• Send page
  • Print page

Rwanda 1994: "In situations like that, it is vital not to let on that you are dead scared..."


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)

I do not intend to relate the history of Rwanda. I would simply like to recall one or two crucial dates:

  • 1959: the Hutu uprising

  • 1962: independence

  • 1973 coup d'état by President Habyarimana

  • October 1990: hostilities break out between the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and government forces

  • 6 April 1994: President Habyarimana is assassinated

  • 4 July 1994: the RPF takes Kigali and seizes power

© L'ILLUSTRÉ /Claude Glunz/ref. rw-d-00020-20 
Kigali. Philippe Gaillard on the balcony of the delegation 
    In July 1993, the President of the ICRC, Mr Cornelio Sommaruga, visited Rwanda and met President Habyarimana. I can remember only one detail of that meeting: when Mr Sommaruga broached th e subject of anti-personnel mines – at the time, the country was littered with about 30,000 landmines, especially in the north, along the front line – and their appalling consequences for the civilian population, President Habyarimana replied that, while he was perfectly well aware of the problem, in his opinion it was more important to " demine people’s hearts than wheat fields or potato patches " .

I had arrived in Rwanda only two weeks earlier and here I was learning two basic truths in just one metaphor: first that flowery rhetoric was not necessarily the prerogative of poets, since a head of state was venturing into such hazardous terrain during official talks, and secondly that Rwandan hearts were mined and perhaps ready to explode in blood and rage.

 Peace agreement  

One week after the talks between President Sommaruga and Mr Habyarimana, a peace agreement was signed in Arusha, Tanzania, between the Rwandan head of state and Alexis Kanyarengwe, the leader of the RPF rebels. All was therefore for the best in the best of all possible worlds on 4 August 1993.


I was learning... that Rwandan hearts were mined and perhaps ready to explode in blood and rage. 

The recollection of that moment of frenzied optimism shared by the highest international authorities - the signing of the peace agreement - prompted me not long ago to reread a passage from Candide in which Voltaire, with a dose of irony and almost tongue-in-cheek, describes a battlefield scene:


 "Nothing could be smarter, more splendid, more brilliant, better drawn up than the two armies. Trumpets, fifes, haut-boys, drums, cannons formed a harmony such as has never been heard even in hell. The cannons first of all laid flat about six thousand men on each side; then the musketry removed from the best of worlds some nine or ten thousand blackguards who infested its surface. The bayonet also was the sufficient reason for death of some thousands of men. The whole might amount to thirty thousand souls. Candide, who trembled like a philosopher, hid himself as he could during this heroic butchery.  


 At last, while the two Kings each commanded a Te Deum in his camp, Candide decided to go elsewhere to reason about effects and causes. He clambered over heaps of dead and dying men and reached a neighbouring village, which was in ashes; it was an Abare village which the Bulgarians had burned in accordance with international law. Here, old men dazed with blows watched the dying agonies of their murdered wives who clutched their children to their bleeding breasts; there, disembowelled girls who had been made to satisfy the natural appetites of heroes gasped their last sighs; others, half-burned, begged to be put to death. Brains were scattered on the ground among dismembered arms and legs."  

 Renewed violence  

It was not the assassination of President Habyarimana, on 6 April 1994, that signaled the start of the " heroic butchery " , to use Voltaire's expression; in August 1993, only a few weeks after the signing of the Arusha peace agreement, about fifty peasants were murdered in the north of the country.

The United Nations troops commanded by General Dallaire, the constant butt of malicious jokes on Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines , were unable to shed any light on this massacre.

Kigali was plunged into renewed violence in January 1994 and again in February, when two leading politicians were also assassinated: Félicien Gatabazi, the Minister of Public Works and Supply, and Martin Bucyana, the head of the Coalition pour la Défense de la République (CDR), a radical Hutu party. The talks between government and RPF forces collapsed and skirmishes broke out between belligerents in the north of the country.


...all sorts of rumours were flying around, in diplomatic circles as well, that something serious was going to happen. 

By Easter, all sorts of rumours were flying around, in diplomatic circles as well, that something serious was going to happen. On 4 April 1994, I was summoned to the Papal Nuncio, Monsignor Giuseppe Bertelli. He confirmed the rumours and advised me to be vigilant and ready to act. The serious event occurred two days later, on the evening of 6 April, at about 8 p.m., when the aircraft carrying the Rwandan President, Juvénal Habyarimana, and the Burundian President, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot down by a missile over Kigali airport.

 At the parliament building, under fire  

At that moment, I was holding a meeting with the leaders of the RPF in the parliament building which, since 28 December 1993 (28 December happens to be the Christian feast of the Holy Innocents...) and following the Arusha peace accords, had served as the rebels'headquarters - right in the heart of Kigali.

Two co lleagues were with me. We spent the night at the back of a flooded room, surrounded by sandbags to protect ourselves from the bullets and shells of the government army, which had launched an attack on the building. We had heard about the dramatic turn of events, for it had been announced on Rwandan radio stations scarcely an hour after the presidential plane had crashed.


The Rwandan people were immediately seized by homicidal madness, as we realized the next morning, on 7 April, when we observed the first systematic massacres of civilians. 

The Rwandan people were immediately seized by homicidal madness, as we realized the next morning, on 7 April, when we observed the first systematic massacres of civilians. Inside the parliament building, the members of the RPF were seething with rage and impatience, they, like us, powerless witnesses to the first signs of the mass slaughter. I watched as RPF soldiers rounded on UN soldiers, begging them to intervene or to allow them, the RPF fighters, to intervene. But the UN soldiers were unyielding and would not budge. They probably did not understand what was going on.

The tension rose with each passing hour. I was being plied with questions by my two colleagues, who themselves were being bombarded with telephone calls from their wives – the telephones were still working at that point. We felt utterly trapped.

 Becoming a military target  

Staying in the Parliament building with the RPF was turning us into a military target, leaving the building meant facing bullets and roadblocks and trusting in uncertain divine mercy. In the end we decided to get out, whereupon both the RPF and the UN officers on the spot told us we were reckless fools.

Somewhere in Voyage au Bout de la Nuit Céline writes, "Quand le moment du monde à l'envers est venu et que c'est être fou que de demander pourquoi on vous assassine, il devient évident qu'on passe pour fou à peu de frais, encore faut-il que ça prenne. Et quand il s'agit d'éviter le grand écartelage, il se fait dans certains cerveaux de magnifiques efforts d'imagination " .

At that moment, on 7 April 1994 at 1.30 in the afternoon, Céline’s words were particularly apt.

On our way back, we picked up a colleague, Muriel, who had been stranded in one of our houses, before continuing on our way. At one roadblock drunken government soldiers stopped us and demanded our car. I got out of the vehicle and introduced myself to their commander, who was especially drunk – commanders are always entitled to more beer than their men. I shook his hand and asked him his name. He refused to give it to me. In situations like that, it is vital not to let on that you are dead scared. You must keep your nerve, look people straight in the eye and find convincing arguments, no matter how you express them.

© L'ILLUSTRÉ /Claude Glunz/ref. rw-d-00020-09 
Kigali. Civilians fleeing the killing 
    I coolly told our drunken soldier that I lived in the same neighbourhood as Augustin Bizimana, the Minister of Defence, and Colonel Téoneste Bagosora, his chief of staff, and that I would not fail to inform them of their troops’ unruly behaviour.

The soldier seemed to be moved by my acquaintance with his superiors and allowed us to pass. I could not get over it; two minutes earlier he had been aiming his sub-machine gun at my stomach. Céline was certainly right, at least as far as being torn limb from limb and powers of imagination were concerned.

As soon as President Habyarimana was assassinated the wholesale looting and killing began, not only in the neighbourhood where most of our delegates lived, but all over Kigali. Robbery, settling of accounts, looting, rape, ethnic murder and political assassinations turned the town into a killing ground the likes of which had probably not been seen since the Second World War, save in Pol Pot's Cambodia.

 The internationals leave  

It was undoubtedly the fear brought on by mob hysteria, the collective orgy of crime and destruction and the sheer scale of the human tragedy unfolding on the streets and even within homes that caused all the embassies, UN agencies, non-governmental organizations and development cooperation projects to shut up shop and leave the country, some by air, others by road, as from 10 April, leaving behind their often distraught Rwandan staff.


General Dallaire, an extremely courageous man, was left with practically no resources or mandate. 

Before 6 April, there were 2,500 UN troops in the country. After that date their number was reduced to approx imately 300. As a result, General Dallaire, an extremely courageous man, was left with practically no resources or mandate.

UNAMIR (the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, set up under the Arusha Peace Agreement of 4 August 1993) had become a political and logistic phantom.

In the meantime, mainly for security reasons, we had decided to gather all ICRC delegates at the delegation and to evacuate non-essential staff.

 Evacuation - and massacre - of the wounded  

© L'ILLUSTRÉ /Claude Glunz/ref. rw-d-00020-11 
Kigali. Wounded being cared for at the ICRC hospital 
    Helped by the Rwandan Red Cross, we had also begun to evacuate the wounded to a nearby school, which we had turned into a field hospital. We were aware, perhaps to differing degrees, of the relative futility of evacuating and caring for the injured against such a violent backdrop. The purpose of the violence that had seized Rwanda was not to neutralize people on the other side by taking them prisoner or wounding them, but purely and simply to eliminate them by attacking them with machetes or screwdrivers. The wounded we were picking up were survivors whom the killers, especial ly the Interahamwe, had not had time to finish off.

On two occasions in April 1994 our ambulances were stopped at militia roadblocks and the wounded were forcibly unloaded and killed before our very eyes. Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines announced that the ICRC was transporting "enemies of the Republic disguised as mock wounded”. We explained, protested, had Geneva issue press releases that were picked up by the western media. The effect in Rwanda was immediate: the Rwandan Government and media changed tack and set out to polish their badly tarnished image by mounting an awareness campaign on the right of the wounded to care and on the role of the Red Cross. Within a few days, our ambulances no longer had any difficulty in moving about freely in Kigali.

The murder of our ambulance patients enabled us to save some ten thousand other lives between 10 April and 4 July 1994, according to our makeshift hospital's statistics.

 A "millimetre of humanity"  

Ten thousand people is nothing in a conflict that saw almost a million die in under three months, it is just a millimetre of humanity in kilometres of horror. Were the risks that we took to protect this millimetre of humanity worthwhile? How many of us asked ourselves the same question, while echoing Céline's sentiments?


 "Je refuse la guerre et tout ce qu'il y a dedans, je ne la déplore pas, moi, je ne me résigne pas, je ne pleurniche pas dessus, je la refuse tout net avec tous les hommes qu'elle contient. Je ne veux rien avoir à faire avec eux, avec elle. Seraient-ils 995 millions et moi tout seul c'est eux qui ont tort et c'est moi qui ai raison parce que je suis le seul à savoir ce que je veux, je ne veux plus mourir."  


The others, those who had left, the diplomats, the volunteers from the cooperation projects, the UN agencies and the NGOs, had they not been right to agree with Rimbaud that “ the best thing is to quit this continent where madness prowls, out to supply hostages for these wretches"  

© L'ILLUSTRÉ /Claude Glunz/ref. rw-d-00020-19 
Kigali. An ICRC flag faces towards the frontline to try to protect the field hospital 
    The vast majority of our Rwandan colleagues had been able to make their way to the delegation and many of them had brought their families, especially their children. What would become of them if we left? Hundreds of thousands of people were fleeing Kigali and the countryside as the RPF gained ground. Should they be left to starve to death by the roadside?

 100 wounded each day at the hospital  

Kigali municipal hospital closed after b eing shelled by the rebels. For 90 days, the ICRC hospital took in an average of 100 wounded a day. It was threatened by desperate, drunken militiamen. It was bombed by the rebels. A real Season in Hell , the unpublished version. Rimbaud once again springs to mind: "Weakness or strength: you exist, that is strength… You don’t know where you are going or why you are going, go in everywhere, answer everyone. No one will kill you, any more than if you were a corpse.”  

This is more or less what we did in Kigali and elsewhere in Rwanda. We went, entered and stood our ground, instead of clearing out. We spread out, instead of locking ourselves in. We conversed and, in the hell that was Rwanda, we spoke to all the devils.

Kigali prefecture needed diesel for the lorries that were carting away corpses in rubbish skips. We gave it to them. Three weeks later, an official from the prefecture told us in confidence that they had removed 67,000 bodies from the town of Kigali alone.

Kigali found itself without water because there was no chlorine or aluminium sulphate. We supplied the products that were needed, thereby deferring the demise of the central pumping station for two weeks.

 The government leaves Kigali  

By the middle of April, the interim Government had fled south from Kigali to Gitarama. What a moving sight – all those ministers carrying their own cases and their howling kids out of the Hôtel des Diplomates in the very centre of Kigali. One of them, from the governing party, was short of petrol. I offered him some at the delegation in front of all our terrified local employees.


...After all, even among ministers, at a time like that, a bit of solidarity was called for... 

One minister had no car and asked me for help. I found him a lift in the car of another minister who was a personal acquaintance of mine. After all, even among ministers, at a time like that, a bit of solidarity was called for. It was pathetic. I did not know whether to laugh or cry.

Once the Hôtel des Diplomates had been cleared of its august and dignified occupants, I returned to the delegation and perused another of Arthur Rimbaud's poems that I read over and over again in Kigali. It is entitled "Morning" and also comes from A Season in Hell:  

Hadn't I once a happy youth that was lovely, heroic, fabulous - something to write down on pages of gold? I was too lucky! Through what crime, by what fault did I deserve my present weakness? You who imagine that animals sob with sorrow, that the sick despair, that the dead have bad dreams, try now to relate my fall and my sleep. I can explain myself no better than the beggar with his endless Aves and Pater Nosters. I no longer know how to talk.  

 And yet, today, I think I have finished this account of my Hell. And it was Hell; the old one, whose gates were opened by the Son of Man.  

 From the same desert, toward the same dark sky, my tired eyes forever open on the silver star, forever; but the three wise men never stir, the Kings of life, the heart, the soul, the mind. When will we go, over mountains and shores, to hail the birth of new labour, new wisdom, the flight of tyrants and demons, the end of superstition, to be the first to adore... Christmas on earth!  


 The song of the heavens, the marching of nations! We are slaves; let us not curse life."  

 Pauillac '86 at 5 dollars a bottle  

That evening, I drank rather a lot of wine. Our administrator, Jean Pascal Chapatte, had managed to buy some 1986 Pauillac for five dollars a bottle. There was something to be said for the looting of the luxury shops and ambassadors'residences. In my sleep, I dreamt that I was no longer in Kigali; I was alone in a Benedictine monastery right in the centre of New York, which was on fire. It was splendid.

A few days later we established a sub-delegation at Gitarama, or to be more precise, at Kabgayi, the country’s largest Catholic stronghold.


Dozens, perhaps hundreds... died in horrifying conditions during perfectly organized and clearly targeted night raids. 

Kabgayi had a hospital and several buildings sheltering almost 35,000 civilians, most of them Tutsis and all at jeopardy from the mass fury. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of them, died in horrifying conditions during perfectly organized and clearly targeted night raids.

There were huge problems. I went from Kigali to Kabgayi several times. I held discussions with the government and religious authorities. I took ministers and military officers with me in order to make them realize the scale of the disaster and the inhumane conditions in which t heir people were living, regardless of the ethnic group to which they belonged.

They got the point, but they were so disorganized and apathetic that they were incapable of ending the murderous folly and systematic slaughter that at least some of them had helped to organize. I say some of them, for I did meet rational people in the Hutu Government that fell at the beginning of July 1994, people who were devoid of racial hatred.

I am thinking of one minister who, at the request of the ICRC and with the full support of a senior officer from the Rwandan armed forces, personally went to an orphanage near Gisenyi to save almost 300 children - whose parents had just been butchered - from certain death.

 An officer who saved hundreds of civilians  

© L'ILLUSTRÉ /Claude Glunz/ref. rw-d-00020-22 
Kigali. Philippe Gaillard with Colonel François Munyengago 

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.

What I also want to get across is that the western media perhaps oversimplified their analyses when they described the Rwandan tragedy as an ethnic conflict.

It is easy and probably very convenient to push the ethnic argument when one is unable to resolve a political problem entailing power sharing. The ethnic issue in Rwanda was, perhaps, merely used as a smoke screen by a minority of politicians or military leaders who did not want anyone to tamper with the privileges they had patiently acquired during 20 years of Habyarimana-style democracy. 

 Suffering torment on earth  

The tragedy, as in all such cases, is that it is never those in charge who pay the incredibly high price of the violence, but the man in the street, the peasants and the illiterate, who swallow any insane propaganda, like that broadcast by Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines , as if it were manna from heaven. It is they, rather than us, who spent a season in hell. It is they who really suffer torment on this earth, no matter whether they are in Sarajevo, Afghanistan, Liberia or Rwanda.


"Mr Gaillard, we know what is happening, but we also know that even after Hiroshima, there were survivors..." 

I think of them on reading Rimbaud's plea, "We are slaves, let us not curse life" . A high-ranking RPF member, who later became a minister and who today is an ambassador in Europe, was also probably thinking of it when he informed me, in late April 1994, " Mr Gaillard, we know what is happening, but we also know that even after Hiroshima, there were survivors " . Those words are engraved in my memory like transparent ice in a fault in the rock.

It is always surprising, when one is engulfed in the crowd of a macabre carnival, to meet calm, clear-thinking individuals who do not allow their own hurt to show. For some human beings, especially those who rub shoulders with the powerful, political and military demands take such high priority that they probably have no other choice.

 Across Rwanda and in neighbouring countries  

In the meantime the ICRC had opened a sub-delegation at Ngara in Tanzania to assist almost 300,000 Hutu refugees who had fled before the advancing RPF. Among these refugees, there were probably many militiamen whose hands were soaked in blood.

We also opened sub-delegations at Goma and Bukavu in Zaire to help displaced persons in Ruhengeri, Gisenyi, Kibuye, Cyangugu and Kibeho in the west of the country. The needs were enormous, the militiamen's aggressivity hard to curb.


We were now present in six places in the country, in both the government and rebel zones and on its borders with Tanzania, Uganda and Zaire... 

We had likewise opened a sub-delegation at Kabale in Uganda so as to assist civilians in the north of the country, which was under the control of RPF rebels. The area was almost deserted: no more than half a million inhabitants, most of them huddled in makeshift camps. Although a month earlier we had been asking ourselves whether we were going to pull out of Rwanda, we were now present in six places in the country, in both the government and rebel zones and on its borders with Tanzania, Uganda and Zaire.

© L'ILLUSTRÉ /Claude Glunz/ref. rw-d-00020-10 
Kigali. MSF team working with the ICRC at the field hospital 

Our hospital in Kigali was not becoming any emptier. On the contrary, it was absolutely full. We had to find a solution fast. We decided to start transferring the convalescent patients from our temporary hospital on the government-held side of town to King Faisal Hospital on the other side of the front line, in the area under rebel control. We cleaned King Faisal Hospital in two days with the help of Médecins sans Frontières and we began the transfers. 

We had to get through several Interahamwe roadblocks. It was a delicate, dangerous process. At first we transferred only wounded Hutus then, several times, a judicious mix of Tutsis and Hutus. When there were no more injured Hutus to transfer, only Tutsis, matters became complicated. We were stopped at a roadblock formed by the presidential guard and militiamen right in the middle of the bridge marking the front line where, a few days earlier, RPF rebels had targeted some UN soldiers. It was impossible to go any further. The militiamen climbed onto the lorry screaming "Inyenzi! Inyenzi! ( " cockroaches " , the derogatory epithet given to Tutsis by Hutu extremists).

At one point I thought that we were heading straight for a massacre. I asked one of the presidential guardsmen to contact his leaders by radio in order to ask for authorization to allow us to pass. Nothing doing. I jumped into my car and drove up to the headquarters of the Rwandan armed forces, where a colonel scribbled a few words in Rwandan on a scrap of paper and said, "That should do ..." . I returned to the bridge. Everyone was still alive. I showed my scrap of paper to the presidential guard. Radio call. Interminable wait. Then, at long last, the words "OK, you can pass".  

 "You have brought back my brother!"  

We continued our journey. I was deathly pale. Now we had to pass the rebel roadblock. One of them climbed onto the lorry, then onto the trailer. When he got down, he was on the verge of tears. He came over to me and said, "You have brought back my brother. You have brought back my brother". I smiled in an effort not to cry; I was overwhelmed by so many different emotions all at the same time. Since my experience in Rwanda, I have not attended any " family reunions " - those special occasions when relatives separated by war are brought together again. I am relatively inured to horror, but I can no longer cope with beautiful moments. They bring tears to my eyes and twist my guts.

The military advance of the RPF was impressive. By the end of May, the rebels had taken Byumba, Kayonza and Rwamagana. They controlled the Tanzanian border. They had crossed the Bugesera and cut off the road to Kigali at the Burundian border north of Butare. The government authorities, which had left Kigali and gone to Gitarama in mid-April, were now abandoning Gitarama for Goma on the Zairean border.

A few days later, Kabgayi and Gitarama fell into rebel hands. In Kabgayi the ICRC delegates were unharmed, as were the wounded members of the government army who were in our makeshift hospital in the bishop's residence and who had not been able to flee with the rest of the troops, as they were in no condition to get up and walk.

 The hospital is forced to move  

© L'ILLUSTRÉ /Claude Glunz/ref. rw-d-00021-15 
Kabgayi. ICRC Hospital 

The rebels forced the delegates to leave Kabgayi, which was deemed too dangerous, for Nyanza more to the south. I ordered them to yield to RPF injunctions. The delegates moved to Nyanza with all the war-wounded. The injured members of the government army were regarded as prisoners of war by the RPF. In addition, almost 30,000 displaced civilians in Kabyagi, most of them Tutsis, who had been through a real nightmare for almost two months, were alive. In the context, that was a lot.

In Kigali itself our situation was most uncomfortable. In the middle of May one of our food convoys was deliberately targeted by the RPF as it was leaving Kigali for Gitarama. For an hour and a half, our delegates Pierre Gratzl, François Conrad and Ian Stefanski came under a hail of bullets and mortars. Pierre Gratzl was wounded in the stomach by an exploding shell. General Dallaire saved him by dispatching two armoured vehicles to the spot at our request. Pierre Gratzl underwent an operation in our hospital and that day I learned a new word – laparotomy.

Pierre Gratzl is a school friend. We had known each other for 27 years and I have a sneaking suspicion, even if it is difficult to say so for someone who is as diffident as I am, that Pierre Gratzl would probably not have agreed to enter the hell that was Kigali if I had not been there. If that is true, that was rather nice of him.

 The ins and outs of water and sanitation  

The water supply in Kigali ultimately broke down. After that we had to go and fetch water from a spring five minutes from the delegation. It was a real godsend, because we could wash every day. When the smell of death is all around you, it is important to wash. My digestive system was like clockwork. I emptied my bowels every morning as soon as I got up. When I showered, I used to save the bathwater in a plastic tub. Sometimes I cried as I crouched in the bath and my tears mingled with the bathwater. I then chucked all this wastewater into the lavatory, thus flushing all my excrements into the town sewers in one go.

Excuse me for giving you these technical details; in fact, they are not technical details. The truth of the matter has more to do with psychology than with housekeeping and in point of fact, in such circumstances, for the sake of one's mental balance, it is essential to be able to get rid of your shit with your tears. The pH of the whole body and the pH of the soul become normal again. The acidity of the night disappears and you can again walk with a firm step.

The day after Pierre Gratzl's accident I was again walking with a firm step. But I am forgetting another detail. Around the time of the accident, a mortar fell on the ICRC delegation, killing two people outright and injuring five others. That was too much. Those mortars came from the RPF.

 On respect for international humanitarian law...  

Right from the b eginning of the conflict in October 1990, the RPF had formally assured us that it would respect international humanitarian law, the ICRC mandate and the delegates'activities.

Everybody, including the Rwandan Government, knew that the ICRC was in regular contact with the rebel movement.

In July 1993, President Sommaruga had met both the President of the Republic Juvénal Habyarimana and the Chairman of the RPF, Alexis Kanyarengwe.

After the signature of the Arusha peace agreement, on 4 August 1993, the ICRC had been in almost daily contact with the RPF. Had its attitude to us changed? In order to find out, we would, if possible, have to hold a top-level meeting with the rebels.

 Meeting with General Kagamé  

Jean-Daniel Tauxe, who was in charge of ICRC operations in Africa, flew from Geneva to Uganda. A rather courageous move on his part. One always appreciates not feeling abandoned by one's superiors. I took advantage of a trip by my friend General Dallaire and the UN ambassador José Ayala Lasso to the north of the country to travel by road to Byumba, where I met General Paul Kagamé, the rebel leader, and asked him if Jean-Daniel Tauxe and I could go to see him two days later. General Kagamé immediately agreed.


It is always comforting to learn that, if you have to die, it will only be because someone's aim is poor. 

General Kagamé told us, "It's not our aim to shoot you." I replied "General, it's good to know that, but please don't kill us, even by mistake". Then we laughed.

It is a lways comforting to learn that, if you have to die, it will only be because someone's aim is poor. Because some mistakes did occur after that, including one huge blunder in the third week of June, when two shells fell right onto the emergency ward of our hospital, killing seven patients and seriously injuring a dozen others. I was livid.

One should always accompany courses in international humanitarian law with lessons in ballistics and ordnance. But it seems that the ICRC mandate is not broad enough to take in the discussion of such excessively " aggressive " topics.

 "Fast-food news"  

I informed the BBC, CNN and Radio France Internationale, etc. of our misfortunes in the hope that this would teach the RPF gunners to be more careful.

The international media, even when they serve up " fast-food news " , sometimes have their uses. At all events, the RPF did not at all appreciate its image as a disciplined, well-organized army that respected international conventions being tarnished in this way.

Between late June and early July 1994, the Chairman of the RPF, Alexis Kanyarengwe, sent us two letters asking us to move our delegation and our hospital to another part of Kigali. Personally I have always preferred receiving letters rather than shells – it’s a habit I developed years ago. A hurtful letter does not usually land you on the operating table. We had to act fast. Kigali was encircled by the rebels and on the point of falling.

We replied to Mr Kanyarengwe's first letter by asking him to be so kind as to tell us where, in Kigali, we could find a safe spot for our delegation and hospital. We did not have time to reply to his second letter because, on the night of 3 July 1994, some government army officers telephoned us three times to say that the a rmy was pulling out of Kigali that night and to thank us for having had the courage to stay and save what we could.

The previous day, a group of heavily armed militiamen had turned up in our hospital with a young Tutsi woman. They said to me, "This woman is a nurse. We have kept her with us over the last few weeks so that she could look after us if there were any incidents. She is an enemy. We are going to leave town now and have decided not to kill her. We thought that she would be more use in your hospital than dead. Bye".  

I thanked them with due ceremony and wished them a safe journey. Some miracles go straight to your heart.

 Last meal with General Dallaire  

By daybreak on 4 July, RPF troops were moving freely about all of Kigali.

I invited two RPF officers, two majors, to have a beer at the delegation and they happily accepted.

I left Rwanda the next day, but not without first dining again with General Dallaire, who presented me with a decoration. I made him a present of my Red Cross badge, but warned him that he was not entitled to wear it. We had been entrusted with very different mandates, but General Dallaire had been through the same, or perhaps even a worse, nightmare than us; he had lost 13 of his men, ten of whom had been slaughtered in ghastly circumstances. The Interahamwe had put a price on his head.

Since the beginning of June, General Dallaire had no longer been able to cross the front lines and was more or less confined to his headquarters. I remember that in the weeks leading up to the fall of Kigali, on several occasions the general had asked us to deliver letters to the government authorities, which was proof that the dialogue between them and UNAMIR had broken down .

 Maintaining a dialogue - walking the tightrope

© L'ILLUSTRÉ /Claude Glunz/ref. rw-d-00021-20 
Kabgayi. ICRC nurse discusses medical supplies with a government officer  
    It must be said that maintaining a dialogue with all the belligerent forces in Rwanda between 6 April and 4 July 1994 had certainly constituted the most difficult aspect of our work, a constant exercise in tightrope-walking.
Engaging in dialogue means first and foremost listening to the other side, especially if despair is what has driven them to your door. It means acting as a reference point, even without speaking, perhaps above all without speaking. Holding a dialogue means grasping how the other person understands your words, providing that he is still capable of understanding anything at all.
From this point of view, the ICRC delegation had been engaged in a constant dialogue in Kigali, even or especially at the worst times. Dialogue makes a far better cornerstone for security than armoured vehicles or bullet-proof vests. Dialogue is a sign of openness and trust. An armoured vehicle is the physical expression of fear, withdrawal and the wrong kind of strength, aggressive strength. Dialogue is the expression of a calm strength which sometimes recharges the batteries of the person you are talking to.

 Key to a successful mission  

Internal coordination is another key to a mission's success. Geneva, Nairobi, Kinshasa, Bujumbura, Kabale, Goma, Bukavu, Kabgayi, Ngara, Kampala and Kigali, that made a total of 11 operational bases that had to agree on the same course of action.

The perception of a conflict is not necessarily the same in Geneva and in the field. But this was not true as far as Rwanda was concerned. There were never any differences of opinion between Geneva and those of us who were on the spot.

And then there is the press. Most, but not all, journalists are like vultures, waiting to pounce on the latest scoop, only interested in filming grim and gruesome scenes. Yet come what may, it is they who mould public opinion outside a country and their comments have repercussions within it as well. Belligerents are sometimes very sensitive about their image and that is the case not only in Rwanda. We had to be very careful about our statements. We sometimes even had to put up with the frustration of remaining silent. But in such circumstances you often have to bite your tongue if you want to survive.


Last but not least, there are the qualities and courage of your colleagues in the field. 

Last but not least, there are the qualities and courage of your colleagues in the field. I have already mentioned the names of Pierre Gratzl, François Conrad and Ian Stefanski. I would also like to pay tribute to Patrick Gasser, Jean-Paul Chapatte, Hervé le Guillouzic, Didier Grond, Valérie Le Van, André Musy, Markus Dold er and the whole Médecins sans Frontières team, Gilbert Ascotte, John Sanding, Isabelle, Matto, Cornelia and René, in short to all those who helped my delegation work as a team even and above all at the worst times.

I would also like to thank my wife, Maria-Teresa, who worked in the north of Rwanda and who never, ever put me under any pressure to leave the country. Lastly, I would like to pay very sincere tribute to all our local Rwandan employees, Hutus, Tutsis or a mixture of both, without whom we could never have functioned, for they alone knew the details that were essential to survive, to figure out what was important, and the most important thing was not to die.


 The children named "Gaillard"  

Whenever I could, I played with the dozens of employees'children who used to hunker down in the corridors of the delegation during the shelling. In the end they called me "grandpa" .

© L'ILLUSTRÉ /Claude Glunz/ref. rw-d-00024-10 
Buhoro. Children separated from their parents at a camp 

It is for these children and for the other Rwandan children who survived the massacre (years later I was very moved to learn that many Rwandans had called their children "Gaillard" ... la vita é bella!), that I would like to end by reciting a poem by Garcia Lorca, taken from a Poet in New York and entitled "Childhood and death".  


 Para buscar mi infancia, ¡Dios mio!  

 comí naranjas prodridas, papeles viejos, palomares vacíos  

 y encontré mi cuerpercito comido por las ratas  

 en el fondo del aljibe y con las cabelleras de los locos.  

 Mi traje de marinero  

 no estaba empapado con el aceite de las ballenas,  

 pero tenía la eternidad vulnerable de las fotografías.  

 Ahogado, si, bien ahogado. Duerme, hijito mio, duerme.  

 Niño vencido en el colegio y en el vals de la rosa herida,  

 asombrado con el alba oscura del vello sobre los muslos,  

 agonizando con su proprio hombre que masticaba tabaco en su constado  


 Oigo un río seco lleno de latas de conserva  

 donde cantan las alcantarillas y arrojan las camisas llenas de sangre;  

 un río de gatos prodridos que fingan corolas e anémonas  

 para engañar a la luna y que se apoya dulcemente en ellos.  

 Aquí solo con mi ahogado.  

 Aquí solo con la brisa de musgos fríos y tapaderas de hojalata.  

 Aquí sólo veo que ya me han cerrado la puerta.  

 Me han cerrado la puerta y hay un grupo de muertos  

 que juega al trio al blanco, y otro grupo de muertos  

 que busca por la cocina las cáscaras de melón,  

 y un solitario, azul, inexplicable muerto  

 que me busca por las escaleras, que mete las manos en al aljibe  

 mientre los astros llenan de ceniza las cerraduras de las catedrales  

 y las gentes se quedan de pronto con todos las trajes pequeños.  

 Para buscar mi infancia, ¡Dios mio!,  

 comí limones estrujados, establos, periódicos marchitos.  

 Pero mi infancia era un rata que huía por un jardin oscurísimo,  

 una rata satisfecha mojada por el agua simple,  

 y que llevaba un anda de oro entre los dientes diminutos.  


 (7 October 1929, New York)  


 Born in Valais, Switzerland, in 1956, Philippe Gaillard studied literature at the universities of Geneva, Freiburg-in-Breisgau and Salamanca. He joined the ICRC in 1982 and carried out missions in the Middle East and in Latin America, and worked at headquarters for more than a year. In July 1993 he was appointed head of the ICRC's delegation in Rwanda, a post he held for 12 months. Philippe Gaillard is currently (April 2004) head of delegation in Lima (Peru).  


> Read also what Philippe Gaillard said eight years later...  

Related sections