The Hard Lessons of Rwanda

The everyday slaughter that swept across Rwanda has dealt the international community some harsh lessons: in the midst of several triumphs were cruel failures that delivered a shock to the system on which many humanitarian organizations rely. Report by Kim Gordon-Bates, a former journalist with Le Monde and Le Journal de Geneve, is an information representative for the International Committee of the Red Cross
On the morning of Sunday the 21st of August, there was a scuffle on a small wooden bridge crossing the Ruzizi river, an 80-kilometre stretch of water separating the Rwandan Republic from its Zairian counterpart. It was a very small scuffle, no-one was hurt and under normal circumstances nobody in the world would have known, or cared, about such an insignificant event.

Yet the scuffle and the obvious despair of the hordes of people involved were at the centre of international interest, both journalistic and "humanitarian". It was the end of the last known chapter of a disaster of extraordinary proportions. On a minute yet over-populated piece of Africa, not even two-thirds the size of Switzerland, there had unfolded a carnage of mind-boggling savagery.

As carnages go, it was well documented. There were eyewitnesses, local and foreign -- including International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) staff, members of the only humanitarian agency apart from representatives of Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) and relief workers of the Rwandan Red Cross left in the country when the human storm broke. None emerged unscathed.

Paul Grossrieder, ICRC's deputy director for Operations, was escorting a convoy of medical equipment from neighbouring Burundi one April day when "suddenly, in a field near Butare, we came across of pile of bodies, still warm; they were mainly those of women executed with machetes, axes and screwdrivers. Nearby, we saw Hutu extremists gouge out the eyes of a seven-year-old boy..." Had Grossrieder or anyone else tried to intervene, they would have suffered a similar fate. Elsewhere, as reported by the French daily Le Monde, a journalist visiting the ICRC hospital in Kigali saw "two brothers: one had his feet cut off, the other his hands" and a seven-year-old girl who had been savagedly raped. These were daily occurrences in a country struck by homicidal madness.

Unbearable, intolerable, inhuman and yet all too real. Execution lists prepared months in advance were used by Hutu thugs, drawn from fanatical militias like the 'Interahmwe', to "root out" Tutsis. Yet the policy of Tutsi extermination backfired on its authors, who were soon pushed down from the north and throughout the eastern part of the country. To what extent defeat on the field prompted further atrocities against Tutsis and motivated Tutsi revenge is not known. For if the scale of the sufferings of the Tutsi minority was soon labelled a "genocide" by the UN and others, the atrocities were not one-sided.

By mid-May, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the ICRC and MSF were denouncing cases of torture and murder committed by the advancing Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and deploring the restrictions imposed on the movement of relief workers in areas under RPF control. The Rwandan conflict knew no boundaries. The basic rules of war, which Rwanda had agreed to 'inherit' from the Belgian colonial power, were openly disregarded, though Rwanda had affiliated to the Geneva Conventions in 1964 and adhered to the two June 1977 Protocols. Churches, schools and hospitals -- including the ICRC's -- were shelled by both sides, adding casualties to casualties, horror to horror, hopelessness to hopelessness."

For the ICRC people in the field, it was a race within a maze of never-ending horror towards a goal of precarious semi-sanity. Philippe Gaillard, ICRC head of delegation in Rwanda, and his team spent much of their time negotiating feeble truces, ceasefires that nonetheless were able to save a few human lives and so validate the organization's mandate.

For the ICRC itself, however, it was a time of reckoning. Gaillard became one of the most outspoken ICRC field delegates in the organization's history. His shock-struck voice rang on radio waves and his rhetorical yet brutal questions quoted in press interviews were instrumental in stirring the resolve of the international community, even if resolution 918 was about as far as it would go. Approved by the Security Council, the 17 April decision authorized the dispatch of 5,500 UN troops to Rwanda to establish Safe Humanitarian Zones as well as an arms embargo on the belligerents.

From bottom to the top, from Gaillard to ICRC president Cornelio Sommaruga, it was clear that not only was it necessary to talk and condemn, but lessons had to be drawn, and fast. In this respect, the ICRC became increasingly uneasy with the purpose that both the UN and the multinational armed forces sought to persuade non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to support. So it came about that the ICRC needed to stress the sort of relationship it wanted, in Rwanda and in the future, with the makers of the new world order. Sommaruga agreed that "States should (...) use all means at their disposal, including armed force, to maintain or restore a minimum of international public order, (itself) a fundamental condition for the observance of International Humanitarian Law and thus enable humanitarian institutions to do their job." But for ICRC a line had to be drawn between the actions of the one and the duties of the other.

Sommaruga and the ICRC believe that should governments and the UN cloak their political and armed actions with a mantle of humanitarian endeavour, genuine humanitarian programmes would become appendages of partisan policies. Worse still, if the line between humanitarian and "law and order" operations is not clearly drawn, nothing would stand in the way of the former being manipulated by "security" planners... Such confusion of purpose would cause humanitarian organizations to become targets of suspicion and hostility from the belligerent parties. In which case the ICRC would lose access to whole communities of victims. This was why Philippe Gaillard refused UN military escorts, preferring to work alone or, when absolutely necessary, with the tenuous security provided by each of the warring parties in areas under their control.

While the ICRC in Geneva sought to upgrade the nuts and bolts, as well as the philosophy of its mandate, in Rwanda itself, the organization's workers were in the midst of turmoil. Mid-April, Marcus Dolder, ICRC Relief Director was caught in a ten-day "run" from Murambi to Ngara in Tanzania. Together with tens of thousands of scared Rwandans, Dolder and his team were pushed over the Akagera river. Within hours, on 27 April, some 220,000 Rwandans crossed into Tanzanian territory, safe but destitute.

Three months later, on 14 July, Dolder was distributing food on Rwanda's north-western border when he saw movement in the east. In a radio call to ICRC headquarters in Kigali he exclaimed "It's all happening again" " hundreds of thousands of panic stricken Rwandans were lunging for Goma, in Zaire, north of lake Kivu, in what was one of the most gruesome human exoduses in modern history. The ICRC was nonetheless able to distribute food among this massive flotsam of a torn nation the very next day.

Rwanda became an ethnic holocaust that may have claimed up to a million victims and pushed well over half the surviving population, according to UNHCR sources -- some four million people -- into refugee and displaced persons' camps. Grappling with this chaos, the ICRC was faced with the near impossible task of providing a complete gamut of emergency requirements against formidable logistical and security odds: there was first the need to provide protection for the displaced hordes, then food, drinking water, medication -- surgical in the case of war wounds and clinical as epidemics of cholera and dysentery rose and slaughtered.

The ICRC's specialized agency registered thousands of orphans and unaccompanied children found roaming lost and listless along the roads of Rwanda, Zaire, Tanzania, Burundi ... And, as soon as it was possible, the ICRC visited and assisted, according to recognized international regulations, the soldiers of the defeated army as well as the hundreds of men and women arrested by the new authorities for their alleged participation in the massacres. In both cases, the ICRC delegation in Kigali fought for human dignity in the country's crowded prisons. Yet the ICRC has had to take stock of a blatant failure: despite a long awareness programme undertaken among members of the former government's army and among the Rwandan public, the Red Cross emblem, marking out neutral sanctuaries for non-combattants of all sides, was repeatedly violated. The executions carried out in ICRC 'safehavens' were among the worst experiences recorded during the conflict. At a different level, relationships between the main humanitarian agencies - both UN and non-UN - suffered increasingly from confusion and ignorance as to what had to be done to solve Rwanda's most pressing problems. Surveys and statistics remain remarkably unreliable because of the ceaseless shifting of communities from one place to another. As a consequence, according to Jean-Francois Sangsue, now ICRC's head of delegation in Rwanda, "the lack of precise knowledge of the Rwandan population's needs and whereabouts means that many relief agencies are gearing themselves to provide help to people who have already been assisted, while elsewhere other communities in need have been left out of the distribution net altogether."

This organizational confusion could well increase in the near future: the 53 NGOs registered in Kigali at the end of August are expected to double soon. According to Sangsue "the goodwill and dedication of these agencies is not in question, but we feel is that they are attempting to work in uncharted territory. Before anything else, we need exactly to know who needs what and where... And who is the best person or agency, to do the job. It is important to remember that in the case of Rwanda, the problems will not be solved overnight, we need a long term commitment here !"

The ICRC commends the understanding of the populations of the neighbouring States who had to cope with the arrival over their borders of so many millions of panic stricken people. Tensions in and around some refugee camps had begun to emerge as competition arose between locals and refugees for limited resources such as firewood. For this reason, and from fear of worse to come, the ICRC decided that the overall political objective of its humanitarian presence is now to help establish the necessary conditions that will allow both refugees and displaced persons to return freely "back home" and start a new life. In this sense the ICRC will continue its work for as long as necessary, concentrating its activities on the Rwandan side of the borders.

By the end of August, by the Ruzizi river, Chapter One of the Rwandan tragedy had ended. A semblance of normality had settled on the refugee camps and Rwanda faded from international television screens. In the heart of Africa, the "thousand hills" rolled green and lush again as the rain clouds broke over lake Kivu. The French legionaries have left, UNAMIR troops from Ghana, Ethiopia, Canada, Britain... have taken their place, quietly and so far successfully.

Questions remain, however. Crucial ones whose answers are needed to guide humanitarian action and thus the soul of humanity into the continuing present. One such question, troubling the mind of ICRC workers, arises from their duty to assist, equally, both victims and their often sadistic tormentors when they in turn fall and bleed.

Nevertheless, individual innocence has to be assumed until proven otherwise by rule of law; and even lawful guilt cannot override the need to protect human dignity by, in the case of the ICRC's mandate, acting in defence of fair individual treatment. Also, the rule of law may not always be the type of justice required to placate human dramas as Fereydoun Alaam, ICRC head at Gikongoro, points out: "Ten-year-old children were involved in the massacres. How do you punish them?"

How indeed? Yet how does one prevent a ten-year-old child from becoming an assassin in the first place? In the aftermath of the Rwandan carnage, this question hangs heavily in the air.

This article was first published in the October special Rwanda issue of CROSSLINES Global Report, an independent newsletter of reporting on humanitarian, development and environmental issues.

=A9Copyright CROSSLINES Global Report 1994