The morning after Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down near Kigali, the Congolese man who tended the garden outside Rachel Kiddell-Monroe’s office offered a stark assessment of the situation.
“Ça a commencé, Rachel. Ça a commencé,” he said. When she asked the young man what he meant, he explained: “The plane has gone down and the genocide is going to start.”
For Ms. Kiddell-Monroe, then a 29-year-old humanitarian worker with Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders), those words marked the beginning of two months on the periphery of one of the worst massacres in modern history. Working out of the organization’s office in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ms. Kiddell-Monroe spent weeks scouring the countryside for refugees, aiding those who managed to escape and watching in horror when bodies began floating into the city’s port.
After the Rwandan president’s plane was shot down, the country’s presidential guard and Interahamwe militias began a rampage in Kigali, seeking out ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus in a violent campaign that quickly extended to other parts of the country. The genocide lasted more than two months and resulted in an estimated 800,000 deaths.
As the extent of the tragedy became more clear, it challenged the sensibilities of an international community that had embraced the idea that “never again” would the world stand by as mass atrocities are committed. Those who were in Rwanda at the time had pleaded for assistance but global leaders were slow to recognize that a genocide was taking place.
“When I reflect back on it, I suppose it’s normal,” Ms. Kiddell-Monroe said in a recent telephone interview from her Montreal home. “You cannot imagine something turning into a genocide. You cannot imagine that people would be capable of such evil.”
Shortly after the violence began, Ms. Kiddell-Monroe said she came across three little boys sitting on the side of the road in the DRC, near the Rwandan border. The eldest had big gashes across his head, and the youngest – a baby – had one arm that had nearly been hacked off. MSF staff offered help, but the baby died in his brother’s arms.
Many MSF staff who were already in Rwanda stayed throughout the genocide, and hundreds of local staff were killed, Ms. Kiddell-Monroe said. For those watching from outside Rwanda’s borders, the guilt could be overwhelming.
“You feel like a voyeur in a sense,” Ms. Kiddell-Monroe said. “You’re standing on the edge, watching, and you’re absolutely unable to do anything. And I think I still live with that guilt: What could we have done, should we have done more?”
She returned to the region to work in Rwanda shortly after the genocide, in an effort to improve the country’s decimated health services. Later, she spent time with MSF in Latin America and became an active campaigner on improving access to medicine for those in developing countries.
In March Ms. Kiddell-Monroe ventured back to Rwanda and the DRC to see for herself how the region had changed in the nearly two decades since she had left. When she arrived, she said she found a country that had clearly made remarkable strides in the years since the genocide. But Ms. Kiddell-Monroe said she was saddened by her visit to Rwanda’s neighbour, the DRC, where another humanitarian disaster continues to unfold.
“The contrast for me was absolutely heartbreaking,” she said. “You saw this country, Rwanda, which had been through hell, but you know in 20 years had transformed itself back into a country that was actually better than it was before. And you cross the border, and you enter into North Kivu [in the DRC], and it’s a complete mess.”
Ms. Kiddell-Monroe said she hopes those reflecting on the Rwandan genocide this week will think about contemporary humanitarian crises in other parts of the world, including the Central African Republic and the DRC. She said her time in the DRC and Rwanda had a significant impact on the rest of her work and helped reaffirm a conviction about the need for organizations with staff who are willing to stay and try to help when violent conflict breaks out.
“While the world was looking the other way, there were just a few of us who were there, who were saying ‘You’ve got to look at this, you’ve got to see what’s going on. You cannot turn away from this.’ ”