“The killing just went on and on right in front of us. None were spared, not even the babies on their mother’s backs.”
It’s been 20 years since Terry Pickard witnessed the Kibeho massacre in Rwanda. It is, to this day, something that affects his life.
“At least twice a week I have nightmares which wake me up,” he writes in his book Combat Medic. “I get the occasional flashback but try and remove myself from anything that might cause them. I don’t go to the butcher or the dump on a hot day.”
The story of the genocide in 1994 is widely known. It’s estimated at least 800,000 Rwandans were killed in “100 days of madness” – the most efficient, high-speed, low-tech mass killing the world had ever seen. But the massacre at Kibeho the following year is a part of Australia’s military history that is not common knowledge.
About 600 men and women from the Australian Medical Corps were part of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR 2). The team was backed up by a rifle company and logistics. When Sergeant Kevin O’Halloran arrived in Rwanda as part of the second contingent in February 1995, the African nation was still raw.
The genocide had seen the country drawn down two lines: Hutu and Tutsi. And by 1995, the new ruling power, the Tutsi-based Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), was closing down the refugee camps like Kibeho which had become home to displaced Hutus. Among them were Hutu militia who feared reprisal for their crimes if they went back to their own villages. The rest feared they’d be mistaken for militia and therefore refused to leave through the RPA (the military wing of the RPF) checkpoints, where people were frequently marched off and shot. It was also in the militia’s best interest to keep people around them so they wouldn’t be recognised, so the refugees were being threatened by both sides.
When O’Halloran left Kibeho on April 18, he said “there was tension in the air”, but he could never have foreseen things would end so badly.
“I could see it was escalating, but I didn’t think it would go that far, even knowing how much they (the Hutu militia and the Tutsi RPA) hated each other at the time,” O’Halloran says.
Paul Jordan, a 29-year-old corporal with the SAS at the time, says when he arrived at the camp on April 19, it was eerily quiet.
“We thought everyone had left, that we’d missed it. Then we rounded a corner and about 120,000 people were jammed in like animals with a ring of Rwandan Patriotic Army soldiers checking documents as people left.”
Jordan says “it was all very boring”, so they went looking for injured people they could take back to the hospital in their ambulance.
Then, on April 22, 32 Australians witnessed a horror few can even imagine. Desperate to close down the camp, the RPF had opened fire. Over the course of the day, the Australians watched on, hands tied by the UN’s peacekeeping mandate, as the RPF unleashed machine gun fire and rocket propelled grenades on the captive refugees. All they could do was treat the injured.
“We saw about 100 people who had either been shot or macheted, or both,” says Jordan. “Their wounds were horrific and there was blood everywhere. One woman had been cleaved with a machete right through her nose down to her upper jaw. She sat silently and simply stared at us.”
Official numbers say just 300-odd people were killed in Kibeho, but Australian personnel counted at least 4000, some say 8000.
Terry Pickard says he felt helpless as he knelt behind a sandbag wall and watched people being slaughtered. “We could see hundreds and hundreds of dead bodies littering the ground,” he says. “We could hear the injured crying out in pain. But there was nothing more we could do that day to help these people.”
Artist and filmmaker George Gittoes had gone to Rwanda on the first anniversary of the country’s genocide. He said Aussie soldiers told him to go to Kibeho as the atmosphere there was tense and he might be needed to document war crimes.
Within 24 hours, he was doing just that.
“I filmed the RPA firing mortars and machine guns into crowds of civilians trying to flee,” he said. “I have no doubt there were many more thousands of people killed than the official number. We did not expect to live through it either. No one thought we’d survive.”
But in the face of horror, Gittoes, who was 45 at the time, said he witnessed some incredible acts of courage by Australian soldiers.
Gittoes’ best-known image from Rwanda is of SAS medic Trooper Jon Church carrying an injured young victim who needed treatment.
Gittoes was with Church (who was killed in the 1996 Black Hawk training accident in Townsville) when he went out on a mission to count the dead. Instead, the pair ended up collecting babies whose parents had been killed in the massacre.
They were threatened by the RPF, who Gittoes says “pointed a gun at Jon’s head and said ‘if you pick up one more baby, we will kill you’.”
A while later when they went to leave the camp, Gittoes noticed Church was quiet, sweating and very anxious.
“Once we got out he showed me he’d put a baby in his medical bag, he was worried it would suffocate,” he says. “I’ll never forget the look on his face when he opened that bag and a beautiful, chubby, Rwandan baby started crying.”
He says Captain Carol Vaughan-Evans – a doctor who was later, along with three others, awarded the Medal for Gallantry for her work in Rwanda – showed “great acts of courage”.
Gittoes has travelled to many war zones as an artist, film maker and photographer, including Somalia, Afghanistan, Palestine and Nicaragua. He says the Aussies in Kibeho during the massacre “risked their lives every minute”.
“Everyone paid a huge price psychologically,” he says. “Even talking about it now, 20 years later, it’s hard.”
Paul Jordan says the real Aussie heroes of the day were the infantry men who formed a line around their clinic to protect everyone inside.
“They were just young guys, some of them only 18, and they were doing something way out of their comfort zone,” Jordan says. “They held that line steadfast. Then they were helping carrying bodies, stretchering the injured, holding people’s hands. They were the true heroes.”
It was a few days after the massacre that Geoff Reeves arrived in Kibeho. He has since served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but says nothing compares to Rwanda.
“I learnt in Rwanda that life is very cheap,” he says. “The first day we pulled out of the barracks in Kigali, about 100m up the road there was a dead body with dogs eating it, and people were just walking past like it was nothing. That is the brutality of Rwanda.”
The 24-year-old, a corporal in preventative medicine at the time, was sent to Rwanda for his expertise in preventative medicine. He was to offer advice on health and hygiene, water testing, and vector control.
“After Kibeho, I spent five days picking up bodies and putting them in to a big hole,” he says.
Sometimes the bodies were not always easy to retrieve. Reeves says he was once lowered 10ft into a pit latrine to bring up the bodies of four people who had hidden in there as RPF gunfire rained down on the camp.
“The ground in there was moving with a million maggots,” he says. “We decided (getting them out) was something that needed to be done. They needed a more dignified burial, not to be left in a sh** pit. They deserved more respect than that.”
Despite the worst of it being over, Reeves and those there in the days following the massacre still helped treat people with horrific wounds and witnessed many deaths.
One injured man he helped stretcher out was grabbed by the RPF on the way to the hospital. “They took him off about 50m and then shot him in front of us.”
Of the 600 Australian peacekeepers who served in Rwanda, many have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. Some have ended up in psych wards. A lot have left the Army. Terry Pickard has done all three.
“I’ve heard of blokes who were ashamed to march on Anzac Day because they didn’t think they were good enough,” he says. “Peacekeeping missions often don’t get a mention, but we did do something.”
Pickard says he wore his Army medals to an Anzac Day ceremony a couple of years after being discharged. A Vietnam veteran described them as being “plastic’’.
“He said: ‘They’re not real’,’’ Pickard says. “It devastated me because he would have no idea. Peacekeeping isn’t necessarily a bloody holiday.’’
Reeves also gets a similar reception when he dons his medals from Rwanda.
“We weren’t looked on as real veterans because it was a peacekeeping mission and no shots had been fired in anger,” he says.
Reeves is one of seemingly few whose military career has endured to now. He is now a sergeant with the armed regiment based in Darwin. Pickard was medically discharged after 19 years of service and now lives in Brisbane. Jordan left the military shortly after Rwanda. He is now based in Sydney and works for a security firm on high-risk jobs in places like Afghanistan and Syria.
O’Halloran, who had spent more than 30 years in the Australian Army, discharged in 2011 and has found solace in his new profession as an occupational health and safety officer for the mining industry in Perth.
“Helping people is a good way of healing,” he says.
“Once you’ve had an experience like Rwanda, you appreciate life a lot more. When you’ve seen the bad side, everything else is a bonus.”
For further reading on Australia’s contributions in Rwanda and the Kibeho massacre, see Pure Massacre by Kevin O’Halloran; Combat Medic by Terry Pickard, and The Easy Day was Yesterday by Paul Jordan.
Originally published as ‘The killing just went on and on’