Thoughts from the spouse of an Australian Soldier/UNAMIR Peacekeeper and how the Rwandan Genocide continues to shape the lives of those who were involved.
It is very hard for some Peacekeepers to discuss or think about Rwanda, so as I write this I am aware of the need to warn people of potential triggers contained in the following missive.
A comment I heard from a veteran recently was that “Rwanda is being forgotten to Australian Defence history” so this is written on the 25th Anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide with the intent that more people will understand what occurred and how it is still affecting those who were sent to in to help. We also offer condolences to the “defenceless” Rwandan people who endured such atrocities and hope that nothing like this ever happens again.
25 years ago, my husband was Lance Corporal David Hopgood, a very young infantry soldier on his first overseas deployment. He is now MAJ David Hopgood and in his 30th year in the Australian Defence Force. A Veteran of (Rwanda) Africa, East Timor and Afghanistan, but Rwanda will always be the deployment that changed he and his mates forever. Each individual would have had a different experience within the same contingent. Many of the stories are depressingly sad, some have glimpses of happiness from being able to help someone and at the same time, many stories are infuriating. I cannot talk for his mates and others who experienced similar events, everyone has their own story. This is David’s.
Pre-Rwanda David says he was full of youthful exuberance and excitement of what he and his mates were in Africa to do. It gave him a sense of purpose – to help others and keep the peace in a country facing challenges. They were Peacekeepers. They were young men and women having a chance to put into action what their training had prepared them for – or so they thought. The Australians didn’t know just how tested their sense of purpose would become.
The Rwandan Genocide was considered the result of a civil war between the Hutus and the Tutsis. In 1994 Rwanda’s President was killed when his plane was shot down. Hutu extremists gained control of the government and started a genocide that would brutally murder up to 800,000 people over 100 days.
The UN (UNAMIR – United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda) aimed to stabilise the situation. The Australian contingent was a part of UNAMIRII, it had members ranging from Medics to RAAF, RAN and Army. In addition, there was an Infantry group from 2/4 RAR and a Logistics Support Company. They were all based at Kigali Hospital which was partially destroyed from previous fighting. The primary role of the Australian contingent was to provide medical support to the UN with any spare capacity to be used on the Rwandan people. The horrific scenes those in the first contingent were confronted with was considered the worst of the mass genocide of innocent Rwandans. The second contingent took over in February 1995.
David was in a group of 32 Australian soldiers and medics who were sent to the Kibeho refugee camp. They were to assist the refugees as their situation was dire. They had very little food or water. The Hutus who had previously taken part in the genocide were hiding in the camps and they were being sought out by the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA).
In April 1995, the RPA was searching for the Hutus in the Kibeho camp and decided to clear the crowded camps of more than 100,000 people in order to get them. When we read about “clearing” the camps it actually refers to murder or maiming by machete or shooting aimlessly into the crowd. Anyone who was in the way would perish – women, men, the elderly and even defenceless children. No one was safe.
The Australian troops were barred from using weapons or other types of force by the original rules of engagement in the UN mandate. They were not allowed to intervene. They were the minority. All they could do was to walk out into the compound and sift through the mounds of bodies trying to find someone to save and take them back to the medics who would do their best to save one life at a time. This is the aspect of the deployment that no one could prepare for.
David talks about having his finger on the trigger and being so close to shooting, but knowing if he did – he and his mates would all be dead. They were being goaded into action. The RPA tried to get the Australian soldiers to shoot. This was done by mercilessly maiming or murdering some defenceless person less than a metre away. Some of the wounds that were inflicted with a machete on defenceless people were solely to maim – a deep machete wound to the head, hands cut off, pregnant women and children murdered. They were not just massacred but left to die a slow death. Pure agony. These were scenes from a horror movie and one that replays over and over again for those who witnessed it.
If the Aussie guys were the first to shoot, the RPA would be free to kill them without retribution. David often thinks of his son who was only one at the time and he, like all who were there, were severely affected by the murder of young children. I think this is the part that destroys the soul so much. They were there to help, they were there to keep the peace and yet they were defenceless against the RPA and could only help the minority. This is the infuriating situation that will haunt soldiers, medics and anyone else who felt the futility of the situation.
David kept a diary from Rwanda that he wrote in every day during this deployment. He still has this diary and it is only today that he brings it out to explain to me in his own words from 25 years ago. He is keen for his journal entry from 23rd April 1995 to be shared in the hope that it will help him and maybe help others to explain what occurred. One day there won’t be anyone left to talk about it – either because they can’t or because they won’t.
23rd April 1995
“0400 wake up. We are going out to the Kibeho Camp (pronounced KI-BAY-HO). There was a lot of shooting last night. As soon as we got there a lot of the DP’s (displaced persons) had gone. We got off the trucks and had a look and couldn’t believe our eyes! There was dead and wounded everywhere. The first I saw was a man lying near a bunker and he had been shot in the leg and his head had been machete. His brains were all over the ground. I didn’t feel sick but it was a feeling I couldn’t describe. We assessed the situation and were given tasks. I and a few others were told to go through the crowd and count the dead and wounded. We had to do approximate count, it was impossible to get exact counts. The smell was unbearable. There was “shit and piss” everywhere. I could not believe the sight I saw. After a while it was OK until we saw an area of approx. 4,000-5,000 dead people. I never thought I would ever see this shit. It started to get to me when I saw babies and children dead. They had been trampled, shot and cut up. For some reason, I kept thinking of Benjamin and about how lucky we are. The RPA are just a pack of murdering bastards. It would not worry me at all if I shot them. It ended up an approx. count of 5,000-6,000 dead but there was a lot more. I would say more like 25,000-30,000 were killed. We got tasked to stretcher the wounded out to the medics and I would have seen every wound possible. There was gunshot wounds, machete wounds and broken bones. The Zambians were digging holes and burying the dead and the RPA were clearing a lot so the media couldn’t see. They wouldn’t allow us in some areas to help people and that just pissed us off. A lot of DP’s went running off and the RPA just cut them down. They used the machine guns, grenades and we couldn’t do much because of UN law. A DP came running up to me and a mate. The RPA came across and stopped him, this was only about 20 feet from me. I said to my mate they would probably take him away and kill him. But, then the RPA soldier put 3 rounds into him right in front of me. I was about to bring up my weapon and shoot and realised there was too many RPA. It was unbelievable, my adrenalin was pumping and the DP was dying. We called for the medics but he bled to death in 5 mins. The RPA were just killing all day and we couldn’t do a thing. We picked up wounded all day until 1500 and we had to go. The blokes and I handled it OK but I guess time will tell if it affects us. It has made me realise how lucky we are. Today has been an unbelievable experience and I hope it doesn’t ever happen again”.
23.4.1995. Diary notation. LCPL D Hopgood
The repercussions for these Peacekeepers 25 years later is compounded by the tragedy that they were not prepared on how to deal with the mass murder of defenceless men, women and children. The frustrations from their hands being tied by the UN Mandate and not being able to intervene. To intervene meant that every Australian soldier may not have returned to their families. Furthermore, in my opinion, they were not trained on how to return home to their families as if nothing had occurred.
A few, like David, have remained in the Australian Defence Force for varying reasons. I feel that he has buried his memories of Rwanda so deep that they will only ever rise to the surface on ANZAC Day, when he is with his mates. The guys have a couple of cold beers and they feel safe amongst themselves to talk about their shared experiences of this time. I know it is therapeutic to catch up with his mates, but it is sad that he has felt in the past that it is the only time he can ever talk about it. He feels such feelings of disappointment, frustration, anger, regret and sadness. Those are feelings you cannot lock away.
Every year ANZAC Day gets harder and harder. The worst was when we were posted to Brisbane and a very young Afghanistan soldier looked at David’s medals and asked what the one depicting his Rwanda service was for. He was ridiculed by it being a “peacekeeping” medal and the young soldier told him he needed to experience what a “real war” was like. Maybe it was the alcohol talking, maybe it was that he was newly returned from the Middle East – who knows? But, I know as a wife how much this conversation will always remain with David. He doesn’t allow himself to reflect back on Rwanda often, but when he does he is wishing he could’ve done more or saved more people. This is heartbreaking and only adds to the self-loathing and feelings of failure that he endures.
After returning from Afghanistan in 2010, David started to relive Rwanda. Being in a warlike situation must have opened up the feelings he had suppressed for many years. He decided he wanted to leave the Army, he needed a break. But, surprisingly what actually transpired was a short stint on a reality cooking show. It was an eye-opening experience for him and a chance to have that break he needed from the Army. But, afterwards it made him realise that he wanted to remain in the Army and to stay with what he knows.
David had made contact with General Romeo Dallaire, who was the Canadian General who led the UN in Rwanda from 1993. Dallaire warned David that being in the public spotlight could put even more pressure on someone who had been involved in a traumatic experience. But, David wanted to use whatever spotlight he had to promote the plight of veterans and PTSD. He became a volunteer for Soldier On and together we worked hard in our spare time outside of work to raise awareness. This in itself became an incredibly hard task, sometimes gaining negativity from others wondering why he chose one charity over others? We came to realise that a cookbook is not going to help those with PTSD and what we had hoped would be such a positive thing to do, slowly lost traction and he once again he threw himself into his career and put the past and Rwanda back where he thought it belonged. I’m proud that he is still in the Army and loving it. I’d be equally as proud if he decided that he wanted to pursue another direction.
This ANZAC Day whilst the Rwanda Genocide Anniversary is in the forefront of everyone’s mind, please take the time to reflect on the feelings of our Australian Peacekeepers. Don’t belittle their experience because it has the label of “peacekeeping” because if you were to ask a veteran about it, I’m sure they would want to explain what happened, but probably can’t. But just know, the Rwandan Peacekeeping Mission – was anything but peaceful.
In 1995, the Oklahoma bombing occurred and in the mainstream media the story was everywhere, but at the same time the Rwandan Genocide was occurring and no one knew.
Our aim of writing this and asking you to share is so that it will pay respects to the Rwandan people and also to all of those Peacekeepers and their families who are still affected.
Never to be hidden from the newsfeed again.
- Cath Hopgood, written April 2019.