25th Anniversary of Operation Tamar - UN Assistance Mission to Rwanda

Readers should be aware this article contains graphic and confronting images. Some people may find the content distressing.

 

25 Years since Operation TAMAR - the Australian deployment of Peacekeepers to Rwanda as part of UNAMIR II.


This submission is posted as a tribute to the Commanding Officer of the Second contingent, Lieutenant Colonel (later Brigadier (retired)) Damian "Dolly" Moliphant Roche who passed away suddenly in January 2014 aged just 58, and other members of both contingents who have since passed away.  Lest we forget.

 

Rwanda is a tiny country in the geographic centre of mass of Africa, wedged between Lakes Kivu and Victoria and bordered by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) to the west, Tanzania to the east, Uganda to the north and its equally miniscule neighbour Burundi to the nouth.

 

Burundi and Rwanda had been beset by long-standing tensions between two major ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi.  The roots of the problem are a function of tribal history somewhat reinforced by European colonisers, first the Germans prior to WW1, and afterwards by the Belgians who were ceded control after the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. 

The Belgian colonisers had reinforced the social 'status quo'.  The Tutsis were a minority, but were effectively a ruling class. They were a power-and-bureaucratic elite.  In 1959 attacks on Tutsis took place and large numbers were killed.  Tutsis fled in large numbers over the northern border to Uganda.  

Rwanda gained independece from Belgium in 1962, and post-independence, the Hutus achieved political majority.  

So who are the Tutsis and the Hutus?  The Tutsis are of Nilotic (ie 'of the Nile') extraction and are tall and slim with fine features.  Historically they were cattle herders, with origins similar to the Kenyan Masai and Samburu.  The Hutus are of Bantu extraction.  Shorter and stockier in appearance and with broader facial feature, the Bantu were historically farmers.

That was the theory at least. The reality however had become much more blurred.  There had been extensive intermarrying and people of mixed race / ethnicity held numerous positions in all parts of government, in education, the bureaucracy, medicine and the military.

President Juvénal Habyarimana had seized power in Rwanda as a result of a 1973 coup d’etat. 

Over time a de-facto rebel army developed in Uganda, which became known as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).  English speaking and trained by the Ugandans along British lines, a further schism developed with the French-speaking Rwandan administration. 

Tensions escalated through the 1980s. The RPF began a border war with the Rwandan Government in 1990.

In 1993 the UN became involved and assigned a Peacekeeping force to Rwanda replacing the team of Observers that had been in place prior.  A joint government was formed and a series of negotiations commenced.  

 

On 6 April 1994,  Presidents Habyarimana and President Ntaryamira of Burundi were killed when their aircraft was shot down on approach to Kigali by a shoulder launched Surface to Air Missile (SAM) returning from a conferences at Arusha in Tanzania.

An extremist group, the Interahamwe, which was not in any way interested in any kind of negotiated agreement, precipitated an insurrection and then commenced an orgy of killing, the likes of which have not been seen in recent human history.  It was genocide of a systematic, orchestrated manner.  It was a classic neo-Marxist purge in the way it was carried out, although it transcended anything that had preceded it in ferocity.  An estimated 1 million people were murdered.

  

 

Every Rwandan citizen had an ID card on which they were identified by ethnicity and it was these cards that became the vector of the Interahamwe's onslaught.  Educated people, Tutsis, people of mixed blood, the entire medical staff at the Kigali hospital were all killed in the most brutal manner.   Bodies were strewn everywhere and began washing down rivers and some were washed up in Uganda.

An ossuary, erected as memorial to the Genocide in the small settlement of Ntarama, south of Kigali, where hundreds of people were murdered in the local church by Interahamwe militias

A group of Belgian soldiers, assigned as a Presidential Guard, were directed by the UN Force HQ to surrender to the Interahamwe and were then hacked to pieces. This precipitated a crisis in the UN.  The remaining Belgians withdrew and the fate of UNAMIR was debated.

The RPF, now led by General Paul Kagame (who had been a Major attending US Army Staff College when he withdrew to return home in order to take command of the RPF) stepped up its drive on Kigali after they realised the world was standing by while the genocide continued unabated. This renewed outbreak of violence saw the evacuation of foreign nationals and the bulk of UNAMIR forces.

In the interim, on 17 May 1994, the United Nations Security Council authorised a Chapter VI peacekeeping mandate for a 5500 strong force, known as UNAMIR II, for deployment to Rwanda. Separately, the French Government sought and was granted approval under UN Chapter VII articles to organise a safe haven (known as a Humanitarian Protection Zone) in the south west of Rwanda.

French soldiers of Operation TURQUOISE in June 1994

In mid-June the French enacted Operation TURQUOISE deploying 2500 soldiers, mainly infantry, to set up and enforce the protection zone during 22 June - 21 August 1994. The United States also deployed forces, separate to UNAMIR II, to create an airhead in Uganda and to also improve the Kigali airport in preparation for the arrival of UNAMIR II forces.

On 4 July 1994 the RPF captured Kigali and by 18 July the RPF had seized control of the greater part of Rwanda. At this point an estimated 1 million Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus had been killed in the fighting and almost twice that number displaced.  A systematic count by the government of Rwanda in collaboration with genocide survivor organisations established that 1,074,017 people were killed, of whom 934,218 have been identified by names: 93.6% were killed because they were Tutsi; the others either because they were Hutus married to Tutsis, resembled Tutsi, had hidden Tutsi neighbours or were Hutus who opposed the killings. 

On 25 July 1994 Prime Minister Paul Keating announced that Australia would provide $6.5 Million in direct financial aid to the UN.  Additionally he advised the deployment of an Australian Defence Force (ADF) contingent of 302 personnel to Rwanda consisting of 100 medical personnel and another 200 infantry/logistics support personnel. The ADF had been advised of the decision the day before Prime Minister Keating’s announcement.

At this point Australia agreed to send a Medical Support Force, and quickly formed a contingent based around a Field Hospital organisation which assembled in Townsville and deployed in early August 1994.  

The contingent comprised a small UN HQ detachment including the Commander (Colonel Wayne Ramsay), and the Medical Support Force comprising a contingent Headquarters commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Pat McIntosh, a Medical Company to establish and run the hospital, a security force drawn from Townsville-based 2/4th Battalion the Royal Australian Regiment (the only formed element of the contingent) and an Operations Support Company comprising logistics support capability.

A total of two such contingents were to deploy; the first from August 1994 to February 1995, and the second commanded by Colonel Peter Warfe, and the Medical Support Force commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Damian Roche, from February to August 1995.  They were based in the old Rwandan Military College in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, about 400m from the hospital which they were tasked to run, in the middle of a major RPA military base.  The capability of the Medical Support Force was such that the hospital quickly came up to speed with high level surgical capability.

Its principal role was to provide Level 2 health care for the deployed UN Forces.  The background health of deployed UN personnel varied enormously and a range of ailments not normally encountered in Australia quickly presented themselves; tuberculosis, cerebral malaria ('blackwater fever'), parasitic maladies and a high background rate of HIV were all on the agenda.  

 

Consumate professionals at work in the Kigali Operating Theatre.  One of the surgical teams that provided superlative levels of skills and care throughout the duration of the deployment.

A number of foreign civilian casualties passed through the care of the hospitals most notably among some European aid workers wounded in neighbouring Burundi.  In addition, support was provided to the local population although this was necessarily resource-constrained.  In addition, a training program was instituted to build capability among the local population to try to replace some of the skills lost when most of the hospital staff were killed by the Interahamwe during the genocide.

It was later discovered that the remains of most of the hospital's original staff had been buried in the hospital grounds.   Their remains were exhumed, identified where possible and re-interred during the course of the second contingent's deployment, while the hospital's operations continued.

Extreme overcrowding and later, cessation of all food water and sanitation by the Government, and pressure from Interahamwe dissidents within the compound,  precipitated a disaster

A mass casualty event occurred around 21 April 1995, when in the midst of a thunderstorm, tens of thousands of mainly Hutu internees attempted to break out of a refugee camp where they had been detained by Government forces, at Kibeho in southern Rwanda.   The conditions in this camp in particular were appalling.  Attempts were being made by the UN and Rwandan government to repatriate people back to their communities under what was known as "Operation Retour".  Interahamwe militia were hiding among the refugees and had prevented the occupants from collaborating to facilitate processing. 

 

Infantrymen of 2RAR evacuating wounded civilians at Kibeho

In response, the Rwandan authorities cut off food, water and sanitation and the lives of 200,000 or so people descended quickly into abject misery.  A thunderstorm allowed the Interahamwe in the camp to trigger the breakout so they could use the disturbance to try to get away and avoid the screening that was taking place under "Operation Retour". The attempted breakout triggered a violent response by the Rwandan Army forces, and the small detachment of Australian and Zambian Peacekeepers stationed there were unable to effectively intervene because of the nature of the UN Mandate, and were caught in the middle. The troops on the ground estimated as many as 4,000 civilians were killed and wounded, with far fewer casualties (340) being acknowledged by either the Rwandan Government or the UN.

A triage team working in very difficult conditions at Kibeho

ANZAC Day 1995 is one I won’t forget in a hurry.  The mood was very sombre across the contingent as we conducted the traditional service at our barracks in Kigali.  A Ghurka piper, whose strains of ‘The Lament’ seemed a perfect summary of the feelings of most of us.

Aeromedical evacuation 

That event epitomised the worst aspects of Peacekeeping operations for many of the Australian troops. Intervention was what human sensibilities demanded yet to do so would have been contrary to the mandate under which the UN was operating.  Worse, it would have been futile and the consequences could have been calamitous for them and the remainder of the UN Force.  Many of the wounded were evacuated through the Australian-run hospital in Kigali, and the troops remaining at Kigali spent several days burying the dead in mass graves. It was an experience which has haunted many of them ever since.

The ADF commitment to Rwanda was a first in many respects.  All three services, Reserve and Regular, with a very large proportion of women, comprised each of the two contingents.

The ADF's surgical capability was and is provided largely from the Defence Force Reserve, comprising a pool of practising surgeons serving in the Reserve of all three services.  Rotated through on six week assignments, the capability thus generated made the Kigali Military Hospital one of the most able in Africa at that time. Similarly a large proportion of the Medical Company personnel came straight out of ICUs and Emergency theatres in hospitals around Australia.  

One small contribution we made was, in collaboration with the Government, to reinstate treks into the Virungas National Park to see the legendary Mountain Gorillas made famous by Dianne Fossey's book "Gorillas in the Mist", generating much needed foreign currency  for the struggling economy.  At 3,000m and 100% humidity visibility was only about 10m, where the Silverback is in the background.

Twenty five years on, and half of Rwanda's population have been born since the events just described, so their memory of it is only through what they have been told.  The Australian involvement is likely now largely forgotten.

However, it is not forgotten among the men and women who comprised the two contingents. 

Both contingents acquitted themselves very well on the best traditions of the ADF.  We reinforced our reputation as a 'can-do' operation in the eyes of the UN and the disparate elements making up UNAMIR, and we did so diplomatically and occasionally, when required, assertively.   I was pesonalyy gratified to realise that we are benficiaries of a long legacy of excellent personnel selection and training systems.  We pulled together two contingents of over 300 people with only the rifle companies as pre-existing organisations.  All three services, men and women, Reserve and Regular personnel with a very broad skillset necessary to run a more or less self-contained capability, and it all worked thanks to the professionalism and competence of the people involved despite being a very long way away from home (and external assistance had it been required).

The biggest disappointment was the sudden let down when we returned home.  We drove out of our barracks, and flew out of Kigali.  In a sight I'll never forget, but was unable to record, we flew past Mt Kilimanjaro in Kenya at about 15,000 feet (lower than its peak) on the way home, but naturally I was out of film (pre digital cameras).  We returned to Townsville, formalities were conducted and then the following day we flew back to our home locations and back to a world that had no idea of what we had been doing, apart from immediate family.  These days a period of 'decompression' in an intermediate location is provided which must at least afford the opportunity to make farewells to colleagues with whom one has worked for six months in a pressure cooker environment. 

The most persistent legacy of the ADF's deployment to Rwanda is the toll it took of the men and women who served there.  ADF personnel had not been present during the initial genocide in 1994.  But the Kibeho massacre created a deep sense of powerlessness to make a difference when it counted most.  The psychological dissonance that this has caused, particularly among the troops on the ground at Kibeho, persists to this day, as is evident from the various published accounts by the men and women involved.

The autonomy and responsibility we carried was nothing like we had ever experienced 'on home service' and for nearly all of us it was a career highlight.  I was personally proud to have been a part of it, and grateful for the opportunity.

 

Steve Larkins September 2019

Steve was a Major on the Headquarters of the Medical Support Force with the 2nd Contingent Feb-Aug 1995.