blocks, cutting off villages, and exhorting the Hutu population to turn on their neighbors. Arms, widely spread leading up to the massacre, were used with savage frequency. They also turned on moderate Hutus who refused to comply with the bloodletting.

As the ALIR, they have fought much as a conventional army, either carrying out raids on Tutsi villages or in fighting Rwandan forces in the DRC.

Their "conventional" terrorist attacks on Westerners have been limited, but its most notorious attack, on holidaymakers in Uganda, was carefully targeted. This was a revenge attack for Ugandan involvement in the RPF invasions of Rwanda and the DRC. Uganda, which is heavily reliant on tourist dollars, found its holiday industry decimated in the wake of the attacks.


"The memory of Rwanda sits like a tumour leaking poison in the back of my head," wrote the former Reuters correspondent Aidan Hartley in his memoir of Africa, the Zanzibar Chest. Hartley, who had seen virtually every war, famine, and natural disaster suffered by Africa during the late 1980s and 1990s struggled to comprehend what he had witnessed. "History is supposed to explain why events happened as they did. But how do you account for the evil we saw in the green hills of that nation in 1994, where one day we saw a mother with an infant tied to her back gleefully using a machete to hack up another woman also carrying an infant?"

Speaking of his motives for writing an account of the Rwandan massacre, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, the journalist Philip Gourevitch told students at the University of Berkeley that: "The story had been bothering me … People were murdered at a rate that exceeded by three times the speed the extermination of Jews during the Holocaust. It happened in our time, in front of our noses, somewhat before our cameras. And it vanished very quickly. As soon as the blood was dry, the story disappeared from the newspapers. Nobody really had explained it. When one read the papers it didn't seem to me to make much sense. It was described as anarchy and chaos, which struck me as implausible simply because in order to kill at that clip requires organization, it requires method, it requires mobilization. It requires the opposite of anarchy and chaos. Mass destruction is not arbitrary, it doesn't just come about willy-nilly … I felt the story was being told wrong, and casually and cavalierly, and that in some basic way a great calamity had happened which we were quite content to be ignorant of."


The remnants of the ALIR are difficult to pin down, existing as they do in a country—the Democratic Republic of Congo—that is neither their own, nor effectively governed by its leaders. It is possible that it does exist as a unified, albeit diminishing force, seeking to overthrow Rwanda's Tutsi rulers and also evade the attentions of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. All intelligence suggests, however, that it has been separated into units and absorbed under the command of Congo's many warlords. It may still carry out acts of terrorism against Tutsi and other foreign nationals, but as time progresses it seems an increasingly dormant force.



Courtemanche, Gils. A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali. Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2004.

Dailaire, Romeo. Shake Hands With the Devil. New York: Arrow, 1995.

Gourevitch, Philip. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. London: Picador, 2000.

Web sites

Human Rights Watch. "Leave None to Tell the Story." 〈〉 (accessed October 12, 2005).

African Studies Quarterly. "Conventional Wisdom and Rwanda's Genocide." 〈〉 (accessed October 12, 2005).

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Army for the Liberation of Rwanda

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