Seventeen years ago, one hundred days of genocide ended in Rwanda. It was part of a long-standing conflict between Hutu and Tutsi, two groups who uneasily co-exist in the small Central African countries of Rwanda and Burundi. This time, from early April to July, it was the Hutu doing their damnedest to wipe out their Tutsi neighbours, family and friends.
Canadian Armed Forces General Roméo Dallaire headed a small UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda and Burundi at the time. He saw early on that there were genocidal objectives to what had seemed like intertribal fighting with colonial history overtones. More peacekeepers were deployed, too late to stop the massacre and without a clear mandate on use of force in a still-volatile situation. An estimated 800,000 people, one-tenth of Rwanda’s population, were killed in that hundred days. The majority of the dead were Tutsis, the numerical minority in the country.
Invitation to journalists
After the bloodshed stopped, the Canadian Armed Forces invited journalists to come to Rwanda to see what they were doing. I was lucky enough to go in September. A word of advice to writers, travelers, students of the world: if you ever have an opportunity to go to a war zone or any area of violence and conflict, take it!
I went with no knowledge of Rwanda, of military or UN action. My predisposition was anti-armed forces, and against sticking our noses in other people’s business because we usually make it worse.
My 10 days in Rwanda were earth-shattering for me. I had been in conflict zones before, in Central America in the 1980s, but I’d seen nothing like Rwanda after the killing stopped. I cannot imagine what it was like while it was still going on.
The closest I came was listening to a CBC radio news item that summer. In almost silence, the reporter walked through the refugee camp at Goma, Zaire (now DRC). She whispered into her microphone what she was seeing. I sat down to listen, chilled in the day’s heat, following her steps over and around corpses and living people moaning for help or food.
Smell of death in Rwanda
In Rwanda, I saw skeletons and smelled the odor of death that lingered in massacre sites now cleaned of bodies. I saw gutted villages, houses burned and people gone. Survivors starting to clean up and rebuild. Can’t describe it – I did soon after getting back in a CBC Radio documentary Rwanda Maps. I still smelled it then.
I saw military men and women from around the world – operating field hospitals, rebuilding telephone lines and radio transmitters, guarding and patrolling against insurgents. On days off, they’d visit orphanages and play with the kids. They ran radio stations for their own entertainment and that of the surrounding area.
They sometimes talked about what they saw and their own fears. Soldiers in a military and political no man’s land. They were not engaged in war, but they were not doing a straightforward peacekeeping mission where the lines, literally and figuratively, are clearly drawn. They could use their weapons for their own protection or that of others if there was a real threat. But many of the threats were invisible. Land was still mined. Signal Corps linesmen had to work in bush to rebuild communications lines. The same bush that our Canadian Forces minders told us to avoid for fear of explosive devices. “Keep on the beaten path, where you can see!” they told us. Wasn’t possible for the Signal Corps, however.
Peacekeeper Post-Traumatic Stress
When my documentary aired, a friend said, “they bought you easily – a free trip to Rwanda and you’re a big Armed Forces fan!” Yeah, I suppose that’s all it took. That, and seeing the faces of soldiers. Seeing them at work, then at play with the little kids. Hearing them talk about what they’d expected and what they were seeing. Watching them at a massacre site, telling us to use Vicks Vaporub and our gauze mask to block the stench of death. Watching them look at skulls split open by a machete. Them looking at the scattered bones of a child, gauging the age based on the size of their own children.
I later heard a soldier I’d met being interviewed about the need for treatment of post-traumatic stress upon their return. I could see why. A night or so after my return, I was in a mall parking lot. An employee put some wood in a dumpster. Then he broke it to fit it in. Crack! I dropped to the ground like I’d been shot. I was only in Rwanda a few days, after the killing had been somewhat cleaned up. While there, I never heard a gunshot.