Things Could Have Gone Worse for the Blue Berets in Syria
In Rwanda, soldiers butchered captured Belgian peacekeepers
On Sept. 12, Syrian militants released 45 Fijian peacekeepers they had captured two weeks ago. Bad, yes. But things could have gone much, much worse for the blue beret-wearing troops.
Worse—like what happened in Rwanda in 1994.
Back here in 2014, the Fijian peacekeepers were stationed in the tiny Golan Heights region, most of which Israel captured from Syria during a 1967 war. The U.N. has watched over the armistice line since 1974.
The hostage crisis began on Aug. 28, when Syrian rebels from the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusrah Front captured the Fijians. The Al Nusrah militants then encircled nearby peacekeepers from the Philippine army’s 81st Infantry division under the command of Col. Ezra Enriquez.
The militants demanded the Filipinos to surrender. Enriquez’s force of 40 troops responded with a hail of bullets. A seven-hour gunfight with the militants ensued.
Allegedly, Indian army general Iqbal Singh Singha ordered Enriquez and his men to surrender, out of concern that militants might harm the Fijians captives if they didn’t. Enriquez—not keen on surrendering his men to an Al Qaeda affiliate and giving the rebels more prisoners—disobeyed the order.
Instead, he rallied his forces and sneaked away from militants under the cover of darkness.
Enriquez said afterwords that he would have been happy to help rescue the Fijians once his men were safe. But he said that he wouldn’t surrender his soldiers without a fight for the sake of Fijian prisoners whom—at the time—he couldn’t verify were even still alive.
His actions have made him and his soldiers heroes in The Philippines. Some Philippine military officials have subsequently claimed that the U.N. didn’t allow them to properly equip their troops, preventing them from sending heavy equipment deemed “unnecessary” for a peacekeeping mission.
Ultimately, U.N. negotiators successfully arranged for the Fijians’ release. Both the Fijians and the Filipinos made it out mostly unscathed—this time. The incident has led to questions—particularly from Philippine officials—about how much U.N. leadership truly values the lives of soldiers that member states have lent to the world body to wear the blue beret.
But this isn’t the first time that higher-ups have ordered peacekeepers not to fight back, nor the first time belligerents have taken them prisoner.
Surprisingly it wasn’t an Al Qaeda-linked jihadist group that caused the most harm. The worst case was in Rwanda, one of history’s prime examples of a peacekeeping disaster.
In 1994, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Rwanda, known by its French acronym UNAMIR, was in the country to oversee the Arusha Accords, an effort to create coalition government combining warring Hutu and Tutsi factions.
Canadian general Romeo Dallaire led the multinational force. A unit of Belgian parachute-commandos under Col. Luc Marchal represented UNAMIR’s best-equipped, best-trained contingent.
Early on, an informant approached Capt. Amadou Deme—UNAMIR’s Moroccan intelligence officer—with evidence of a conspiracy by high-ranking Rwandan government officials to carry out a large-scale campaign of ethnic violence against Tutsis around the country.
The informant gave the peacekeepers the locations of several arms caches. But as peacekeepers laid plans to raid these caches, their bosses in New York told them to halt the operation.
Marchal’s troops also uncovered intel that Hutu extremists were plotting to attack the Belgian contingent, in the belief that killing just a few soldiers could force a Belgian withdrawal and dissuade other Western powers from interfering.
Dallaire believed the previous year’s Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia—where the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers resulted in a speedy American departure—had informed the Hutu radicals’ line of thinking.
On April 7, a pair of Russian-made missiles shot down a plane carrying Rwanda’s Pres. Juvénal Habyarimana—a Hutu—at Kigali International Airport.
Who exactly fired the missiles is still hotly debated. The most widely accepted explanation is that the attack was part of a coup orchestrated by retired army colonel Theoneste Bagasora—one of the chief planners of the genocide.
But some—like former rebel secretary general Theogene Rudasingwa—have accused then-Tutsi rebel leader Paul Kagame, now Rwanda’s controversial president.
The crash was the spark that set Rwanda aflame. The Rwandan army’s elite Presidential Guard and extremist Hutu militias—armed with weapons from caches the informant had warned the U.N. about—began a violent campaign against Tutsis in Kigali.
They also targeted Hutu moderates. Though the world didn’t realize at the time, the genocide had begun.
Dallaire feared Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, a Hutu moderate, was in danger. He sent 10 peacekeepers—a Belgian mortar section under the command of Lt. Thierry Lotin—to reinforce the five-man Ghanaian team led by Sgt. George Aboagye guarding Uwilingyimana’s home. She planned to deliver a radio address calling for calm.
But Presidential Guard troops under Rwandan major Bernard Ntuyahaga stormed the house and demanded that the Belgians surrender. The Presidential Guard badly outnumbered the peacekeepers.
Lotin called for support. But U.N. headquarters in New York explicitly forbade the peacekeepers from using force. And with UNAMIR’s troops scattered all over the city, there was little hope of sending reinforcements.
UNAMIR HQ ordered Belgians and the Ghanaians not to fight back. Ntuyahaga’s men took the peacekeepers into custody … then killed Uwilingiyimana. Somehow, they missed her children, hiding in a closet.
Capt. Mbaye Diagne, a Senegalese officer serving as an unarmed military observer with UNAMIR, managed to find and rescue the children after the presidential guard left.
Ntuyahaga took the captured peacekeepers to Camp Kigali, a Rwandan army base. The Presidential Guard separated the Belgians from the Ghanaians. The guards began beating the Belgians, according to Aboagye and his men.
There are conflicting accounts of what exactly happened in the Belgians’ last moments. Some say the Rwandans summarily hacked the Europeans to death. Others claim the Belgians made a valiant last stand.
In this version of the story, Lotin hid his service revolver under his vest before surrendering. When a machete-wielding mob attacked his men, killing three to four of them on the spot, he drew his pistol and fought off the peacekeepers’ captors.
He then led his surviving soldiers to a nearby building, where they barricaded themselves, hoping for rescue. But no rescuers came. Rwandan soldiers opened fire with machine guns then charged inside, killing and mutilating the Belgians.
Togolese Capt. Apedo Kodjo—an unarmed military observer that Rwandan troops had nabbed and taken to Camp Kigali with the Ghanaians and the Belgians—partially backs this account.
He radioed to a superior afterwards that he and the Ghanaians heard gunshots as they were leaving the room where the Rwandans were keeping them, and that he suspected it was other Rwandans killing the Belgians.
Bullet holes on the walls of the building in Camp Kigali where the last stand reportedly took place also lend credence to this account.
Regardless of how they died, what happened next is clear. As Gen. Dallaire was on his way to the Rwandan Military Academy to meet with Rwandan leaders, he passed Camp Kigali.
Inside one of the gates he saw two bodies on the ground wearing blue helmets. He told the Rwandan army major driving him to stop, but the officer sped up. He told Dallaire that the troops at the base were out of control—and to stay away. It’s unclear if this happened as or after Lotin and the rest made their stand
While at the academy, Dallaire approached Rwandan military leaders and demanded that they account for his men. Maj. Gen. Augustin Ndindiliyimana, chief of staff of the Rwandan gendarmerie, made several calls and eventually told Dallaire that they had found the Belgians at the Kigali hospital.
When they arrived, a Rwandan officer told Ndindiliyimana and Dallaire that the Belgians’ bodies were in the courtyard near the morgue. They approached the mutilated corpses.
“At first, I saw what seemed to be sacks of potatoes to the right of the morgue door,” Dallaire wrote in his memoir Shake Hands with the Devil. “It slowly resolved in my vision into a heap of mangled and bloodied white flesh in tattered Belgian para-commando uniforms.”
“The men were piled on top of each other, and we couldn’t tell how many were in the pile,” Dallaire continued. “The light was faint and it was hard to identify any of the faces or find specific markings. We counted them twice: 11 soldiers. In the end it turned out to be 10.”
Later, Dallaire called Marchal to inform him of his soldiers’ fates. Dallaire tried to console Marchal, and commended him for successfully saving Faustin Twagiramungu—another Hutu moderate. But the damage had been done.
The Belgian public was horrified. Sentiment turned sharply against the mission. Marchal’s superiors ordered him to get his soldiers ready to leave.
On April 18, the Belgian commandos withdrew. The Belgian government offered Twagiramungu sanctuary, so Marchal stowed him in the back of one his armored vehicles as his soldiers moved to Kigali airport. Machine guns chattered and mortars exploded as Dallaire bid farewell to the Belgians.
Many of the other troop contributing nations followed suit, withdrawing their contingents. The mission continued, but reduced to a skeleton force of mostly Ghanaian light infantry and a handful of international staff officers and observers.
There was little UNAMIR could do to stop the killing. Ultimately, around 800,000 people died.
Several more peacekeepers perished, as well. A piece of shrapnel from a stray mortar round killed Capt. Mbaye Diagne, the Senegalese officer who’d rescued the prime minister’s children after the Belgians’ capture. In all, 15 peacekeepers died in Rwanda.
Back in Belgium, the public demanded answers. How—and why—had their soldiers been put in such a hopeless situation? They wanted to know who was responsible.
In 1996, a Belgian court charged Marchal with negligence leading to his men’s deaths. Many of his comrades, both Belgians and international peacekeepers he served with in Rwanda, believed the Belgian government was making him into a scapegoat. The judge ultimately agreed and threw out the charges.
Lotin’s widow Sandrine Lotin was pregnant when her husband died in Rwanda. She and the other widows wanted answers. “I could understand my husband dying on a mission,” she told an Associated Press reporter in 1997. “But they didn’t die as soldiers. They were murdered.”
Later that year, a Belgian court demanded that Dallaire explain the deaths of the Belgian soldiers under his command. The general explained that his force was lightly equipped, scattered around the country, hampered by restrictive rules of engagement and generally lacked a realistic way to save the Belgians.
In 1998, Ntuyahaga—the man who had actually killed the prime minister and captured the Belgians—surrendered himself to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania. A battle ensued between Belgium and Rwanda over who would get custody. Rwanda wanted to put him on trial for Uwilingiyimana’s murder.
Eventually, he volunteered to face trial in Belgium in 2004, a full decade after the killings. The same year, the Belgian government unveiled a memorial for the peacekeepers near the building in Camp Kigali where their captors butchered them. The families of the peacekeepers attended the dedication.
In 2007, a Belgian court finally convicted Ntuyahaga of the murders.
But the long painful legacy of that failed peacekeeping mission continues. Marchal was back in court again in 2010, this time to answer Rwandans charging he didn’t do enough to save their relatives.
Today there are more peacekeepers deployed under the U.N. banner than ever before. It’s not hard to see why. The world’s a mess. Recent events in South Sudan proved that with the proper motivation and just a little bit of international support, blue helmeted soldiers can save lives.
Peacekeeping is a delicate balance. It’s hard to know when force will prevent or halt violence—and when it will incite or exacerbate it. But when peacekeepers lack the ability—or even the authority—to protect themselves, how can they possibly enforce a ceasefire or protect civilians?
If the U.N. expects member states to pledge troops to risk their lives in peace ops, donor countries need to know that their soldiers won’t be subject to stupid risks. Like getting kidnapped and killed because the rules said not to fight back.
The U.N. got lucky in Syria—all the peacekeepers made it out alive. No such luck in Rwanda 20 years ago. Or next time, maybe.