Bryan Patterson From: Sunday Herald Sun, March 28, 2010
ON April 22, 1995 - almost 15 years ago - a group of Australian soldiers watched in horror as more than 4000 unarmed men, women and children were slaughtered by machetes, guns and grenades in front of their eyes.
Our soldiers could do nothing to stop the madness. A decade and a half later, many still have regular nightmares about that.
Embedded in their memories are the faces of the victims, arms stretched out and pleading for help that couldn't be given. And they can still see the sneering laughing faces of the Rwandan killers, their hands covered in blood as they slaughtered the women and children and babies.
Our soldiers were sent to Rwanda as part of a UN peacekeeping team. But restricted by the UN rules of engagement governing the deployment, they could only watch helplessly as the orgy of killing unfolded and try to help the wounded under the gaze of trigger-happy killers.
Nothing could have prepared any soldier for that
"The scars will be with us forever," said Kevin "Irish" O'Halloran, author of Pure Massacre, a new book on the mission.
"Many of the vets have a lot of guilt about what happened because they were not able to do the best they could do to save lives. They could not do anything to defend those who couldn't defend themselves."
Jake Blake, who was a corporal on the Rwanda mission, said O'Hallaron's book had lifted the lid on "a dirty little secret".
"This is the first time the story has been told in detail by people who were on the ground. The first time the story has been told by those who can't forget."
A year before the Kibeho massacre, the landlocked country bordered by Uganda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania had been involved in a bloody civil war between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. An estimated 800,000 people were killed in the 1994 genocide.
After the genocide and the victory by the army of the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Army, many ethnic Hutus, including an unknown number of those who had committed genocide, fled from the army-controlled areas to internally displaced persons camps taken over by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda and a number of aid organisations.
Major-General Guy Tousignant, the former UN force commander of United Nations forces, recalled arriving in Rwanda's capital city Kigali on August 15, 1995. Bodies lay in the street and packs of dogs, fattened from the corpses, ruled the city. There was no drinking water or electricity.
"The devil had swept through the country and killed Rwanda's spirit and soul," said Maj-Gen Tousignant.
"All that seemed to remain was the stench of genocide and children abandoned by war pathetically wandering the streets, traumatised by the death and destruction they had witnessed."
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.
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.
Despite the madness, according to Kevin O'Halloran, the Australians proved their mettle, venturing out from the Zambian compound time and time again to collect the wounded before the RPA could finish them off.
At the same time they were trying to impress upon the RPA that the world was watching.
Lance Corporal Andrew Miller would later describe how the RPA made sport out of killing even babies.
"At one stage, a whole crowd of people were running down the hill and the RPA were firing after them and the whole hillside was littered with different coloured clothing as they lay dead on the ground. The RPA just stood on the top of the hill and picked off people as they ran away."
Corporal Jake Blake recalled this week: "It all went mad. At the time everything was semi-real".
One memory still haunts him.
"All of a sudden we had displaced persons outside our perimeter. We would grab them and take them back over the wire.
"One bloke came through and we dragged him back, five minutes later he was back in again so we put him back over the wire. He came in again, offering me a wad of money, desperate for help, but it was not in our mandate. So we put him back over the wire.
"He came back again and this time in broken English he offered me a little girl. Not to save her. He wanted me to take the girl in payment to save him.
"My 2IC and I grabbed the bloke and dragged him over the wire to the shoulder of the hill. There was a road just below us and rightly or wrongly it was my call. We dropped him over the edge down to the road as we had had a gutful by that stage and the business with the little girl. It was the straw that broke the camel's back.
"He got up and looked back at us. About half a dozen RPA soldiers appeared, grabbed the bloke and dragged him off down the road. All the time he never broke eye contact with me. They moved off in the darkness and we lost sight of him.
"We turned to walk away and a single shot barked out. We looked back at the road to see the same RPA soldiers walking back past us laughing and waving to us."
He said it was a decision that has haunted him ever since.
"Maybe I could have done something to save the bloke. I don't know. You think of these things all the time. It doesn't get any easier."
O'Halloran also carries an image that won't disappear. It is of a mother with a child strapped to her back, a little girl and a little boy at her feet. All dead.
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.
Some estimate that up to 8000 could have been killed at the camp. The Rwandan Government's estimate of the number killed was about 300.
Most Australian soldiers there during the rampage later agreed that they would have died at the hands of the RPA soldiers had they tried to stop the killings. The RPA heavily outnumbered and outgunned the Australians.
O'Halloran said the Australians who saw the Kibeho savagery were brave, steadfast and courageous.
"They were determined to save as many lives as they could with the limited mandate and inadequate equipment. They achieved this while under fire.
"Members of the RPA tried to goad them into taking offensive action. But the Australian officers remained cool, calm and collected under difficult conditions.
"One of the greatest achievements was the incalculable number of lives saved by the sheer presence of the Australian soldiers. I truly believe our service should be remembered as as a success against the odds."
He said the Australian military tradition was "long, glorious and, for the most part, honourable".
"However our encounter at Kibeho and the murder of so many in front of us seemed anything but honourable for the men and women who served there," he said. "Our hands were tied."
Four Australians were awarded the Medal for Gallantry for their distinguished service at Kibeho, the first gallantry medals awarded to Australians since the Vietnam War.
When the story of Kibeho first broke, the world was appalled. The UN announced an investigation, but the results were indecisive.
Kevin O'Halloran said it took him 10 years to finish his book on the events at Kibeho.
"I thought there was no book on the market that told the story from the soldiers' point of view. I wanted to give those veterans a voice."
O'Halloran said he hoped the world had learned a lesson from Kibeho. Such a thing would probably not happen again.
Jake Blake is not sure.
"I don't think they learned anything," he said.
"Yes, it could happen again.