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Twenty years after the massacre, this report remembers the Australian bravery that saved many lives.
The Australian contingent was part of the UN 's mission in Rwanda. Whereas the Australian estimated at least 4,000 people were killed by the military wing of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (Rwandan Patriotic Army), the Rwandan government's estimate was less than 340. Kibeho was the last and the biggest Internally Displaced People’s camp remaining in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.
Exactly twenty years ago a small team of 32 Australian Defence Force personnel were the only western troops to witness the Kibeho massacre in the south of Rwanda. Outnumbered by the Rwandan Patriotic Army and unable to intervene in virtue of their UN mandate; the small Australian contingent nevertheless deployed extraordinary courage in an effort to save lives.
The Australian Defence force was providing medical support to the United Nations Assistance Mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR) following the Rwandan Genocide.
Author Paul Jordan is one of the highly trained elite SAS forces deployed in Rwanda at the time. His section was tasked to support and protect a small Australian Medical Team sent to the Kibeho IDP, Internally displaced People’s camp in the south of Rwanda. A camp that was about to be closed.
"We arrived as part of the second contingent in February 1995. We took up residence at the hospital and started providing care for those who were injured. We were then told in April that the camp at Kibeho was to be closed. And our job was to go there and document those who might be injured; provide care where we could while people were being repatriated to their villages."
Behind the official IDP repatriation operation that started on the 18th of April 1995 and ended tragically on the 24th of April 1995, there was another unspecified agenda. George Gittoes is an Australian artist and filmmaker. He was on a mission to document the deployment of Australian forces in Rwanda.
A seasoned investigative documentary maker George Gittoes had learned about the other possible motives of the Kibeho IDP repatriation operation: "Before I left Kigali I had been briefed on the likelihood that there would be a retaliatory massacre at Kibeho. So I came in very aware and alert. I came with people who.. the Australian infantry soldiers who were supporting a medical team setting up a field hospital run by Captain Carol Vaughan Evans".
George Gittoes didn’t have to wait long to witness the other aspect of the repatriation operation.
"The first sign was watching the RPA clear the villages and hills around it. People being forced out and as they ran, they were made to run. They would shoot them. And they did it in a grotesque way. They’d shoot them in the leg and then they’d laugh at them and then watch them trying to get up and eventually put a bullet in their head or somewhere fatal".
The Internally Displaced People had nowhere to run. They were completely surrounded by heavily armed and trigger happy RPA troops. Moreover, as Paul Jordan recalls, armed militias within the camp were also busy doing their own killing.
"The Rwandans had machine guns, they had mortars, and all set up to mow these people down; which they did. And while this was going on, there were also people running within these poor people with machetes killing them from within as well. So these displaced persons were being hit from both sides; from the army and from militias from within the camp".
"So these displaced persons were being hit from both sides; from the army and from militias from within the camp".
Faced with mounting casualties and a situation of total helplessness there was increased pressure on the Australian Medical team to leave Kibeho altogether. But the small Australian Medical team decided to pursue their mission of saving IDP’s lives despite their own lives being at risk.
George Gittoes recalls those moments:
"The RPA commander came and said to Carol Vaughan Evans you can’t go back we are going to finish them all. So they would kill the people that the Australians had been treating".
The Kibeho massacre is admittedly the worst carnage Australian troops have been exposed to since the Second World War. In a rare move, the ADF upgraded the mission from peace keeping mission to active duty mission.
George Gittoes is the recipient of the 2015 Sydney Peace Prize in recognition for amongst other things 45 years as a humanist artist, activist and filmmaker, for his courage to witness and confront violence in the war zones of the world.
Documents related to the Kibeho massacre:
- Witness to Genocide -- A Personal Account of the 1995 Kibeho Massacre
- Report on the situation of human rights in Rwanda submitted by Mr. René Degni-Ségui, Special Rapporteur
- Wartime Issue 39 - Bravery under fire (Australian War Memorial)
- The Kibeho Tragedy (Rwanda, April-May 1995) through the lens of Mark Cuthbert-Brown (warning on graphic content)