Remembering the Kibeho Massacre
On 22 April 1995, Private Wayne Jones of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (2RAR), was one of a small group of Australians in south-west Rwanda who were witnesses to a massacre. The Australian peacekeepers, along with a Zambian infantry company, could do little to stop the carnage as troops from the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), recently victorious in a fierce civil war, attempted to clear thousands of their own countrymen from an overcrowded internally displaced persons camp at Kibeho. The RPA attacked the massed civilians with any weapons available - machete, assault rifle, mortar and grenade – killing an estimated 4,000 men, women and children. Jones described how “we watched the RPA kill thousands of [people] and witnessed many murders of unarmed women and children. [The RPA] seemed to be enjoying it.”
Private Andrew Zimmerman, who also witnessed the massacre, later recalled the unimaginable carnage he witnessed after the killing came to an end.
“I couldn’t believe they could do this to their own people. The RPA seemed to show no remorse for that they did, but I noticed as we were walking around the dead [the next day] that they would not look you in the eye when you stared them out.”
Jones and Zimmerman were among the 652 Australian military personnel to serve in Operation Tamar, the Australian peacekeeping operation in Rwanda in 1994–95. The Australians, who served in two rotations, were deployed to Rwanda in the aftermath of the brutal genocide of April and May 1994, when an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered in the space of just three months. The genocide, caused by bitter ethnic tensions and sparked by the outbreak of civil war, was perpetrated by Hutu extremists against Rwanda’s Tutsi and moderate Hutu populations.
The widespread killing only came to an end when the Tutsi-dominated RPA emerged victorious over the Hutu dominated government; but this victory was followed by months of civil strife and chaos that so often comes in the aftermath of brutal conflict.
Kibeho was the site of one of the largest internally displaced persons camps in Rwanda, and by April some 50,000 people were crowded into its squalid conditions. Many of the internally displaced persons – refugees in their own country - were Hutu civilians fleeing by the civil war. Others in the camp, however, were suspected to be members of the Interahamwe, the militias responsible for the genocide of the previous year.
When the RPA decided that it was time for the internally displaced people to return to their home villages, its methods were undoubtedly driven in large part by a desire for revenge. In the days leading up to the massacre, the refugees were subject to physical violence and summary execution, and the RPA would herd the increasingly starving and desperate masses by shooting into the air, often causing deadly stampedes.
The 32 Australians present on the day of the massacre (medical and evacuation sections, two infantry sections and a command post) had been at Kibeho since 19 April. They could do little to stop the slaughter. Them and their Zambian comrades were vastly outnumbered by RPA troops. The Australians knew that attempting to stop the slaughter would likely result in their own deaths, and they also knew that firing on the RPA would likely lead to civilians being caught in the crossfire. Most of all, many veterans comment on the frustration of their strict rules of engagement, which prevented them from firing until they detected hostile intent towards UN forces from the RPA.
Unable to stop the killing, they could at least try to help as many as they could. Australian personnel treated and evacuated the wounded; others selflessly exposed themselves to fire as they rushed out to help those in need.
Sergeant Kevin O’Halloran, an infantryman who was present, later wrote of the actions there: “Fear is infectious. But what I did not realise until Kibeho was that courage is infectious in the same way.” Four Australians present at the Kibeho Massacre were awarded the Medal for Gallantry. In February 2020, all Australians who served in Rwanda were presented with the Meritorious Unit Citation for their “courage, discipline and compassion throughout their deployment” at a ceremony on Anzac Parade, Canberra.