Canadian soldier cleaning a boy in Rwanda.
Rwanda, a small, densely populated country of about twelve million people in the lush mountains of central Africa, is populated primarily by two ethnic groups, the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi. A history of conflict between the two groups reached crisis levels in the 1990s when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a Tutsi-led rebel militia based in Uganda, invaded Rwanda, resulting in civil war. In 1993, following a series of negotiations and cease-fires, the Hutu Rwandan regime agreed to a peace plan that included a new transition government with RPF representation, as a first step toward democratic elections.
In October 1993, the United Nations established the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) to observe and maintain the cease-fire between the RPF and government forces. UNAMIR was not allowed to use military force. Canadian Major-General Roméo Dallaire and his support staff took command of the mission. However, it was several months before other countries provided 2,500 troops to bring UNAMIR to full strength. Among the peacekeepers were 400 soldiers from Belgium, which had governed Rwanda for over 40 years following the First World War until the country’s independence in 1962.
In the months that followed, extremist elements, including some within the Rwandan government, stepped up a propaganda campaign advocating violence against Tutsis and their supporters.
In January 1994, Roméo Dallaire sent a message to senior officials at UN headquarters in New York, warning that a genocide was likely and asking permission to take preemptive action. However, his warning went unheeded.
On 6 April 1994, an airplane carrying the presidents of both Rwanda and neighbouring Burundi was shot down over the Rwandan capital Kigali. Initially, most people believed that Hutu extremists were responsible, since they were opposed to the peace plan. However, more recent evidence has suggested that RPF leadership was behind the attack.
The assassinations were immediately followed by a planned, systematic campaign of murder against Tutsis and moderate Hutus by Rwandan government forces and by machete-wielding gangs of extremist Hutus known as the Interahamwe. The RPF also resumed fighting, under the pretext of protecting the country’s imperilled Tutsis. By mid-July, the RPF had taken over Kigali and assumed control of the country, forcing extremist Hutu leaders and militiamen to flee. The 100-day genocide came to an end, leaving in its wake more than 800,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands more raped, maimed and homeless.
UN Response to Rwandan Genocide
Roméo Dallaire, his assistant, Canadian Major Brent Beardsley, and their multinational UN forces were plunged into the chaos and danger of the unfolding slaughter. Despite having neither the mandate nor enough troops or equipment to prevent the massacres, Dallaire and his peacekeepers worked courageously for weeks, helping countless individual Rwandans and foreign nationals to find safety or to escape the country.
On 7 April, the first full day of the killings, 10 Belgian peacekeepers were ambushed, tortured and murdered by Rwandan government forces, prompting such revulsion that Belgium and other countries began withdrawing their troops from the mission. As the soldiers left their temporary bases, militiamen moved in to kill crowds of Rwandans who had sheltered there under UNAMIR protection.
Although Dallaire pleaded for reinforcements to help stem the bloodshed, UNAMIR’s strength fell from 2,500 to only a few hundred mostly Ghanaian troops, with the UN’s approval. Dallaire later described himself personally “ripped apart by failure and remorse” and lamented his helplessness in an interview with the foreign media on 28 July: “If I had the mandate, the men and the equipment, hundreds of thousands of people would be alive today.”
Canadian Armed Forces members stacking sandbags in Rwanda.
By mid-July 1994, the RPF had taken full control of Rwanda, and the massacres ended. Most genocide leaders and millions of Hutus, fearing reprisals, fled to other countries. Rwanda remained volatile and in ruin, and the surviving population was deeply traumatized. The UN authorized a new deployment of 5,500 troops to a renewed mission called UNAMIR II. Among the first soldiers to arrive was a contingent of several hundred Canadians. Their task was mainly to provide communications, intelligence and logistical support for the mission, facilitate the return of refugees, and help distribute humanitarian aid. A new Canadian commander, Major-General Guy Tousignant, was posted to Kigali to replace Roméo Dallaire.
The Canadians — many of them army engineers — faced huge challenges while attempting to establish a sense of order in a country teeming with homeless people and orphans, amid fields of corpses and shallow mass graves. There was also deep hostility toward the UN, which many Rwandans believed had abandoned them and their families during the genocide.
One of the first tasks for some Canadian troops was shooting packs of feral dogs roaming Kigali’s streets. The dogs had been abandoned during the genocide and had learned to eat human flesh to survive. The Canadians also distributed food and health services to starving people, built orphanages, restored basic infrastructure such as plumbing and lighting systems and patrolled city streets and rural villages along land-mine-strewn roads.
Aftermath and Significance
In early 1995, after six difficult months in Rwanda, the roughly 600 Canadians in Rwanda began returning home. Like Dallaire, many of them developed post-traumatic stress disorder at rates higher than participants in other Canadian peacekeeping missions. “We have been deployed many places in the world and we’ve seen many things, but [Rwanda] was just totally out of this world,” UNAMIR II Canadian veteran Denis Lebrun told the Globe and Mail. “It was not a mission, it was a nightmare.”
The UN peacekeeping program was deeply tarnished by Rwanda. The UN’s failure to heed Dallaire’s warnings about an impending genocide and its unwillingness to intervene decisively once the killings were underway left a stain on its reputation and that of important member states. In 1999, a UN inquiry concluded that errors in judgment and a lack of political will amounted to a serious failure by much of the world’s peacekeeping community in the face of the Rwandan catastrophe.