John Frewen - Poor psychological preparation

Running time
3 min 51 sec
Department of Veterans' Affairs


We came into the mission, this my first mission. It was many of our first experiences, both in an operational environment and with the UN. I think we came in with some preconceived notions and assumptions that were found to be not correct. I mean, we assumed that the UN would be a coherent, well-functioning entity, which it wasn't. It was very disparate, different national groups inside the UN and there's a very more sort of less rigorous approach to the way orders are given and the way things are carried out and followed through. And so it took us a while to sort of get used to which bits of the UN were more effective than others and all of that.

We also assume that as an assistance mission, we were coming into to help not only a government, but a people who would be enthusiastic about that. Now, of course the general population were largely enthusiastic, but the Rwandan Patriotic Army were not enthusiastic. I think we were seen as an inhibitor for them setting up their new regime, carrying out whatever payback that they saw was just in terms of people that they were sort of progressively sort of hunting out as they asserted themselves as the new masters of Rwanda, or in their minds, probably the returning masters of Rwanda.

So instead of having free access around the countryside, and instead of being either tasked or sought for support from the RPA, it became a very standoffish relationship, a very suspicious relationship, and frankly became just very difficult in that our movement around the country was regularly inhibited by the RPA. We'd been trained to build roadblocks and things with great vast resources. A Rwandan needs milk crate, a piece of string and an AK 47. And that piece of string across the road backed up by an AK 47 will stop a large UN convoy for as long as you want it to. And if you can't negotiate your way past the guy holding up the piece of string the chances are you're not going to get any help from UN headquarters to alleviate the situation.

So there was a lot of these frustrating sort of situations that we were encountering that at times were resolved quite benignly and quite quickly, but at other times ended up in quite tense, sort of standoffs that took sort of many hours to resolve. So as we worked our way through the mission we became less and less enamoured of the RPA. And by the time we left, I think many of us were very, not only sort of suspicious of them, but were quite sort of bitter about the way that part of the mission had played out. And I know the next rotation came thinking that we had somehow contributed to the ill will.

But I think that was probably naive and came to pass when the Kibeho massacre happened at the hands of the RPA. So yeah, it was a thing that unfolded and dawned on us slowly that it wasn't the way we had assumed it would be. And it took a while for us to really get a sense of what it was. I think we were at a point in time in the defence forces that we hadn't had a lot of experience, either sending troops into operational areas. And we found ourselves in situations in Rwanda that none of us had foreseen.

And I think our actual capacities to prepare people for it and debrief people from it weren't good, regardless. Even if we'd been able to foresee the sorts of situations that we've got ourselves into. I think we were poorly prepared psychologically for what we got into. I think we were not well served through the course of the mission, although we learned some things as we went. And we certainly weren't well managed on the way out, but I think we have come an awful long way in decades since, and I've been on a number of missions since, and I think the process on to the mission, the management on the mission and the management on return from the missions now is much better.

But at the time of Rwanda, it was I think frankly hapless at times, unfortunately. So we didn't have the tools that we needed when we got there. I think when things happened, certainly initially we then weren't able to help mitigate what had happened. And then in that important stage, as we were leaving, there were things going on, like group debriefs of mixed ranks and not individual debriefs and all these sorts of things that are just totally counterproductive.

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