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Rwanda 1994: "We have to communicate with the killers. I met them all..."

30-03-2004 Interview

Audio interview with Philippe Gaillard, the ICRC's head of delegation in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. He talks of what the ICRC was able - and unable - to do, and recalls some vivid memories of "the hell of Kigali at that time...".


    Philippe Gaillard  

 1. When you think back to what happened ten years ago in Rwanda, what particular event comes to mind?  
The strongest one is a nice story. It is a story of a miracle. I will never forget that day. It was at the very beginning of July 1994, four days before Kigali fell down under the control of the RPF, when a small track with around 7-8 militia men with machine guns and machetes came to our hospital and asked to talk to me. So I went to them and talked to them and they explained to me that they had with them a young Tutsi girl and that that girl was a nurse and that she had spent the last three months with t hese bloody guys because she was a nurse, in case they were wounded maybe she could have helped. And these guys told me that they were about to leave the town because they knew in advance that they could not resist any more and told me that they had decided not to kill that Tutsi girl because they thought she was more useful alive as a nurse in our hospital than dead.

2. The ICRC stayed on in Rwanda throughout the genocide; what was it able to do?
At the very beginning the main question was, " What should we do in order to be able to stay " and the answer was " We have to communicate and we have to communicate first with the killers " . I met them all in the hell of Kigali at that time and this is the way we could start to act in favour of, at the very beginning, wounded people. When I say wounded people I am wrong, because they were mainly people who were not, how do we say that, not fully killed, let us say. Then we could take care all along that period of the genocide of around 9,000 people in our hospital. At the very beginning they were only Tutsi, but then, after some weeks, it was a funny scene. The room was a mixture of civilian Tutsi, alongside in the same room with Hutu militia men with exactly the same kinds of wounds and suffering at least. This was one element of our action. Now there was all that work in order to restore water in Kigali. Kigali had no water after I would say one month, six weeks and this was the main problem. So we asked our delegation in Nairobi to send us the necessary human resources and chemical staff in order to restore water in Kigali. This was important for everybody, be they Tutsi or Hutu. And I think we did a lot of work of protection as far as we could in different places like Cap Gwayi where around 35,000, mainly Tutsi, survived on what we could do to save those few Tutsi who were not killed in Cyangugu. I speak of around 9,000 people, al l civilians whom we were able, with a lot of perseverance, to convince the authorities of Cyangugu to take aside and to bring them to this famous camp of Niro Shishi? where they spent weeks with our help and some protection of the same Hutu authorities of Cyangugu. That camp was taken over later on by the French troops of the Opération Turquoise. All these people we helped in the northern part of the country, civilians under this part under control of the RPF.
 3. What lessons should humanitarian organizations learn from the Rwandan genocide?  
I will answer that question in a very personal way and I never ever felt guilty for what we did in Rwanda and I think that we, the ICRC delegates who were there were among the very few people who don't feel guilty. This was told to me by a journalist of the BBC who spent a lot of time with different actors in Rwanda at that time. Why? Well I think it is very simple. We contributed to saving between 60,000 and 70,000 lives. One million people were killed. These 70,000 people, you will tell me, are just like one millimetre of humanity out of the kilometres of the indescribable numbers of suffering people, and this is why I am still working for the ICRC. I mean I believe that we mainly work to save this millimetre of humanity, including within the worst case scenario, like it is a case of a genocide which is a full negation of international humanitarian law.

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