Rwanda: 20 years on

02-04-2014 Feature

Twenty years on from the genocide committed in Rwanda, the immense suffering endured during those 100 days must not be forgotten. Neither the passage of time nor any other factor must be allowed to diminish efforts to prevent the recurrence of such appalling crimes. It is in this spirit of remembrance and prevention that the ICRC has brought together here documents from the archives that demonstrate the full horror of those 100 days.

These documents – in the form of photos, first-hand accounts and speeches – show that there are times when humanitarian action can only achieve so much. They also testify to acts of solidarity and humanity in the midst of scenes of abject violence. In the words of the head of the ICRC delegation in Kigali at the time, these acts were “a drop of humanity in an ocean of horror.”

June 1994. Wounded being treated at the ICRC hospital in Kigali. ©L'Illustré / Claude Gluntz

Excerpt of speech by Philippe Gaillard, head of the ICRC's delegation in Rwanda, 1993-1994; given at the Genocide Prevention Conference, London, January 2002.

"How can you be neutral in front of genocide?"  

Neutrality: THE key point. Many of you will ask: how can you be neutral in front of genocide? Of course you cannot be neutral in front of genocide. But the genocide is happening in front of your eyes every day. It is a fact. As a Red Cross worker, you really don't have the political - not to mention the military - means to stop it. All you can try to do is to save what can be saved, leftovers, wounded, and when I say wounded, maybe I am wrong, I should say people not finished off by machetes or screwdrivers. And it was really the case during the first weeks when we were evacuating wounded people - all of them Tutsis - to our hospital.

Kigali. Philippe Gaillard on the balcony of the ICRC delegation. 

Kigali. Philippe Gaillard on the balcony of the ICRC delegation.
© L'ILLUSTRÉ / Claude Gluntz / rw-d-00020-20h

And that is when problems start. Humanitarian neutrality means first to be on the side of the victims, of ALL the victims. But when the victims belong to the same category, then their executioners start to look at you with suspicion. This must have been the reason why, after having given a very difficult interview to the Rwandan National Radio, the Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines started to broadcast that I was without doubt a Belgian national, which was simply a death sentence.

I was talking with the government authorities in Gitarama when I was informed about that. I immediately asked them to call the Radio-Television libre des Mille Collines and to ask it to correct its declaration. They did it in a very efficient - although not very elegant - way, by broadcasting that I "was too courageous and too clever to be a Belgian national" .

Massacred in a Red Cross ambulance  

Prevention: zero. Reporting: ineffective. Maybe with one exception: on 14 April, in the presence of the Rwandan armed forces, militiamen killed six wounded civilians who were on their way to our hospital in a Red Cross ambulance. The Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines announced that the Red Cross was transporting " enemies of the Republic disguised as fake wounded" .

Kigali, June 1994. Civilians fleeing the violence. 

Kigali, June 1994. Civilians fleeing the violence.
© L'ILLUSTRÉ / Claude Gluntz / rw-d-00020-08h

Explanations, protests, at our request the ICRC headquarters issued a strong press release which was immediately broadcast everywhere by the BBC and Radio France Internationale, among others, boomerang effect on the field, new explanations, the Rwandan Government and media became aware of the considerable deterioration of their image, corrections, awareness campaign on the right of the wounded to be taken care of and on the role of the Red Cross… Some kind of test: we could have been killed for that statement but we were not and the Red Cross ambulances could restart their work without problems.

The killing of six wounded people allowed us to save thousands of others, 9,000 altogether between April and July according to the statistics of our makeshift hospital. Speaking out is always dangerous in such situations, exceptionally it may be effective.

Mixed population at the hospital  

ICRC hospital in Kabgayi, July 1994. 

ICRC hospital in Kabgayi, July 1994.
© ICRC / Nina Winquist / rw-d-00021-15h

A couple of days later, the Radio-Television libre des Mille Collines was targeted by the RPF. One of their most famous announcers, Noël, was badly injured in one of his feet and was brought to our hospital… I felt on the safe side: our hospital just started to have a mixed population and this trend increased continuously in the following weeks when wounded militiamen and members of the armed forces had no other place to go to be taken care of but our poor makeshift hospital, which became some kind of a sacred place, a strong symbol and demonstration of neutrality.

In mid-April, the new Prime Minister, Jean Kambanda, asked us to evacuate the dead bodies from the streets of Kigali. I refused, asking to stop the killings first. Then the authorities decided to use the common law prisoners to evacuate the bodies, but they had no fuel for the trucks. We gave them the fuel. I learned a couple of days later that they evacuated 67,000 bodies from the streets of Kigali, a town with 200,000 inhabitants before 6 April.

One millimetre of humanity  

Kigali, June 1994. Thousands of orphans were taken in by the ICRC. 

Kigali, June 1994. Thousands of orphans were taken in by the ICRC.
© L'ILLUSTRÉ / Claude Gluntz / rw-d-00020-15

This might explain why - at our request - the Minister of Labour and Social Welfare, Jean de Dieu Habimeza, went personally to an orphanage close to Gisenyi and, with the full support of the Rwandan armed forces, saved 300 children of a certain slaughter by the militiamen; it could also explain why 35,000 people could survive in Kabgayi, another 8,000 in Nyarushishi camp, the only survivors of the prefecture of Cyangugu; why another 600 orphans in Butare. And so on. Maybe 70,000 people all together, just one millimetre of humanity out of kilometres of horrors and unspeakable suffering.

The most incredible event I personally witnessed happened at the very beginning of July, just before the RPF took over Kigali: six heavily-armed militiamen came to our hospital. They were drunk, but surprisingly not aggressive at all; they had one prisoner, a young Tutsi lady; they told me: "This woman has been with us for the past three months, she is a nurse, we are about to leave the town, we have decided not to kill her despite the fact that she is a Tutsi, as a nurse she will be more useful in your hospital than dead…"  

I never received a better acknowledgment of the efficiency of neutrality.

War is destruction, negation of life. Humanitarian action works within this subtraction. It tries to reduce it. In case of a genocide, it may seem a stupid gamble, since it's well-known that genocidal logic is the complete negation of the humanitarian spirit and of the law.

Whenever you can reduce this negation it is a miracle. And the memory never forgets miracles.


Excerpt of talk given by Philippe Gaillard, ICRC head of delegation in Rwanda from 1993 to 1994, on 18 October 1994 at the International Museum of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Geneva, entitled "Rwanda 1994: La vraie vie est absente" (Arthur Rimbaud)

An officer who saved hundreds of civilians

Nyarushishi displaced camp, with over 8,000 inhabitants. 

Nyarushishi displaced camp, with over 8,000 inhabitants.
© ICRC / Nina Winquist / rw-d-00020-04

I am thinking of all the moderate, open-minded officers who were ready to talk and who were driven to despair by the suicidal, murderous behaviour of some of their colleagues.

I am thinking above all of Colonel François Munyengango, the delegation ’s liaison officer, who alone helped to save hundreds of defenceless civilians, including 600 orphans in mortal peril in Butare in the south of the country. The colonel was suffering from an incurable disease, which is probably why the Minister of Defence had appointed him liaison officer to the ICRC. He died a few months later; may he rest in peace.

I am also thinking of certain authorities who, after patient persuasion from us and despite the tremendous pressure they were under from the Interahamwe, did their utmost to prevent the murder of some 9,000 civilians holed up in the camp at Nyarushishi, the sole Tutsi survivors of the entire prefecture of Cyangugu, who were later protected by French troops taking part in Operation Turquoise.

Suicide in under three months  

Please don't get me wrong. I am not trying to play down the Rwandan tragedy. What happened in Rwanda was absolutely monstrous, unacceptable and indescribable. The Rwandan people killed themselves off in less than three months.

The idea I want to convey by quoting these few examples is merely that, even in the depths of the most unfathomable horror, I encountered courageous men and women who were exceptionally clear-thinking and lucid enough to do another human being a good turn in the midst of what they knew to be a veritable genocide.

Kigali, June 1994. Orphans taken in by the ICRC. ©L'Illustré / Claude Gluntz

Related sections