Australian peacekeepers in Rwanda with UNAMIR from 1993 to 1996

 

In the 1990s, Rwanda was deep in crisis, facing civil war, widespread and escalating violence that degenerated into genocide. In total, 612 Australians served in Operation Tamar as part of the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions to Rwanda. It was one of the most difficult peacekeeping missions ever undertaken by the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

Australia's medical personnel performed extraordinary work in Rwanda under very challenging conditions. However, the UN's peacekeeping efforts in Rwanda ultimately failed.

Civil unrest and civil war

Rwanda is a small, landlocked country in the Great Rift Valley of Central Africa, about two-fifths the size of Tasmania. Today, the densely populated country of about 12 million people has a fairly stable government and an improving economy.

However, in the early 1990s, it was a very different situation. Decades of tension between Rwanda's majority Hutu population and the minority Tutsi led to outbreaks of violence and political unrest, which descended into civil war.

After World War I, the German colony of Rwanda was given to Belgium by the League of Nations. Rwanda was a complex and politically intertwined caste-like society. The minority Tutsi provided the monarchy and most of the ruling class. The majority Hutu, who although subservient, could still hold important social and political positions. The Germans and the Belgians primarily used the Tutsis as part of their colonial administrations.

The Tutsi monarchy was abolished by popular vote in 1961. This was followed by Rwandan independence in mid 1962, where the Hutu now gained power. This quickly led to political unrest and waves of violence against the Tutsis. By 1964, some 300,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsi, had become refugees in the neighbouring countries of Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zaire (Congo).

In 1990, civil war erupted when the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), which was the armed wing of the refugee political organisation known as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), launched an invasion from Uganda into northern Rwanda.

After almost a year of negotiations, an accord was signed between the Rwandan Government and the RPF in August 1993 in Arusha, Tanzania. This set out to establish a joint Tutsi-Hutu government, but there was considerable opposition to these peace negotiations, including the emergence of armed militias linked to political parties.

United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR)

In 1993, Rwanda and Uganda asked the UN Security Council to help prevent military use of their border area. In June, the Security Council sent a small group of military observers to Uganda to monitor the border with Rwanda.

In October, the UN Security Council replaced its military observers with the larger United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). This comprised just over 2,000 personnel. They deployed to Rwanda's capital, Kigali, in late 1993.

The initial goals of UNAMIR were to:

  • help ensure the security of the capital, Kigali
  • monitor the ceasefire agreement
  • monitor the security situation leading up to elections
  • help with landmine clearance
  • help coordinate humanitarian activities.

These activities were designed to observe the implementation of the peace agreement and support the transition government. But, in the early months of 1994, the peace process broke down.

100 days of extreme violence

The presidents of Burundi and Rwanda were killed when their plane was shot down on 6 April 1994. In response and within hours, prominent Hutu figures seized control of the Rwandan government. Blaming the Tutsi RPF for shooting down the plane, they began killing Tutsis. They unleashed a wave of violence, massacring Tutsis in what has become known as the Rwandan genocide.

Peacekeeping official historian Garth Pratten described the bloodbath as, 'an orgy of violence unparalleled in the post-war world'.

UNAMIR could not stop the violence. The UN commissioned an independent inquiry, which was scathing in its conclusions. The Security Council accepted all the findings.

The failure by the United Nations to prevent and, subsequently, to stop the genocide in Rwanda was a failure by the United Nations system as a whole.

UN Security Council, Report of the Security Council mission to Rwanda (12-13 February 1995), S/1995/164

Ten Belgian peacekeepers who had been sent to protect the Hutu moderate prime minister in the interim Council of Ministers, were beaten and then killed the day after the plane crash. This was the fate of almost all moderate politicians in Kigali, including the Prime Minister and her husband who were killed and mutilated. The Belgians could not protect them. Belgium withdrew its UN personnel and the UN debated whether all of UNAMIR should be withdrawn.

Instead, on 17 May 1994, the UN mission was expanded with an additional 5,000 troops. The mission of 'UNAMIR II' was 'to contribute to the security and protection of displaced persons, refugees and civilians at risk in Rwanda'.

The RPF secured a military victory over Rwandan Government forces in July. The RPF had captured Kigali and other major centres. It invited the UN to help stabilise the situation.

Australia's Operation Tamar

The Australian Government sent 2 ADF contingents to Rwanda, each serving for 6 months. In total, 612 Australians were deployed as part of Operation Tamar:

  • first contingent UNAMIR II from August 1994 to February 1995
  • second contingent UNAMIR II from February to August 1995.

The contingents' primary focus was to provide medical support to:

  • the existing UN mission
  • other UN agencies, contractors, and employees
  • members of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in Rwanda.

Despite the humanitarian crisis underway in the country, it was not intended that the Australians would provide humanitarian assistance. However, the changing situations experienced on the ground saw the Australians provide significant medical and other help to Rwandans.

The first contingent

The first members of the joint force of Australian Army, Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) arrived in Rwanda in late August 1994. Medical officer Colonel Wayne Ramsey commanded the contingent as UNAMIR force medical officer.

Lieutenant Colonel Patrick McIntosh commanded the Australian Medical Support Force. This provided UNAMIR's medical support. It comprised:

  • a medical company
  • an infantry company group from 2/4th Royal Australian Regiment (RAR)
  • 4 armoured personnel carriers
  • a logistics support company.

The medical company included:

  • 2 specialist surgical teams
  • a preventative medical section
  • a medical support platoon providing pathology and pharmacy
  • a dental team.

The Australians flew into Kigali and based themselves at Kigali Central Hospital. The hospital had been badly damaged in the fighting. Many of the hospital's ceilings had holes from mortar shells.

Australian infantry troops provided security for the Australian medical team. Engineers worked hard to restore war-damaged medical facilities to allow the Australian contingent to operate in a reasonable environment. Across all of Rwanda, the Australians had the only:

  • working X-ray machine
  • blood bank
  • intensive care unit
  • air-conditioned operating theatre.

While the Australian Medical Support Force was set up to support UN troops in Rwanda, most of the medical cases Australians treated were Rwandans. So many people had been badly wounded by the fighting and massacres, and many people needed complex surgeries.

While they were there, they trained local hospital staff and provided medical aid in small towns. Infantry protected the medical teams on these missions.

The second contingent

Colonel Peter Warfe took command of the second contingent in February 1995. Lieutenant Colonel Damien Roche commanded the medical support force, which comprised:

  • B Company 2nd Battalion, RAR
  • engineers from the 3rd Combat Engineer Regiment
  • armoured personnel carriers from B Squadron 3rd/4th Cavalry Regiment
  • surgeons and other medical specialists, mainly from the Army, RAN and RAAF Reserves, who were rotated through the force in 6-week periods.

Australian Medical Support Force in Kibeho

In April 1995, the Australian Medical Support Force despatched a 32-strong detachment to the Kibeho Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, about 150 km south-west of Kigali. They set up a Casualty Clearance Post (CCP).

A soldier in camouflage uniform stands in the remains of a refugee camp, mud and rubble, and some adults and children are in the background.

An Australian member of the Australian Medical Support Force (AMFS) standing amidst the remains of a refugee camp at Kibeho, Rwanda. This had been the site of a riot and subsequent massacre 2 weeks earlier. The soldier is wearing a blue United Nations (UN) helmet and carries an army-issue Steyr rifle. He is also wearing a face mask and protective gloves because of the threat of disease. Australian peacekeepers served in Rwanda from 1993 to 1996. AWM P02211.017

Kibeho was an interim camp for some 150,000 internally displaced persons. The new government wanted these people returned to their homes. The situation in the camp was desperate. There was little food or water.

Many refugees did not want to leave the camp because they feared for their safety. Between 18 and 22 April, members of the Tutsi-dominated RPA, as well as Hutu militia and supporters using the camp to hide from the RPF, started killing people indiscriminately in Kibeho.

The Australians arrived during a rapidly deteriorating situation. From 20 to 23 April 1995, the RPF started closing the camp. This descended into violence and resulted in a violent massacre. Thousands of Rwandans died at Kibeho.

Unable to intervene, the medical team concentrated on their work despite the chaos around them. Despite these trying conditions, the CCP team, headed by Captain Carol Vaughan-Evans, treated many injured people. They struggled to cope with the sheer number of wounded.

It was later argued that, had the troops not been there, everyone in the camp may have been killed.

Captain Carol Vaughan-Evans, a medical officer with the Australian contingent, treats one of the refugees leaving Kibeho displaced persons' camp in Rwanda. Australian peacekeepers served in Rwanda from 1993 to 1996. (Dept of Defence MSU95_078_06; photographer Corporal Robyn White)

Both the Australian and Zambian troops in Kibeho at the time showed considerable restraint under extreme circumstances. They carried out their duties as best they could without escalating the violence and deaths.

"They carried out their mission, bore witness to the events, reported on them, and ameliorated the awful circumstances to the best of their abilities. They did not stand by doing nothing."

Bou, Jean; Breen, Bob; Horner, David; Pratten, Garth; de Vogel, Miesje (2019). The Limits of Peacekeeping: Volume 4, The Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations: Australian Missions in Africa and the Americas, 1992–2005. Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

Australian personnel in Rwanda witnessed many traumatic events, and were often in grave danger. For example, Warrant Officer Class 2 Robert Burgess served with UNAMIR II. A supervisor of communications with the Australian Medical Support Force from February to August 1995, he was kidnapped by RPF soldiers. He was present at Kibeho following the massacre and was in the team who identified the number of Rwandans killed.

Many people serving in Rwanda experienced distressing situations. A debriefing team was sent to provide counselling.

A plastic plaque in the shape of Africa shows flags of the United Nations, Australia and Rwanda with the Australian Defence Force combined services badge and a scroll that reads 'THE BALLYMORE TAVERN KIGALI FEB 95 ACS 2 UNIMIR II AUG 95'.

Commemorative plaque belonging to Warrant Officer Class 2 Robert Burgess, United Nations Assistance Mission to Rwanda. Australian peacekeepers served in Rwanda from 1993 to 1996. AWM REL34551.

After the massacre, the Australians worked to train Rwandans in hospital duties. In August 1995, 30 civilians from Norway replaced the Australians.

Withdrawal from Rwanda

The mandate of UNAMIR ended on 8 March 1996, and official operations ceased on that date. The UN completed its withdrawal of the mission from Rwanda in April 1996.

The UN reported that the overall security situation in the country was calm and well under the control of the RPA, although civil unrest continued between the RPA, the Former Rwandan Government Forces and civilians.

Rwanda was one of the most difficult peacekeeping missions ever undertaken by the ADF.

Commemoration

National Peacekeepers' Day

On 14 September each year, we observe National Peacekeepers' Day. It's the anniversary of the day Australia became the world's first peacekeepers to deploy into the field, in the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) in 1947. It’s a day to recognise the important work of those who have served, and continue to serve, in the name of global peace.

Learn more about Australia's peacekeeping missions since 1947.

International Day of UN Peacekeepers

29 May is a day of commemoration and acknowledgement of all military, police and civilian personnel who have served as peacekeepers with the UN. Since UN peacekeeping began, more than 4,000 peacekeepers from many countries have lost their lives while performing their duties under the UN flag.

Sources

Bou, Jean; Breen, Bob; Horner, David; Pratten, Garth; de Vogel, Miesje (2019). The Limits of Peacekeeping: Volume 4, The Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations: Australian Missions in Africa and the Americas, 1992–2005. Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

Australian War Memorial (undated), 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/U87742

Australian War Memorial (undated), Operation Tamar, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/E84819

Australian War Memorial (undated), Rwanda (UNAMIR), 1993 - 1996, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/CN500110

Hunter, Claire (2021), ‘I would do it all again in a heartbeat’, Australian War Memorial, https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/miles-wootten

Langne, Tracey (2019), Remembering Rwanda 25 years later, Australian War Memorial, https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/rememberingrwanda

Long, Katy (2012), Rwanda’s first refugees: Tutsi exile and international response 1959-64, Journal of Eastern African Studies, Volume 6, Issue 2. https://doi.org/10.1080/17531055.2012.669571

Pratten, Garth (2004), Reflections on Rwanda, Australian War Memorial, Wartime Magazine, Issue 27, 02 June 2004. https://www.awm.gov.au/wartime/27/rwanda

Sutton, David (2020), Remembering the Kibeho Massacre, Australian War Memorial, https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/remembering-the-kibeho-massacre

UN Security Council (1995), Report of the Security Council mission to Rwanda (12-13 February 1995), S/1995/164, http://undocs.org/S/1995/164


Last updated:

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Australian peacekeepers in Rwanda with UNAMIR from 1993 to 1996, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 18 May 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/peacekeeping/summaries/rwanda-1993-1996
Was this page helpful?
We can't respond to comments or queries via this form. Please contact us with your query instead.
CAPTCHA