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 1994, 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, travellers, 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!

lake kivu gisenyi-skeleton-photo-d-anger

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, I saw skeletons and smelled the odour 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.

kibungu-hospital rwanda-photo-d-anger

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.

Rwanda Peacekeeper PTSD

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.

CF UNAMIR grizzlies-photo-d-anger

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 interviewed on radio about the need for treatment of post-traumatic stress upon their return.  I could see why. A night or so after my return home, 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.

See also my Rwanda 25 years ago.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Your story on Rwanda doesn’t quite cover the issues found during your visit to the war torn country, not only was the place an atrocity, the instability that put Canadians in harms way was the only way the peacekeeping force could have done its job.
    I seem to recall a rather vivid description of the mountain top communications site that you mention visiting, especially when the helicopter pilot (civilian) was left with a weapon to guard his helicopter as the media team hiked to the top. I believe there is a picture of that mountain top in the British Imperial War Museum.
    Even worse was the church visit you don’t mention, in which there were hundreds of corpses both inside and out.
    However one memorable visit to this war torn country was missed by only one team member when you went to Diane Fossies Gorilla camp.
    I would be very interested in reading more about the Canadian deployment in UNIMIR 2 as it remains a truely untold story of Canada’s real missions to bring peace around the world.

    1. Hi James, thanks for your thoughts. The church massacre that you mention is, I think, that at Ntarama. It is the photo of the small brick building in my post. It has now, fittingly, been turned into a memorial. We saw the gorillas – a joy after such horror. The Canadian troops, as well as those from other countries and civilian medical teams, worked so hard. It is indeed a story that should never be forgotten.

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