Redefining peacekeeping

As it used to be (and still is, in some places?), peacekeeping could not impress anybody in Rwanda, in my opinion. With it, Rwandans saw the meaning of shame and will never be identified with it.
 Pan Butamire
Pan Butamire

As it used to be (and still is, in some places?), peacekeeping could not impress anybody in Rwanda, in my opinion. With it, Rwandans saw the meaning of shame and will never be identified with it.

When UN peacekeepers had their stint in Rwanda in the early 1990s, except a wee few courageous individuals who, at their personal initiative, saved lives – some of who lost their own, God bless their souls – they did not give Rwandans any reason for fond memories.

If anything, they left memories of distress, derision, rage and rancour. In instances where their intervention was most critically needed, where death of innocents was looming, their reaction was at best comical, at worst embarrassingly heartless.

Take the case in a technical school, in Kigali. Thousands of cowed Rwandans were holed up there in 1994, having run to peacekeepers camped there for protection. All around the fence, a militia of uncountable maniacal murderers hungrily waited, their crude killing implements dripping blood from killings elsewhere.

Then, inexplicably, an order came for the peacekeepers to evacuate and they left their charges high and dry. As they set off, they watched as the killers burst over the fence and set upon their victims with clubs, machetes, axes, stones, any killer tool at hand.

Even as screams rang in their ears, the peacekeepers headed for the airport: not a shot to scare the killers away; not an odd gun left behind for the hapless victims.

To this day, the (sole?) survivor who tearfully recounts this incident is nursing the stump of a lost arm and a nail-studded-knobkerrie-machete battered body. Listening to this disgrace – leave alone reliving it – is heart-rending. Similar examples in areas all over the country are legion, none any less agonising.

Rwandan soldiers, wherever they can, and for as long as they can, will never allow such infamy to be visited on any innocent individual/group of individuals.

Whoever attempts to comment on peacekeeping as practiced by Rwanda Defences Forces (RDF) should never forget this hell they came from. 

Rwanda today is a product of the disgrace of her history and so is RDF. Wherever RDF volunteer to keep the peace, their own peace is secondary. First and foremost, the victim in the conflict must be protected.

That’s why it should not surprise anybody that Rwandan peacekeepers in the Central African Republic (CAR) appear to be acting the daredevil. 

Last Sunday, February 16, as RDF’s Rwanda Mechanised Infantry Battalion forces (RwaMechBatt1) were on the 700-km road to the Cameroon border, escorting a humanitarian convoy through a marauding mixture of fighters, when they came under attack. But where other peacekeepers try to keep out of harm’s way, RDF plunged into the thick of it. 

The Anti-Balaka marauding murderers must have regretted their adventurous folly after suffering seven losses, even if they killed three  innocent civilians. At the end of the encounter, more than 2000 Muslims were rescued.

Wherever they are, RDF soldiers are with any defenceless person, anybody vulnerable, to the hilt. The person may be Muslim, Christian, black, white, whatever.

In Rwanda, we know this. Whether they are joining the monthly umuganda; building houses for vulnerable families; providing community health services; constructing classrooms; handling emergencies; saving a life in any way, RDF are in their element.

We remember helicopter evacuations of accident victims inside Rwanda, in Uganda, in Tanzania; the market fire in Burundi. The soldiers are imbedded in the populace: in CAR, Darfur, South Sudan or Haiti – and wherever next.

And so when the CAR capital and surrounding areas were faced with hunger last January, they answered the call and opened up the humanitarian and commercial corridor that connects Bangui to the Cameroonian seaport of Duala. In Bangui, it’s their duty to put a stop to looting; lynching; any case of lawlessness. 

Some non-Africans may have milked cheap popularity out of the corridor incident, as reports have it, but to think that RDF is in this life-and-death business for the money and fame is to insult Rwandans in the extreme. It ignores the painful reality of our brothers and sisters, daughters and sons that we receive home, legs first. 

As a young compatriot observes, nobody should engage in some academic merry-go-round about “prestigious achievement”, “celebrity status” or “war tales” going to RDF’s head.

But the compatriot should also disabuse himself of these beliefs of anyone standing “a slim chance of taking the reigns” [sic] because of the place the army holds in this country. In Rwanda, the army is the people. And the people, the army.

All in all, methinks to RDF, peacekeeping is about giving the victimised peace, and keeping it – for eventual transfer. The forces have no time for amusement parks. 

Their overriding calling is to restore people’s dignity and self-worth. For having suffered the disgrace they did, Rwandans could not but redefine peacekeeping as we knew it. 

They are welcome, who followed suit (Remember FIB – The fib?)

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