What On Earth Were They Doing?

new internationalist
issue 262 - December 1994

What on earth
were they doing?
Lindsey Hilsum saw Rwanda explode
into one of the worst massacres of the century –
and watched the UN’s response.

It was Thursday 7 April 1994 and in Kigali the killing was under way. Shooting and shelling reverberated around the town – the war between the Government and the rebels had started up again. But most of the residents of Kigali feared gunfire less than other sounds: chanting, whistling, screaming. Bands of militia – youths from Rwanda’s majority Hutu ethnic group, armed with machetes and clubs studded with nails – were moving unimpeded through the suburbs of the city.

Minority Tutsi people and opponents of the Government, the killers’ targets, fled to the homes of foreigners and into churches in a vain and desperate attempt to hide. Some were killed with hand grenades, others were dragged out and shot. Thousands of mutilated bodies were tossed into the streets and piled up in gardens.

Monica, the wife of a Tutsi who worked for a UN agency, rang me gasping and sobbing with terror. The militia had broken into her house. ‘They said they would kill me. I went on my knees and said “let me pray first”. They spared me when I gave them money but they said they’d be back tomorrow. Help me, please.’

No-one went to rescue Monica or the other families of UN workers targeted by the killers. Only foreigners were evacuated from Kigali. Monica found her own way out of the capital. Her two children, who had been staying with a relative upcountry, were killed.

Units of the 2,500-strong United Nations force in Rwanda, known as UNAMIR, tried to patrol the streets of the capital in their distinctive white UN vehicles, but they failed to breach the roadblocks and stop the killing.

‘The gendarmes are preventing us from crossing into certain parts of town. Those may be the areas where there are most casualties,’ said the UNAMIR spokesperson, Mokhtar Gueye. He was right.

The UN troops did not use force to get past the roadblocks. They did not take on the killers because their mandate did not permit it. Their mandate was to keep the peace but there was no longer any peace to keep. Civilians – including Rwandans working for the UN – were being slaughtered in thousands by government-backed militia and the Army. The UN Force Commander, General Romeo Dallaire of Canada, called his political bosses in New York wanting more weapons and the authority to try to stop the killing. The UN Security Council duly voted not to augment the force but to scale it down. As the killing intensified, UN troops scrambled onto planes to leave Kigali.

Survivors of the massacres, many of whom lost their entire families, are bitter. Jean-Paul Biramvu, a human-rights activist who escaped the killing, said: ‘We wonder what on earth UNAMIR was doing in Rwanda. They could not lift a finger to intervene and prevent the death of tens of thousands of innocent people who were being killed under their very noses.’

UN troops went to Rwanda in November 1993. Their mandate was to keep the peace between forces of the Hutu government and rebels of the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) which had launched a civil war in 1990. A peace accord had been signed in August 1993 and the UN force was supposed to monitor the peace, help the two sides disarm and oversee a transition to a power-sharing transitional government. The theory was perfect but – maybe predictably – nothing went according to plan.

Far from disarming, both sides carried on giving weapons to their civilian supporters. The Rwandan President, Juvenal Habyarimana, dragged his feet over the formation of the transitional government. An attempted coup in neighbouring Burundi raised the tension. As the months went on the relative calm of the country crumbled: politicians were assassinated, grenades were thrown into bars and nightclubs, shooting was heard every night.

The UN force had no authority to impose law and order, just to supervise. It was supposed to assist the Rwandan Government’s security forces, but even before April it was the security forces who were responsible for much of the violence.

Meanwhile the UN soldiers were trying to understand what each other was saying. Twenty nations were represented from Ukraine to Uruguay. They had no common language and had not been trained together. The largest contingent came from Bangladesh but they were waiting for their equipment, which never arrived. During a brief flurry of killing in February, the Bangladeshi medical corps rushed anxiously up to visiting journalists begging for gauze and pain-killing drugs – they had no supplies themselves.

Everyone could see how weak the UN soldiers were and no-one feared or respected them. If disaster were to strike, the force was manifestly unable to cope. When the plane carrying President Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart, President Ntaryamira, was shot down, Kigali exploded and 10 Belgian soldiers trying to protect the Prime Minister were murdered by members of Rwanda’s Presidential Guard.

The Security Council, afraid of being dragged into another lengthy and vicious war in Africa, voted to pull out all but 400 UN soldiers. Instead of trying to stop the massacres, the UN concentrated on trying to arrange a ceasefire between the Army and the RPF. This was a hopeless task – the RPF were by then rapidly gaining ground so were not going to agree to a truce. Moreover, if the UN had any interest in saving the lives of civilians, it was addressing the wrong problem – the people were not being killed in the war, but by government forces in government-held territory.

The UN’s military failure was caused by inept political leadership and organizational weaknesses. No-one could have predicted exactly what would happen, but there is evidence that the massacres were planned well in advance. Yet the UN envoy, Cameroonian politician Jacques Roger Booh Booh, gave no hint that he was aware of the premeditated nature of the killings. On the contrary, he continued to recognize the authority of the Rwandan Government as it committed genocide.

The small UN force left in Kigali did the best it could. The African UN troops drove around town under fire and argued their way through roadblocks to rescue some civilians. They painstakingly negotiated ‘population swaps’ so Tutsis and opposition politicians could go to areas controlled by the RPF and Hutus to the government-held suburbs. They saved lives – but despite not because of the decisions made by their bosses in New York.

By May Rwanda had become an embarrassment, a symbol of international indifference. This was one of the worst massacres of the century and the UN Security Council had been seen to be doing nothing about it. The Council voted to send troops back to Rwanda but the US – still reluctant to get involved because of fear of the ‘Somalia Syndrome’ – delayed releasing the resources. African countries which had agreed to provide soldiers could not do so because they had no equipment. According to a senior UN official, the US offered armoured personnel carriers (APCs) but then said it would take five weeks to prepare them and another five weeks to train soldiers to use them. When the APCs finally arrived in neighbouring Uganda they had neither communications systems nor machine guns.

As the UN floundered, Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said there was nothing more he could do. ‘Unfortunately I failed; it is a scandal. I am the first one to say it and I am ready to repeat it,’ he said at the end of May.

By mid-June, half a million Rwandans had been killed. The UN had done nothing to stop the slaughter, so France acted in its place. But as a supporter of the Hutu regime its troops could never have been seen as a neutral force – and known killers did escape to Zaire.

In July the RPF took over Rwanda and formed a new government and in August a UN force finally arrived. Once more the UN’s job is to keep the peace. This time the troops do have the authority to use their weapons to protect civilians if necessary.

But the UN now has no credibility in Rwanda. Hutus distrust the UN soldiers because they did not prevent the RPF from taking power. Tutsis distrust them because they failed to stop the killing. A promised investigation into genocide and human-rights abuses is faltering – by mid-October there should have been 130 UN human-rights monitors in Rwanda, but there were only about 40, they had no transport.

It will be debated for years whether anyone could have prevented the horror of Rwanda. The killers had a well-planned programme to exterminate the Tutsis and the political opposition which would not have been easy to stop. However the UN set itself up to fail.

No important power cared about Rwanda, with the possible exception of France, which had supported the killers. The US and Britain did not want to know. No-one noticed that the peacekeeping force was inadequate, no-one listened to the warning signs in the months leading up to the massacres, no-one knew what to do when the killing started, no-one acted decisively when the scale of the slaughter became clear.

The UN is only as effective as the great powers want it to be. In Rwanda’s case, they did not choose to care until it was too late.

Lindsey Hilsum is a freelance journalist who specializes in East African affairs.


Working for the UN Never in the years that I worked as the NI’s cartoonist did I dream that one day I would actually be an aid worker, scrubbing dirt instead of ink from under my fingernails. Certainly I never dreamed that one day I would work in such devastated cities as Goma in Zaire and Mogadishu. While in Mogadishu I continued to do cartoons. But when I arrived in Goma I felt unable even to broach what I encountered, as though putting the misery and death into a cartoon would automatically trivialize it. Being an aid worker is dangerous these days – more UNICEF staff members have been killed on the job in the last 3 years than in the first 46. But do I regret giving up a career as a cartoonist? No. Ironically it was the journalists who were perhaps more traumatized by what they saw in Goma than the aid workers. At least it was our job to do something about it.

(By Christian Clark, once the NI’s monthly cartoonist, now working with UNICEF in East Africa)

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