One of the most significant and chilling events during ASC 2's tour in Rwanda was the massacre at Kibeho Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camp on 22 Apr 95. Many of our own people were in place to provide medical care to the 80,000 or so IDPs at the camp when the massacre occurred. Between 2 and 8,000 people were killed. Here is the story of how the events unfolded from my perspective.
During the early part of 1995, the Rwandan Government decided it would forcibly close all IDP camps in order to return civilians to their home communes. The largest of these camps, numbering as many as 120,000 at it’s peak, was Kibeho, located in the south west of the country. The problem for the government was that amongst the apparently "innocent" civilians were a number of Interahamwe members; men, women and even children regarded as murderers by the government. It was these people who ruled the camps by fear and spread propaganda amongst the camps that all would be killed if they returned home.
In mid-April we received word that the camp was to be closed and the IDPs processed and returned home. A Casualty Clearing Post (CCP) was deployed to provide assistance, consisting of an MO, NURSO, and three medics, with support from an ambulance team of two patrol medics and support and security elements. Soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) rounded up the IDPs from their makeshift homes and onto the ridge running through the centre of the camp. They then began processing people, one by one, sending the innocent on to nearby Butare for staging home and interrogating and arresting suspects.
On Apr 22, approximately thee days after the clearing began, all hell broke loose. The events which occurred on that day are still not completely clear but one theory based on the reports of several eye witnesses and Intel reports is as follows.
As the processing slowly continued, people became very weary and restless. One casualty we received later told us they had been so crowded in by the RPA, without food or water, that they had been barely able to sit. The Interahamwe leaders in particular began to become concerned, and quite rightly, as imprisonment or execution were very real possibilities for them. As a result, they began to harass the people and then to attack the crowd with machetes. Their reasons were probably two-fold - to create a diversion in order to escape and to silence potential informers. Whatever the reason, this resulted in panic amongst the crowd which began pushing against the RPA cordon. The RPA soldiers, fearing a riot began to shoot into the crowd and soon most joined in, firing indiscriminately.
Their motive soon became less crowd control and more revenge. All had probably lost relatives in last years genocide and this was a chance to avenge these deaths. I can certainly understand the strength of revenge as a motive, however what took place that day is beyond comprehension. Babies were decapitated on their mothers backs; the elderly were killed slowly and left to suffer. One of our colleagues witnessed a mother give birth, only to see the child’s throat being cut as it entered the world, followed closely by her own. People were also killed as they broke away and fled down the road towards Butare. The next day our CSM counted over 4,000 bodies but there were probably more as the RPA spirited many away by night to cover up the atrocity. The UN count said 2,000. The official government count was 140 dead.
Our CCP was in the thick of things as the shooting began. They were originally located at the entrance to the camp but moved to the Zambian compound for security reasons. IDPs charged into the compound for protection, many bleeding to death before help could be offered. Our personnel were completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of the disaster, however did an amazing job under extreme pressure, saving the lives of many. Casualties were ferried out to nearby hospitals by chopper, however to our disappointment, AME teams were not utilised. Six casualties were brought back to our hospital that evening.
We received only 6 casualties that night. The casualties were triaged in our courtyard with the most seriously injured going straight to resus bays manned by an MO, NURSO, and two medics. This included one man who had been disembowelled and was near death, but went straight to theatre and survived. We received the less seriously injured patients at makeshift bays in the corridor of the hospital. One or two had nasty looking machete or gunshot wounds but these were easily treated later.
One little eight year old boy, Buregeya, was seriously ill with GSWs to the chest and the classic sucking chest wound. He had stopped breathing twice en route and once we had dripped him and assessed the severity of his wounds, we took him up to the formal resus bay where his condition continued to deteriorate. Fortunately our surgeons were able to repair his ruptured blood vessels and damaged lung and, after many days in ICU, he made a good recovery. His wounds were not his only problems though, as months spent in an IDP camp are not conducive to good personal hygiene - ie the stench was overpowering and he also has some free loading worms that required treatment. In addition, like many other children, he had lost his father in last year’s genocide and now had lost his mother and siblings in this latest massacre. We tried to locate them through the ICRC but were unsuccessful and so eventually left him in the care of the nuns at the orphanage. (See photo with Uwamariya).
Although we were not utilised for Aeromedical Evacuation (AME) on the day of the massacre we did become involved the following day when our team was dispatched on a L100 Herc to pick up casualties from Butare for treatment in Kigali hospitals. Unfortunately despite seeing a stadium full of people, many undoubtedly requiring our services, we were unable to land on the short dirt strip. Later that week we did use our choppers to collect a young child who had been seriously burnt in a cooking fire.
The massacre had the effect of clearing most of the IDPs from the camp however several thousand, including some Interahamwe remained, refusing to leave a small compound which had formerly been a school. As a result we deployed three more CCP rotations to provide support and I was sent down as OIC, CCP4. (For a personal report of life in the camp from the day after the massacre, please read Kath Pyne's experiences as part of CCP2).
The scene which greeted us was one of devastation. As we neared the camp we noticed people’s belongings strewn across the road, essentials not normally discarded by these people such as cooking bowls and eating utensils. We then entered what looked like the world’s biggest rubbish tip; two weeks before this area had been waist deep in bodies. The camp itself resembled a ghost town but the compound actually still housed nearly two thousand people, living in squalor without food or water.
Our main role was to provide medical support to the Zambians, but most of our time, and that of the infantry and other support personnel, was spent inside the compound trying to talk the people into leaving. It was frustrating work as people were obviously scared to leave, replying "Ajo" (tomorrow) or in one case "We’d rather die here than leave". We found one little 3 month old baby who had done just that after her mother had refused treatment the previous day. Generally though the standard of health seemed quite reasonable, despite the appalling conditions, the stench and the fact that they were living in their own excrement and even picking corn out of it to wash and reuse.
We did have some success in talking people into leaving, with many picking up their belongings and heading for freedom. Often however the family would be dragged back by others, presumably Interahamwe. If they did make it down the ramp, they were processed by RPA and UN officials and loaded onto trucks for Butare.
We set up our ambulance at the exit to the camp to provide medical services to those who required it. Usually our patrol medics who do preliminary assessments and perform straight forward treatments, such as administer iv antibiotics and simple dressings. Those requiring further treatment were sent up to our CCP, for example those requiring IV rehydration or more involved dressings. Treatment of kids also involved the coveted "biskwi" (biscuits) and in fact we shared our rations with many, however the parents were often more interested in getting a smoke. As we had no holding capacity, we usually wrote our diagnosis and treatment on a piece of paper which we taped on to their arm, in the hope that they would receive definitive treatment in Butare.
Things were moving pretty slowly until the second to last day when a group of former IDPs who had returned home safely came to speak to the camp. Obviously this reassured many as several hundred left that day but we were amazed on the last day see everyone streaming out of the camp and lining up to be processed. All were dressed in bright clean clothes, a stark contrast to the dirty rags worn inside the compound and the relief was obvious in many faces, although some were obviously more uncertain about their fate. We were kept reasonably busy providing medical care but when all had gone we went in to find a deserted compound.
George Gittoes - Defence artist. He was over with us for a time in Rwanda and produced several paintings of what he witnessed at Kibeho. This painting is an example of what's on his site
Several years before the genocide, the Virgin Mary appeared to several young Rwandan girls at Kibeho. Spooky! Links include:
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