frontline online: the triumph of evil
colonel luc marchal

He was second-in-command for U.N. Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) under General Dellaire. In this interview he talks about meeting an informant who outlined Hutu plans for mass killings. Marchal also explains why U.N. forces were unable to save the life of a Rwanda political leader and what are the lessons of Rwanda.

I think the international community is responsible for what happened in Rwanda. I will use the words of General Dallaire. He said, 'The whole international community has blood on his hands' And I feel the same.
Tell me about your meeting with the informant.

The 10th of January I met for the first time, Jon Pierre. Jon Pierre was a kind of leader in the MRND Party and played the role of a kind of leader of the [interahamwe] militia. His job, in fact, was to train the militia and yes, he was a real political leader from the militia, and he wanted to give UNAMIR some information. I met him in my own headquarters. It was at night. There was no electricity. It was with candlelight and those conditions were very strange for me because it gives me the impression to be an actor in a James Bond movie. But it was not a movie, it was not a picture, it was reality.

Jon Pierre told us that he had no objection to make war [with the] RPF people because RPF was the enemy ... but his mission was now to prepare the killings of civilian and Tutsi people... to make lists of Tutsi people, where they lived, to be able, at a certain code name, to kill them. Kigali City was divided in a certain number of areas, and ... each area was manned by, let's say, 10 or maybe more people. Some were armed with firearms, some with other kind of tools like machetes, and the mission of those persons was just to kill the Tutsis. Another aspect of his mission was to distribute weapons to the [interahamwe] militia, and so during this first meeting he told me that in the area of Kigali there were a lot of arms caches and some ... of the weapons, the firearms were in those caches.

How would you sum up what this man was telling you?

Jon Pierre gave me a very good and clear description about the interahamwe organization. He described the cells, the armaments, the training, and he told me that everybody was suspected ... and then the reaction will follow immediately, and the reaction was to kill a maximum of Tutsis. And each family, each house, was located in Kigali, so everything was being prepared ... And [based] on what Jon Pierre told me of the interahamwe organization, I felt the it was a real killing machine because the objective was very clear for everybody--kill, kill and kill.

Kill who?

... Just kill a maximum of people.

Meaning civilians?

Yes, of course, civilians, Tutsis, of course. Jon Pierre used the word Tutsi.... there was no specification about the person, just Tutsis must be killed.

Was this in your view a plan for genocide?

No. I never realized that it would [become] a genocide. But I realized that the possibility of killing was very, very clear. And at that time, I mean in January, I immediately realized that the possibility ... of the killing could result in 10,000 deaths, and that ... we must stay in Rwanda and not leave the country.

Why had he come to you?

Because he told me that ... [to] make war against RPF was, for him, not a problem, but to kill civilians ... he told me, "They are maybe Tutsis but they are also Rwanda citizens." It was a conscience problem for him.

He wanted you, the U.N., to react, to do something to prevent these killings?

Yes, this first meeting, he told me, "You know, for me, it's not a problem, I will testify before the media. I just ask security for me and my family."

So he was going to tell everything about this plan to kill people and just wanted some guarantee of his safety.

Yes. So, at that time, my problem was to be sure that Jon Pierre was credible. My first reaction was to report to General Dallaire, and because the information given by Jon Pierre was enormous and very important, General Dallaire ... [had] a very quick reaction, because the same night he sent a message to New York just to inform the DPKO.

The Department of Peacekeeping.

Yes, the Department of Peacekeeping Operation, about the contact I had with Jon Pierre.

Did you think this man was credible?

That was my problem during this first meeting, just to evaluate if he was credible. But he gave me some good arguments, for instance, that he was ready to tell the media what was going on. He didn't ask for money. But there was no certitude about his credibility. We got the certitude after, because we visited some locations with hidden weapons and so it was a fact that what he told us was a reality.

What was the reaction of the United Nations in New York to your plan?

New York didn't give us the authorization to go after the arms caches.

And your evaluation was that you should have done it... raid the arms caches.

That was my proposition to General Dallaire.

You wanted to do the military operation, but they wouldn't let you.

No, the answer from New York was very clear. We have no authority to seize or to attack the arms caches.

Had you ever come across anything like this in your military career before?

No, never. It was a very, very special situation and we were, in fact, not very well prepared to face such a situation, because don't forget our mission was a peace mission. General Dallaire requested more than 5,000 U.N. personnel on the ground to fulfill his mission, and just received 2,500 U.N. people, which was not enough to face such a situation.

You were sure he was telling the truth about the plan to kill so many civilians.

Yes, because the visit [took] place I think about 12th or 13th of January, so very soon after our first meeting and he told us, "You know, you must react very quickly because I received a directive to distribute those weapons, so if you want to seize them, do it quickly because within a few days the location will be empty."

He said they were going to move the weapons?

Yes, of course.

So you knew where the weapons were, and you knew you needed to act quickly. What did you do?

Nothing, because New York didn't give the authorization to start with the military operation to seize the arms caches. So after ... Jon Pierre told us ... that those weapons have been distributed to the militia, it was too late for us to react.

So as far as you were concerned, this was your job, to get rid of the weapons, to seize the weapons?

That was the way I feel myself and ... New York didn't give the authorization, and I answered, "We will lose our credibility because everybody in Kigali knows that there are arms caches, and everybody expects that UNAMIR will do something to seize those armed caches." And we were standing without any reaction. So we realized that, for us, it was the worst thing ... just to stay and to watch without reaction.

Can you describe the night of April 6th for us. What was it like? How difficult, for you, was it?

Truly the night, the 6th to the 7th of April, was unique. After the killing of the president we realized we were facing a historical event. Our main concern during that night was to manage the situation in coordination with the Rwandan authorities ... and to show that we still had the situation under control.

One of the VIPs you guarded was a Monsieur Lando. Did you know him?

I knew him. He was the leader of the Liberal Party. He was protected through UNAMIR people ...

When you sent your men to guard VIPs, what was their mission?

Their mission was to give some protection in certain limits. A normal guard was four people, so if a VIP is attacked by a platoon or a small group of 10 people, four people can give a good answer to the security of the VIP. But I think that the presence of UNAMIR people was more symbolic because the reason of the presence of UNAMIR in Rwanda was to give a hand to Rwanda, to help them to go to peace, to help them go to a better situation, and we were supposed (UNAMIR) to work in peace condition. When you go outside of that kind of condition, you have to face some problem of security ...

There were a number of killings that night of politicians. What happened to Monsieur Lando?

In the morning of the 7th I received a phone call from Mrs. Lando requesting me to send security because she was afraid for the safety of the Lando's family. And I promised to Mrs. Lando to do my best, but we were confronted with a lot of incidents in the Kigali area... she told me that the presidential [guards] were preparing an attack against the residence of Mr. Lando. I tried to get some more information about the situation and I promised to try to send some detachment to secure the location. But at the same time we were confronted with a lot of incidents in the Kigali area.

Two or three minutes later, Mr. Lando, himself, phoned me and he asked me again to very quickly send some people to secure his residence, and he described the situation outside his residence. I heard him [say] that more or less 15 presidential guards were preparing an attack against his residence, and he gave me some details, real details about the preparation of the presidential guards. And then at a certain moment I heard an explosion of hand grenades, firing and so on, and Mr. Lando told me, "It's too late," and it was his last words. And at that time he was killed I presume.

And you were listening on the phone?

Yes, of course, because he just phoned me and he tried to get some protection. But I should say there was ... I was, personally, unable to send any force to him because, as I said, we were confronted with a lot of security incident in the whole area.

Why didn't you tell your men to open fire to protect him?

Because, firstly, I have no radio contact with those people. I was not the commanding officer of the U.N. soldiers. I was the sector commander and that detachment was again a detachment and, of course, it was the commander of the Ghanaian detachment who eventually was able to contact his men, but not the Kigali sector. So I had no any possibility to contact them. But I imagine that they took this position to save their own life because the number of soldiers, U.N. soldiers, in guard was four people and Mr. Lando spoke about 15 to 20 presidential guards. So my Ghanaian soldiers were unable to give any resistance to the presidential guards.

Do you think the U.N. troops who were guarding him should have opened fire?

It's very complicated to answer that kind of question because we must realize and not forget that we were placed in a peace situation with the mandates and UNAMIR had a peacekeeping mission, and we were totally outside that kind of situation. At that moment, on the 7th April, for New York what has happened was an internal problem between Rwanda. Let's say we did not [have] the authorization to react against what was going on the ground at that moment.

But General Dallaire had drawn up rules of engagement that authorized U.N. troops to fire to prevent murders and crimes against humanity. So didn't General Dallaire's rules of engagement give you the authority to protect people in those crucial hours?

No, rules of engagement must be understood as a guideline. It is a possibility, and for a military, when you give an order, you also must think to the consequence of your order. It is nonsense to open fire to save one life if you lose 10, 20 or 30 other lives, and that was our problem at that moment. We were a minority on the ground. Their army was better equipped and armed than UNAMIR. I should say that the security of UNAMIR people, the security of the UNAMIR civilian, there were more than 300 civilians, U.N. civilians in Kigali. The security of--it's also important--of the expatriates, all that kind of argument impose us to be very, very careful in our reaction, and for us it was also a very important responsibility just to try to hold ... conflict as low as possible. An overreaction from us was not precisely the best reaction.

How do you react to Americans who say, "Why should we join a force whose soldiers can't even defend themselves, won't even defend themselves."

My first reaction is that it was not the reality because the rules of engagement were very clear. Self-defense was authorized without any restriction. So that is my first reaction. Secondly, sometimes you can be placed in such situation that the only way to do is to give arms up, and at the same moment, on the air field, we had a detachment of 20 U.N. soldiers who were also disarmed, and nothing [happened] there. So it's very difficult to compare some situation to other because everything of each situation is very particular.

Looking back at the whole first day, ... during this first crucial 24 hours, you, in UNAMIR, were on your own. Do you think that under terrible pressure you did not take the right decisions, that if you had opened fire to protect civilians, to protect yourself, you might have given the killers a warning and prevented what was to follow?

I don't think so. I'm convinced that if we had a too hard reaction, we would be confronted with the Rwandan army because, except what happened in Camp Kigali, otherwise we had no problem with the Rwandan army, but if you fight against a unit, the reaction will be very clear from this unit, you will be considered as an enemy and we had no armament, no equipment to face such situation.

As the situation developed, do you believe that if you had the mandate, you had enough men on the ground to save more lives?

For me, it is very clear, mandate, people, it was not a problem to manage and to freeze the situation, and more than that, I am sure that a great part of the Rwandan army was waiting [for] a sign from us and if we had showed the direction there, they were able to follow us, just to hold the peace in the country.

What could you have done if you'd have had the mandate with the few men that you had? What could you really have done?

Oh, it was not very difficult because in the first day after the coup there were killings, but not on a great scale so we had just to occupy the terrain and for us it was enough, just show to the population that UNAMIR was active, show to the Rwandan army that our objective was to save the peace, because don't forget with the president, the chief of staff of the army was also killed ... [the president] was considered a "god" in Rwanda, and the chief of staff of the army was also a kind of god for the Rwandan. And it means that the whole country was without any leader and they were really waiting for a sign from us, and we didn't give that kind of sign.

So what could you have done as soldiers that you weren't allowed to do with so few men?

At that time the only way to react was to avoid any ... armed confrontation with the Rwandan army. You know, the Belgian contingent were located in 14 different locations, so the battalion was really confronted with a security problem and the first decision of the battalion commander was to regroup.

During the first week of April, many civilians were coming to the Don Bosco School. Why were so many peopleseeking UN sanctuary there?

The first directive I received from the first headquarters was to try to persuade the civilian to stay outside the U.N. compounds. Why? Just for a question of neutrality because in February we have the same situation and after everything was returned to a normal situation we were confronted with political problems with the Rwandan government because we protected some Tutsis people during the troubled days of February, and we were accused from the Rwandan government to be not neutral. So in the beginning we tried to avoid the same problem, but it didn't took very long, two or three hours. To understand that, we had to really protect that kind of people because outside the U.N. compound it was not possible to give protection. Also there were so many refugees that we were really in the minority ... we were at that time unable to react ... that was my concern just to try to understand that we must be very careful with the local population [not] to give the impression that we were able to protect them because in the case of a new deployment first we shouldn't rush to execute the redeployment, and in such situation we are, by definition, unable to do another mission, I mean to protect people because of two different missions, impossible to do that at the same time. So that was really my concern, that we were confronted with a situation with such dimension that we realize that we were unable to manage in that kind of situation.

Did you give the order to abandon Don Bosco?

Yes, I gave the order because I received personally that kind of order from the force headquarters. Why? Just because the evolution of the situation on the ground. The force commander ... the only possibility of contact outside from there was the airfield, and so that was the last place to hold safe for UNAMIR for U.N. civilians, for expatriates, for a lot of reasons of logistic and so on. So it was a normal, let's say to execute a redeployment on the airfield and to secure the whole area of the airfield, and that's the reason ...

You needed those men to secure the airfield?

Yes, of course.

But with more troops, you could have stayed, kept your men at Don Bosco and looked after those civilians?

Yes, of course.

How many more troops would it have needed, just how many?

At that time, we have enough troops on the ground because U.N. force, I think General Dallaire had 1,500 very good soldiers. At the same time Belgium sent 1,000 paratroopers in Africa. France had 450 paratroopers in Kigali, and Italy also 85 paratroopers also in Kigali. It was enough people to cease the situation inherent and to save the peace and to save the life from thousands of human beings.

So why wasn't it done?

That is a political situation.

But in your view there were enough soldiers on the ground to have protected the lives of thousands, if not tens of thousands of civilians?

Yes, there is no problem with that.

It could have been done from a military point of view.

Yes, sure, certainly. It was not an impossible mission, it was really a possible mission without any difficulty.

So there were enough troops on the ground to have saved the lives of the people at Don Bosco.

Yes, there were enough troops on the ground in Kigali at that time.

And you couldn't have given them orders because they were not under your command, is that right?

Of course, because ...

Because they were not United Nations troops.

Yes, they were national troops because Italy, France and Belgium, organized their own evacuation of their own expatriates.

When you gave the order to abandon Don Bosco, what did you think would happen to the people there?

At that time, I still believed that they would be able to go safe to their own homes. We didn't just let them back ... we really tried to explain the situation, to give some explanation, to give information and to give some way to react, but in fact the reaction of the interahamwe militia were totally different and, as we know at the present time, they killed them probably immediately.

Can you remember how did you react when your government told you it was time to get out of Rwanda?

I remember very good because for me it's still a very painful memory. You know the Belgian detachment was considered as the hard-core detachment of UNAMIR. In the case of leaving, the consequence was obvious. It was a kind of collapse of the UNAMIR mission. And also at that time I remember my contacts with Jon Pierre, the informant, who told us how the interahamwe structure was organized in Kigali, which was the directives he gave to his men just to locate each Tutsis in Kigali and just waiting for a code word to kill them, and I realized that if we left the country it was a kind of a ... I should say authorization to pass to the execution of that kind of plan because nobody will stay on the ground to try to react to that kind of situation.

I never imagined that genocide was possible because it's too enormous, but I am really honest at that time I spoke about thousands of killings, and for me it was a real certitude that the situation will go in that direction ... but it was not a military decision, it was a political decision. To pull out.

What did you say to General Dallaire as you left him?

I wrote him a letter to try to explain to him that I had the feeling [of leaving] the battlefield in the worst situation, and that my authorities give me a very difficult order to follow because the consequence of that decision was very clear for everybody.

Some people might say it was right to leave because the situation was not what the United Nations had been brought in to do, because the United Nations had never promised to stop this kind of situation and yours is a European army, this was a faraway country. People like you can't solve Africa's problems.

No, no. No, I am still thinking that the only reaction was to stay in Rwanda ... because the consequence of the collapse of the UNAMIR mission was the genocide.

What do you believe is the lesson of this whole episode for peacekeeping? What is the lesson for future peacekeeping forces?

I think that the only way to respond to troubles in any part of the world is to have a standing force ready to move and ready to be on the ground as soon as possible. But, we need a political will.

A second lesson is...we thought that just to show our blue beret was enough to manage a situation, and I will confess that we have been placed in a very difficult situation, and that is a political decision. I mean political at the U.N. level, because don't forget during the whole mission, to each of our questions we received the same answer. It is a low budget operation, and that's the reason we missed everything. So peacekeeping operation for me must be considered as another kind of operation from a military operation. You are in charge of the peace, but you must also be able to react to a war condition, and therefore you must receive enough people, enough equipment, enough armament to impose, if needed, the peace.

Do you feel that responsibility or guilt can go wider than simply the people who shot the bullets and wielded the machetes?

Yes. I think that the whole international community is responsible for what happened in Rwanda. I will take the words of General Dallaire, he said, "The whole community ... international community has blood on his hands," and I feel the same ... Because during the month of May it was obvious for the whole world what was going on in Rwanda.

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