Of all the mysteries surrounding the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the events that led up to and followed it, the alleged massacre of more than 4,000 mostly Hutu civilians in an IDP camp at Kibeho in April 1995 is among the most troublesome. Did the mostly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Army exact revenge for the genocide against Hutus, albeit on a more limited scale? Why do we not know the answer to this question when there were international peacekeepers present and a UN investigation into what happened?
Most scholars outside of Rwanda seem to agree that post-genocide killings by the RPA (the armed movement that is now the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the political party that took over after the genocide and controls Rwanda's government) happened. As early as 2001, Alan Kuperman pointed out that the numbers of missing people after the genocide don't add up if we only count people killed in the genocide proper. Most agree that the Hutu extremists who perpetrated the genocide killed about 800,000 people from April-June 1994. Approximately 500,000-600,000 of those were Tutsis; the rest were moderate Hutus who opposed the genocide, gave shelter to Tutsis, or otherwise resisted the Interahamwe's madness.
At least one million, and likely many more, Hutu Rwandans fled the country for refugee camps in Zaire, Uganda, and Tanzania. The conditions in the most crowded camps - those in Zaire - were horrific; thousands of people died of cholera and other diseases. More were killed by the Hutu extremists, who militarized the camps and summarily executed anyone who dared to challenge their authority. Filip Reyntjens, one of the few Western scholars who worked on Rwanda prior to the genocide, estimated 50,000 Hutu deaths in the camps due to health issues. On top of that, there are still displaced Rwandans in refugee camps today; the question of their return is an enduring political issue.
But once we count the genocide, the deaths in the camps, the non-returned refugees, and civilians killed in the RPA's advance on Kigali, as well as the extremist Hutus who fled into Zaire to form what is now known as the FDLR, there are still several thousand missing Hutus. As Kuperman notes, "Statistics comparing Rwandan population figures before and after the genocide indicate that 1.1 million Rwandans appear to have died or gone missing between April 1994 and Spring 1995." What happened to the rest of the Hutus is an enduring mystery, and, arguably, one of the major sources of tension in the region.
Hutus in the region argue that what happened at Kibeho provides a clue as to what happened to at least some of the missing Hutus. While the events at Kibeho in April 1995 are still in dispute, it's certain that some people died there, that they died at the hands of RPA soldiers, and that the official death toll of 338 far under-reports what actually happened. Gerard Prunier estimates that 5,000 Hutu civilians were killed at Kibeho.The best potential source of information, a UNHCR-contracted report into the Kibeho incident and others conducted by Robert Gersony, was never released. As Rene Lemarchand points out, the story of what happened at Kibeho became part of the mythologies of history that form the basis for ethnic grievances in Rwanda. To Hutus, Kibeho is a place at which a great injustice was perpetrated. To Tutsis, in Lemarchand's words, "at no time have RPF troops engaged in cold-blooded executions of civilian populations."
There's one problem with the official narrative of what happened at Kibeho: there were witnesses who reported a starkly different outcome. Some of those witnesses were UN peacekeepers. There have been journalistic accounts of their experiences in the past, but now, fifteen years after Kibeho, one of the soldiers from Australia's contingent has published a book, Pure Massacre, with an account of exactly what he and his compatriots saw. Their accounts are damning:
By early 1995, the displaced persons' camp at Kibeho was the biggest in Rwanda, sprawling for 9sq km and containing 80,000 to 100,000 people.It will be interesting to see how Rwanda's government reacts to the publication of the soldiers' accounts. Normally, discussions of Kibeho are dismissed by the government as genocidal ideology perpetrated by Hutus who want to kill Tutsis. Those claims are easily dismissed.
The 32 Australian soldiers and medical officers arrived there as part of the UN peacekeeping force on April 18, 1995.
There were daily random killings by the Rwandan soldiers, but the slaughter exploded out of control soon after 10am on April 22. The Australians had a grandstand view of the nightmare from the Zambian compound.
The RPA soldiers murdered women and children right up to the UN wire. Bodies were everywhere. For the Diggers behind the wire, the next few hours were agonising.
For the refugees, there was nowhere to run.
As the Australians collected the wounded from among the piles of dead, the crisis began to escalate as panic-stricken Hutus overran the Zambian compound, driven forward by machete-and rifle wielding militia.
Hundreds were killed in the crush and the Australians were forced to repel at bayonet point the terrified victims they were supposed to be protecting, pushing them back into the RPA killing zone.
...The RPA went wild and cut loose with another hail of fire on the panicking crowd.
After the madness stopped, one Australian medic with a hand-held counter counted bodies he passed. He reached more than 4000 clicks about halfway through the killing field before RPA soldiers threatened to kill him if he did not stop.
For two days, the Australians brought out those still alive and helped to fill mass graves with corpses.
But the claims of former Australian peacekeepers - none of whom can reasonably be denounced as having real biases in this fight - are something else. Here are some key reasons why the RPF cannot simply dismiss the former peacekeepers' points:
- They represent testimony from impartial, international observers who actually saw the killings and counted bodies. The peacekeepers were on the ground as part of a United Nations-mandated mission that the RPA allowed to be present in the country after the genocide.
- The peacekeeping contingent abided by their mandated rules of engagement and did not intervene to protect the civilians in the IDP camp.
- Australia's government did not have any significant ties to Rwanda prior to the genocide, so the RPF cannot denounce them as being biased like the French (who had very close, documented ties to the Habyarimana regime).
- They can't be written off as Westerners who want to see Rwanda fail; the peacekeeping contingent included 80 Zambian soldiers.
- It's hard to fathom a motivation on the part of former peacekeepers to outright lie about what they did or did not see.