Accra, Ghana – Several weeks after the Rwandan genocide began, a Ghanaian military officer named Colonel Clayton Yaache organised a convoy to evacuate a group of Rwandans who had sought refuge in an upscale hotel.
He loaded 80 people accused of being Tutsi or moderate Hutu into covered trucks, and sealed it so no one would see them. But after passing several roadblocks, his cars were stopped by militiamen, who found the people and declared their intention to kill every one of them, be it with grenades, machetes or their bare hands.
A military observer with the country’s UN peacekeeping mission, Yaache didn’t carry a gun, and the 10 Ghanaian soldiers armed to protect the convoy didn’t have enough firepower to overcome the hundreds of Interhamwe militiamen, as the death squads made up of members of Rwanda’s Hutu majority were known.
So Yaache did the only thing he could. He started talking.
The Rwandan genocide left some 800,000 people dead, and is widely remembered for the international community’s failure to do much of anything to effectively stop the bloodshed.
But as the world dithered, a contingent of over 400 troops from Ghana violated orders from the UN Security Council to withdraw, and stayed with the UN’s beleaguered peacekeeping mission throughout the genocide.
Poorly equipped and often outnumbered, these troops guarded refugees, talked down militiamen and did their best to provide security for refugees fleeing the 100 days of carnage that engulfed the country 20 years ago.
Five Ghanaians were killed or wounded. But by standing their ground, Ghanaian peacekeepers helped save perhaps 30,000 lives, according to Romeo Dallaire, the former commander of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR).
“Their country demonstrated the courage that so many others absolutely were unable to sustain in the face of such a horrible catastrophe,” Dallaire told Al Jazeera. “Others ran while the Ghanaians stayed.”
‘A keg of gunpowder’
Ghana has been a frequent participant in peacekeeping missions since the country gained independence from the UK in 1957.
|Rwanda after the genocide|
The country’s peacekeepers guarded the home of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s doomed first Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, during the country’s tumultuous first months of independence, and served in missions throughout the Middle East.
Led by the mission’s second-in-command Maj Gen Henry Kwami Anyidoho, who was also Dallaire’s deputy, Ghana, in early 1994, contributed about 850 troops to the UNAMIR mission, along with countries like Bangladesh and Belgium.
The Rwanda to which Anyidoho and his colleague Yaache arrived was a place riven with ethnic tensions and undercurrents of violence.
UNAMIR’s mandate was to help administer peace accords between the government, which was backed by the Hutu majority, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), composed mostly of Tutsi fighters.
Yaache was assigned the command of a group of UN troops that was to enforce the peace between government soldiers and RPF rebels in the country’s north.
Soon after he arrived, the local RPF commander warned Yaache, telling him he believed that the government was stalling the implementation of the peace deal and perhaps planning to harm Tutsis.
“We were sitting on a keg of gunpowder, except we didn’t know when it was going to explode,” Anyidoho recalls.
The fuse was lit on the night of April 6, when Hutu extremists shot down the plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and the president of neighbouring Burundi, killing them both.
Roadblocks manned by Interhamwe sprang up across the capital, Kigali, almost immediately, and the RPF resumed its fight against the government troops.
The next day, a group of Belgian and Ghanaians peacekeepers sent to rescue the prime minister was ambushed.
The Ghanaians were allowed to leave, while the Belgians were killed.
As the fighting engulfed Rwanda, the UN Security Council voted to drop the size of the mission to 270 troops, sending home well-equipped Belgian troops along with Bangladeshis, Tunisians and others.
But Dallaire wasn’t willing to accept being left with barely enough soldiers to protect the UN base in the capital.
“I arbitrarily at one point said, ‘That’s it, stop the numbers going, no more pulling out,'” Dallaire said.
Anyidoho agreed, keeping a force of about 454 mostly young Ghanaian soldiers in the country.
“I hadn’t even sought permission from home when I told him that we would stay,” Anyidoho said. “We didn’t have an alternative. We couldn’t abandon these people.”
Anyidoho’s troops deployed to stadiums and Kigali’s airport, turning them into safe zones for refugees fleeing the fighting.
They did so in the midst of combat so intense that the lone Canadian cargo plane making supply runs would land, offload its cargo while moving and take off again, Dallaire said.
As the RPF closed in on Kigali, the peacekeepers were often powerless to stop the wanton killing of civilians.
Interhamwe would pull injured people out of aid convoys and kill them right in front of the peacekeepers, recalled Yaache, who relocated back to Kigali as a military observer once the fighting started.
“Many times we were helpless, because you see the man doing it, and there is nothing you can do,” Yaache said. “You shout with your mouth, that’s all.”
‘There was nothing we could do but negotiate’
Tutsi leaders had become worried about 80 of their elites who were stranded at Kigali’s Hôtel des Mille Collines, and pushed the UN to bring them to safety.
Yaache said he held days of meetings with the Interhamwe to secure their permission to bring the Tutsis out.
At the fifth roadblock past the hotel, their plan fell apart.
A 600-strong force of Interhamwe flattened the tyres of Yaache’s trucks and began calling the Tutsis inside “cockroaches”. Yaache knew they were going to kill them.
“At that point there was nothing we could do but negotiate,” Yaache said.
The backbone of the whole thing, my being able to stay and doing anything at all, was due to the Ghanaians and to General Anydioho staying there.
The colonel demanded that they call their commanders, going back and forth with the leaders of the assembled mob for hours.
The militiamen would threaten him with grenades, going so far as to pull out their pins in front of his face. Yaache would pick the pins up off the ground and put them back in the grenades himself.
Over 12 hours later, the sun had set and Yaache had nearly lost his voice by the time an Interhamwe deputy intervened and allowed the Tutsis to be loaded into armoured vehicles and taken back to the hotel.
Anyidoho and Yaache both returned home in 1995, continuing their service in the military until retirement.
They bore scars from their time in Rwanda: Yaache dealt with spiking blood pressure, while Anyidoho found that meat had become a reminder of the genocide. It took him a while to start eating it again.
But without the Ghanaians’ tenacity, Dallaire said thousands more might have perished.
“The backbone of the whole thing, my being able to stay and doing anything at all, was due to the Ghanaians and to General Anydioho staying there,” Daillaire said.
While back in Ghana, Anyidoho met with President Jerry Rawlings, himself a former air force officer.
Rawlings scolded Anyidoho, asking him what he should have told the country if all their troops were killed in Rwanda. Then he asked Anyidoho what kept him and his men going during the genocide.
“I told him that, sir, there are certain things that happen in life that were unexplainable,” Anyidoho recalls. “We were in a situation we had to act according to the dictates of our conscious… That we wouldn’t die, we didn’t lose too many soldiers operating under those circumstances, it could only be an act of God.”