Rwanda Defense Forces’ (RDF) Maj. Gen. Emmanuel Karenzi Karake was in July 2007 named as Deputy Force Commander of the hybrid UN-AU under the United Nations African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID).
UNAMID’s primary mission was to support the implementation of the Darfur Peace Agreement, as well as to protect its personnel and civilians.
At full strength, UNAMID which had about 20,000 troops, 6,000 police and a significant civilian component, is actually one of the largest UN peacekeeping operations in history.
Having completed his term as Deputy Force Commander, that ended in May 2009, The New Times’ Fred Oluoch-Ojiwah interviewed Maj. Gen. Karenzi Karake on a wide range of issues on how the mission was undertaken. Excerpts.
TNT: Maj. Gen. Karenzi how would you rate RDF’s contribution in containing the Darfur crisis?
KK: The RDF’s contribution is outstanding. The RDF was able to bring its expertise and experience gained over the years to bear on the situation on the ground in Darfur.
It was also able to quickly, efficiently and effectively integrate into the multinational force in Darfur. This is because the RDF as a military force has a unique background.
It has been tested before in dealing with conflicts. It has fought and won wars; and has of course been part of post- conflict reconstruction processes before.
That is one of the primary reasons why it was called to assist. Such a background made it possible for the RDF to quickly cope with the mission challenges in Darfur.
TNT: What expertise did the RDF contribute to the mission?
KK: The RDF is not just a ‘textbook’ military force. It is a force both with field experience, gained over the years, gathered in different conflict settings and theatres of operations and a professional force that has had conventional military training.
It is this mix that gave the RDF strategic and tactical strengths to deal with the conflict situation in Darfur in an impressive manner.
TNT: Arguably, the RDF has received praise for its contribution in the Darfur crisis. In this regard what is it about the RDF that is so special?
KK: Various attributes earned the RDF the praise you are talking about. In particular it displayed a high level of selflessness, discipline, commitment and resilience in the face of the Darfur hardships.
TNT: The Darfur crisis is still going on. Wide scale humanitarian crimes like killing of civilians and rape continue to happen. What is the peace keeping mission doing to stop this?
KK: UNAMID is faced with lots of logistical and deployment challenges some of them not within its ability to resolve.
The mission has to an extent invested a lot of effort in a bid to stop the crimes. That said however, I personally think that it has taken much longer to get the men and materials into Darfur than it should have taken, given the priorities on the ground.
I really feel a lot more can be done.
TNT: How did Rwanda’s history and genocide serve as an experience for you in dealing with an almost similar situation?
KK: My experience with Rwanda’s history and indeed with other conflict situations elsewhere informed my role in Darfur.
To give a simple example, I was at every stage, aware of the fact that you needed to engage all stakeholders to the conflict if you are going to have a meaningful non-partisan role.
I also did not lose sight of the fact that to such a conflict there will always be spoilers as well as interests beyond what just meets the eye.
But I knew also that meaningful Peacekeeping is a venture that demands dedication and commitment.
TNT: What was the highest moment of your mission?
KK: I would judge these moments on the basis of what contributions I may have made not just to the force I commanded but also to the population we had set out to protect.
I do recall times when as the most senior military officer on the ground I had to make difficult choices.
There was that moment for instance when I was faced with a choice between complying with the warring parties’ demands that UNAMID abandons its military positions, within Southern Darfur that had become a fighting area, or risk taking fire as if it was one of the belligerents!
The Implications of military evacuation were abandoning the population that had taken refugee around the positions we had taken which was sandwiched between the warring forces.
They both ordered us to leave. In that situation I had to make a decision between leaving for the sake of saving the lives of my troops but at the expense of exposing the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to the parties’ fire or stay put at the risk of losing troops.
I took a calculated risk of holding the fort by keeping our positions and actually safeguarding the IDPs.
Thank God the ensuing exchange of fire did not adversely affect the IDPs. This was subsequently followed by discussions with the two warring parties for the creation of ‘no-fire’ zones that appeared to have ended fairly successfully.
That created not just confidence within the population but a sense of purpose in the presence of the force.
TNT. What about the lowest? A point when things went haywire.
KK: On this question I will mention two specific moments. The first low moment for me was when despite the amount of sacrifice I was making as a human being, as an RDF Officer and as a UN/AU officer serving in Darfur, I had to deal with the pressures and embarrassments caused by anti-Government forces and Genocide deniers, without necessarily receiving the support and neutrality my appointment ought to have attracted.
I felt that my well vetted, stringent, well screened appointment should have attracted some level of support from those that I represented in Darfur but this was not always the case.
Sometimes I got the impression that those I stood for had fallen prey to the propaganda of anti-government forces! It was the invaluable support of the Rwandan leadership that bailed me out of that very sad situation.
My second low moment during my mission happened when for lack of requisite and basic infrastructure in Darfur, and as a result of absence of enablers I was unable to reinforce or rescue a UNAMID patrol that had gotten caught up in an ambush over 100 kilometres from its headquarters.
Despite the patrol hitting back at the ambush vehemently, lack of critical equipment such as choppers made it impossible for us to provide critical mutual support.
I was left in a situation where all I could was communicate with the force from so far away. I was the most senior military officer on the ground then but I felt helpless! That for me was my second lowest moment in my mission.
TNT: Your successor at UNAMID Maj. Gen. Duma Mdutyana Dumisani of South Africa was quoted within media as saying that part of his priority would be to tackle UNAMID’s logistical and deployment challenges. How did you work around these challenges?
KK: Logistical and deployment challenges are indeed perhaps the most stressful obstacles in the mission. The only option out of that is to try to think out of the box and not necessarily to have things done the way they have always been done.
It is also about being ready to make sacrifices. It is not easy but it appears to be the only way out.
TNT: What is so complex about this conflict that makes it lag on for ever?
KK: This conflict has local, regional and international dimensions all of which have to be appropriately addressed if ever it has to be resolved.
Focusing on any one of such facets would mean missing the whole point and not comprehensively resolving the conflict and its root causes.
I do think that for far too long for example, the conflict has been labeled as one between Sudanese Africans and Arabs yet it is much more than that.
TNT: UNAMID lost up to 37 peacekeepers. How did this affect your mission?
KK: It is always sad to lose a colleague be it at the frontline or elsewhere. But we need to understand that peacekeeping is not tourism.
I therefore chose to consider the 37 lives lost as heroes of the mission and source of inspiration for the mission to work even harder.
For me and indeed for many in the mission the blood of the 37 colleagues strengthened our resolve to help the Darfurians resolve their problems even further.
TNT: You have just returned from your debrief at the AU and the UN Headquarters. How would you describe the debriefs?
KK: As far as I am concerned the debriefs were successful. It was an opportunity for me to understand better how the AU and the UN perceive the Darfur conflict as well as conflicts elsewhere even better.
It was also an opportunity to understand their understanding of the complexities of multi-national operations.
It was however also an opportunity for me to tell the AU and the UN authorities that I met, where I thought more could be done to help resolve the conflict and improve the performance of multi-national forces.
TNT: How do you want to use the experience gained during your AU-UN mission in Darfur?
KK: This was yet another learning curve in my life and career as a military officer and as a human being generally. The experience acquired will no doubt be useful to me as I embark on the next job.