In 1994, ethnic tensions in Rwanda erupted into violence across the country as members of Rwanda’s majority Hutu ethnic group began murdering members of the country’s other main ethnic group, the Tutsi. Around half a million people died.
An Australian Defence Force contingent was dispatched to provide medical support to the UN Assistance Mission. There were two Australian deployments to Rwanda as part of Operation Tamar. The first ran from August 1994 to February 1995 and the second from February until August 1995.
The Australian Medical Support Force set up in the capital Kigali. Australian infantrymen provided security for the medical team while engineers worked to restore war-damaged medical facilities that allowed the Australian contingent to operate within a workable environment. Although tasked with supporting UN personnel, high levels of medical assistance were provided to the civilian population, including complex surgeries.
On Saturday, 22 February, representatives from the Australian Defence Force, the United Nations and other peacekeeping bodies commemorated the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda. A wreath-laying ceremony took place at the Australian Peacekeeping Memorial on Anzac Parade, followed by an official reception in Anzac Hall at the Australian War Memorial Canberra.
The 25th-anniversary commemoration coincided with the awarding of the Meritorious Unit Citation, recognising the sustained and outstanding service of those involved. Two hundred veterans of Operation TAMAR were present with another 500 present in support.
Vice President of the Australian Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veterans’ Association Ian Lindgren says the humanitarian crisis in Rwanda is remembered for its violence.
“Operation Tamar marks a time in our nations’ history when peacekeeping moved from large-scale conventional conflicts such as Korea to smaller groups operating under a UN mandate working with a humanitarian purpose. This was one where the world looked on in horror, when unspeakable atrocities were committed,” Mr Lindgren said.
Mr Lindgren served in the Australian Army for 21 years, and is now the Executive Chairman of PayMe Group based in Canberra. He said the overall UN operation had a protection force numbering about 700 people or so, but under the rules of engagement, members were unable to use their weapons.
“The medical unit and protection forces were witness to the genocide but because of the rules of engagement they could not intervene. That made it a dangerous mission,” Mr Lindgren said.
Members of the Navy, Army and Air Force were joined by members of the AFP and NGOs for the mission. All were represented at the ceremony.
“This commemoration has bought back some painful memories for these veterans. It was shocking to see something like this up close. The Kibeho massacre was a real test of the Australian contingent. Hundreds of people were massacred in front of them. They risked their lives to rescue people,” Lindgren said.
In April 1995, a detachment of the Australian support force was dispatched to the town of Kibeho, about 150 km south-west of Kigali. Kibeho was home to approximately 150,000 displaced persons whom the new government wanted to move on.
The Australians had arrived in the midst of a rapidly deteriorating situation.
Between 18 and 22 April 1995, members of the Rwandan Patriotic Army began to kill people indiscriminately. Unable to intervene, the Australians had to concentrate on their work despite the slaughter unfolding around them. The team were able to treat many injured people.
RAAF veteran Lucy Wong attended the ceremony on Saturday and said the 25th Anniversary commemoration was important to many of those who served in Rwanda. Ms Wong worked in medical administration for the tri-service hospital during her deployment. She said many of the veterans are still injured and suffering to this day: “Even after 25 years it is still there. At the service, you could see everybody’s support person was close by.”
Ms Wong said she appreciated that the ceremony and service recognised all three services – Army, Navy and Air Force.
“This was the largest RAAF contingent ever sent and we had the largest proportion of women there. It was good to see that recognised. Everybody’s experience of peacekeeping is different and all are just as important,” Ms Wong said.
To learn more about Australia’s peacekeeping operations, and support for veterans, visit the Australian Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veterans’ Association.
When ethnic tensions in Rwanda turned violent in 1994, a large contingent of Australian service men and women were…