The Kibeho Incident: Rwanda 1995

A Few Words on the United Nations

President Bill Clinton of the United States of America said, in his first speech to the UN General Assembly in October 1993, that the UN "should learn to say No". The fact that this statement is completely absurd was somehow ignored, and he got away with this blatant hypocrisy1. Why is it so ridiculous? Because the UN can simply do nothing that its member states - of which the USA is both the UN's biggest financial provider (despite owing $1.3 billion at the end of the 90s2) and at the same time seemingly its biggest opponent - want and allow it to do. Clinton then proceeded to pull all American troops and equipment (despite promising to leave the latter) out of Somalia due to one botched mission in which 18 Americans lost their lives. He said that the UN had "failed", despite the fact that this operation had been American-planned and -led from the very start, and the fact that America had demanded 30' 000 UN troops for Somalia before it began. No mention was made of the UN forces left behind; especially not of the 24 Pakistanis killed on one patrol of Mogadishu.

The UN is not allowed to undermine the sovereignty of any country it operates in; any country that the member states approved operations for in the first place. Non-intervention is the key - countries can do as they please within their borders, and the UN is only allowed in if the government invites them. Once the blue helmets are there, they can only stay if they act according to the host nation's wishes. Then there's the mandates that dictate what the blue helmets can and cannot do, and that have to be approved by the host country. Almost always, therefore, the UN blue helmets are limited to only firing in self-defence, and never at host nation forces. This applies to all situations and can lead to horrific consequences, as seen when thousands died in front of UN troops at Srebrenica in Bosnia - and at Kibeho, Rwanda.

The UN, after the disasters of the 1990s, has become a scapegoat for nation states to use, something to blame for the failures that in reality are the fault of the nations themselves. The UN should have been faster, better equipped, more effective. They should have said No.

Background to Kibeho

Rwanda grabbed the world's attention in 1994, due to reports emerging of mass murders, hundreds of thousands of people being essentially "ethnically cleansed". Civil war had broken out as the two tribal sections of Rwandan society, the now infamous Hutu government forces and Tutsis rebels, fought each other for control of the country. The Hutus made up about 88% of the population at that time, vastly outnumbering the Tutsis, who made up 11% (the remaining 1% being pygmies, 75% of whom were also killed in the war). The opposing armies committed atrocities freely, neither side showing mercy towards civilians of the opposing ethnic group. Nobody was spared the machetes and bullets; whole villages and towns were either wiped out or forced to flee into neighbouring Zaire (now the Democratic Repubic of Congo, which later became embroiled in its own civil war). In less than five weeks an estimated 980' 000 people died.

The war had actually been accurately predicted by the Canadian UN commander in Rwanda in January 1994, General Dallaire. In a telegram to New York he warned that extremists were trying to cause civil war (for example, many Tutsis had to register with the government - a prelude to extermination); New York's reply was that offensive operations were outside the UN's mandate, so no action could be taken. Three months later the war proper began, in spite of the 2' 500-strong UN force in the country. When the killing began the UN presence was rapidly reduced to just 450, as member states withdrew their troops; after all, both sides had promised to treat blue helmets as enemy units.

France led the call for UN intervention in Rwanda, asking for 5' 500 troops to support its own military operation. As usual, it fell to the secretary general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, to find the soldiers. The biggest critic of the French plan was the USA, due to the costs and risks involved in intervening in Rwanda (France retaliated by opposing the American plan to invade Haiti later that same year). Despite the opposition, a resolution was passed on the 18th of May 1994. Finding the troops proved much more difficult; Boutros-Ghali admitted defeat on the 26th. By the June of 1994 France was prepared to intervene militarily, and they invaded on the 23rd. The name of the operation was "Operation Turquoise", with French marines and the French Foreign Legion entering Rwanda from Zaire. They would stay for two months, then withdraw and hand control to the UN. Blue helmets had not yet been found.

The French established a safe haven (the "Zone Turquoise") in the south-west of Rwanda, covering about a fifth of the country's area. Before long this zone contained hundreds of thousands of Hutus, refugees fleeing from the victorious Tutsi rebels. It is estimated that by the time the Tutsis announced a new government in July, around 1.5 million Hutus had fled there. Many were persuaded to remain in Rwanda rather than flee abroad, but when Operation Turquoise ended around 330' 000 refugees remained in 33 camps. By the end of the two months, enough blue helmets had been assembled to take over from the French, and the ambitious process of trying to return the displaced Hutus ("Internally Displaced Persons" or IDPs; refugees in their own country) to their homes. This was christened "Operation Retour".

Kibeho Plateau

The new Rwandan government was convinced that the refugee camps were being used to conceal criminals; people involved in the mass murder of Tutsis earlier in the war. As neither the UN nor the French were willing to attempt to disarm soldiers (for the UN it was a question of whether the mandate allowed it - it didn't), groups began to emerge in the camps that were still prepared to fight the government. Also, refugees across the border had regrouped and rearmed (despite an arms embargo) and were mounting operations back into Rwanda. Although attempts were still made to return IDPs to their homes, by the March of 1995 over 200' 000 remained in camps. In Kibeho camp in particular, the population grew from 70' 000 to 115' 000 in just two weeks. Kibeho was by far the largest refugee camp in Rwanda.

For the Tutsi government, Operation Retour was taking too long. They ordered the camp at Kibeho closed; 150' 000 people were forced out of the makeshift huts they had built in the valleys and herded up onto a plateau approximately the size of three football pitches, carrying whatever possessions they could. Around one thousand government soldiers guarded this mass of people. There were also 80 UN soldiers from Zambia (known as ZamBat) present on the hill, led by Captain Francis Sikaonga. The Zambians were holed up in Kibeho's former primary school, which they had to guard from the IDPs with barbed wire to prevent it being flattened.

Both roads to Kibeho were closed by the government army. Nothing was allowed through: no water, no food, no help. Nothing was even allowed through to the government soldiers there; after all, after closing the camp in the valleys all they had done was stand around and guard the refugees. It seemed that they had no other orders. It was effectively a siege, and the only things that came through the roadblock before the massacre were a tanker, filled with 18' 000 litres of water - distributed by the UN troops, this was enough for a few hundred of the refugees to get a decent drink - and, after the massacre, some doctors. The doctors stayed for about 45 minutes before simply leaving; they wouldn't risk staying after dark.

During the "siege", small groups of refugees attempted to break off from the main mass and escape; none got very far before being killed by their guards. Conditions worsened daily with disease, hunger, thirst and stampedes taking their toll. Finally, on the fourth day, the government soldiers attempted to move the crowd off the plateau. There was only one way they could go, directly past the UN compound at the school, and soon blockages began to form as people stopped to beseech the help of the Zambians one last time. This caused the government soldiers to urge the crowd harder, and shots were fired into the air to convince them to get moving. The crowd began to panic, those nearer the back desperately trying to get away from the bullets. As the chaos grew, the soldiers also panicked and began to fire on the crowd. Not limiting themselves to using their rifles, grenades and mortar fire rained down on the packed refugees. Sporadic gunfire continued throughout that night, as the UN contingent attempted to help the wounded as best they could. The roadblocks were removed the next afternoon, after as many bodies as possible had been buried in hastily dug mass graves. All that was visible as the relief troops crossed the horizon were the trampled possessions of the dead.

The government troops who instigated this massacre claimed that there were 338 casualties; the Rwandan President, one of the first visitors to the scene, believed them and not the figure (apparently conservative) of 4' 000 put forward by the Zambian commander, who later had to be smuggled out of the country as death threats had been made towards him for "tarnishing" Rwanda's name.


In the three weeks following this tragedy, the remaining camps in southwest Rwanda were evacuated. Whilst some refugees tried to return home, the majority crossed the border into Zaire. Many that stayed in Rwanda refused to register with the authorities and hid in rural areas, others mixing with Burundian refugees to hide their identities.

The UN was criticised for not reinforcing its presence at Kibeho by charities such as Oxfam and Medecins sans Frontieres. An independent inquiry, set up by the Rwandan government to try and save it some face, said that the government soldiers present were to blame; they were inexperienced and lacked the training for what was apparently a situation more suited to the police.

It is clear that the UN were undermanned in Rwanda, as they are in most of the operations they are committed to by the member states. This is not the UN's fault; they did the best they could. This is, unfortunately, often not good enough, and Kibeho remains yet another example of such incidents of refugees dying needlessly, another incident in a viscious and brutal civil war. On the other hand, this incident has been the subject of several inquiries and many articles, and thus lessons have almost certainly been learnt. Whether this is enough to prevent similiar things happening in the future is another matter.

"We Did Nothing: why the truth doesn't always come out when the UN goes in", Linda Polman, 1997 (Translation by Rob Bland, 2003)

1 Clinton was singing a different tune when he praised the UN for their help in "restoring democracy" in Haiti in 1994. He said that the UN had a special role to play in spreading and strengthening democracy worldwide.

2 Shortly after September 11, 2001, America coughed up $850 million of its debt to the UN.

Imagine worrying everyday about being killed by people in your own country, having to fight for your life, and watching your friends and family be murdered. That’s what it was like for the people in Rwanda during the Rwandan genocide.

The Rwandan genocide started in April 1994 when a plane was shot down with President Habyarimana. As though this was a signal, the Hutus began attacking the civilians of Rwanda. The Rwandan Armed Forces and Hutu mililtia set up roadblocks and went from house to house, killing Tutsis and moderate Hutu politicians. Thousands died on the first day.

Some U.N. camps sheltered civilians, but most of the U.N. peacekeeping forces stood by while the slaughter went on. The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution condemning the killing, but they left out the word genocide. This was a mistake. If they had referred to it as genocide, the U.N. would have been legally obliged to act to prevent and punish the perpetrators.

The U.N. wanted to avoid action so they wouldn’t get other troops alarmed. The U.N. soldiers were ordered to withdraw to the airport. They stopped their peacekeeping mission and stepped back and watched.. Most of the civilians they abandoned were killed.

The United States didn’t know how far the killings would go either. Bill Clinton didn’t know what to expect. He did know that people were being killed, but he said if it didn’t affect the United States, we wouldn’t get involved. He didn’t send anyone into Rwanda to help stop the violence. This was another mistake.

We would have been one of the countries that would have had the most capability to help Rwanda, but we’re always only thinking about our own country and what would affect us. It is our obligation as humans to try and help other people if we know they need help. To just stand by while other people are suffering is wrong.

Bill Clinton wanted all Americans out of Rwanda. He evacuated the American community, but one American stayed: Carl Wilkins. He was very right in doing this, and many other Americans should have felt the obligation to stay. He took in orphans and saved many people from being killed. He was one person who actually wanted to help.

Another group that helped a lot was the International Red Cross. They never left, and tried to help the injured. They went throughout Rwanda without having any problems. This means other groups could have too. They tried to spread the word to others about the killings to get more help, but nobody listened to them.

Very few people spoke up during the genocide, and when they did no one would listen. A Rwandan human rights activist, Monique Mujawamariya went to Clinton and asked for help in Rwanda. He didn’t give it to her. Laura Lane and Madeline Albright wanted the United States to help Rwanda. But still, we didn’t.

An estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed during the Rwandan genocide, yet most people didn’t feel the need to help until it was too late. Today many people think another genocide could never happen. I’m sure most people thought the same thing after the Holocaust, but look what happened.

People say we learn history so we don’t repeat the same mistakes. Hopefully people have learned from the Rwandan genocide, and next time something like this happens, more people will step in and help.

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