Account of Operation Gabriel by Brigadier Mike Wharmby.

In the immediate aftermath of Rwanda’s hard fought civil war (1) and the terrifying genocide which accompanied it, some 650 UK personnel from 5 Airborne Brigade joined the UN Assistance Mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR) (2) as part of Operation Gabriel. On 30 July, after only 5 days preparation in Aldershot, the advance elements of the contingent, under the command of CO 5 Airborne Brigade Logistic Battalion arrived at Kigali airport on the outskirts of the capital and just along the main highway from the firing point where a SAM was used to bring down the Presidential aircraft on 6th April 1994 triggering 100 days of fighting and murder which would eventually cause the death of almost a million civilian men, women and children.

By the time the contingent deployed, the fighting had come to stop but had been replaced by a humanitarian catastrophe of such a scale that it had outstripped the capacity of UNAMIR and had already absorbed all available civilian medical, food and transport aid. A cholera and dysentery outbreak in the NE of Rwanda had accounted for the lives of 20,000 people and was claiming some 600 people a day at the start of the deployment. The role of the British Contingent was therefore humanitarian and logistical.      

23 Parachute Field Ambulance RAMC quickly established primary health clinics for vulnerable refugees as well as reinforcing the country’s 3 functioning hospitals with  surgical teams and bolstering environmental health teams to stem the spread of disease in the increasingly squalid and untenable refugee camps. After a month on the ground in the North of Rwanda, 23 PFA were re-deployed by the Force Commander, Canadian Major General Romeo Dallaire, in a successful bid to halt a further unexpected and mass exodus of refugees into Zaire, this time at the southern end of Lake Kivu. 23 PFA’s records show they directly helped over 125,000 civilians during the 4 month deployment.

Though Rwanda had previously boasted a reasonable infrastructure for that part of Africa, this lay in ruins by the time the fighting and killing had ceased. The sappers of 9 Parachute Squadron RE worked around the clock throughout all parts of the country to improve and maintain the vital aid road routes and provide adequate sanitary arrangements in the more remote refugee camps. Improvising construction materials, they rebuilt village clinics, re-connected power supplies to towns and replaced several strategic riving crossings which had been destroyed in earlier fighting. All of this was to encourage the return of refugees from camps where their lives hung by a thread.

The prompt and widespread distribution of aid material was critical, and not only was reliable transport at a premium, so too were disciplined and determined drivers and this is where 63 Airborne Close Support Squadron RLC came to the fore. Their soldiers deployed to a variety of remote locations and lifted 1500 tonnes of aid and transported almost 20,000 refugees in their short time in theatre. By the time the British airborne contingent arrived, the war and the roads had already taken its toll on the UN’s equipment and the highest priority for 10 Airborne Workshop  REME was to recover and repair the UN’s diverse fleet of armoured, utility and transport vehicles and equipment which had been abandoned the length and breadth of Rwanda. As with everything else, repair parts were improvised or cannibalised and remarkable range of hitherto unfamiliar equipment was soon back in UN hands enabling the UNIAMIR Force Commander to regain control of his mission.

Throughout the duration of the deployment force protection remained a constant concern and 5 Airborne Brigade’s loggies, sappers and medics much appreciated the close infantry support provided to all phases of the operation by A Company 2 Battalion The Princess of Wales Royal Regiment. Additionally elements of a large number of other units deployed with the Contingent, including detachments from 30 Signal Regiment,  9 Supply Regiment , 29 Movement Control Regiment, 49 Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) RE, the Specialist Team Royal Engineers (STRE) and 160 Provost Company. The deployment, sustainment and most of the recovery phase was by air using RAF Lynham and Brize-Norton. The Contingent relied on movements and air operations teams from the RAF’s Tactical Supply Wing and the Tactical Communications Wing. The Contingent was often in the public eye, often from foreign media and HQLF’s Media Operations staff worked hard in country to maintain balanced reporting. The operation was commanded from the Joint Headquarters at Wilton.
5 Airborne Brigade’s commitment to Op Gabriel lasted until November 1994 and when it was withdrawn by the Government. At that time Douglas Hurd, then Foreign Secretary, wrote of the “contingent’s vital work towards building peace in Rwanda and in tackling the humanitarian crisis there”. Eleven members of the contingent received national honours for their part in the operation including Squadron Sergeant Major Brown of 9 Parachute Squadron RE who received a Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct after rescuing an injured sapper from a minefield following a mine-strike. Such were the collective achievements of 5 Airborne Brigade’s soldiers that it was decided to award the Wilkinson Sword of Peace to a  group of units sharing the same mission for the first time.

(1) The war and the genocide are usually portrayed as a manifestation of tribal rivalry and yet the truth is somewhat different. The Tutsi and Hutu tribal groupings had co-existed in Rwanda for some 20 or so generations prior to the arrival of German colonists. At some stage a Tutsi clan achieved political dominance but throughout recognisable Rwandan history the social, political, linguistic, religious and cultural institutions were a fusion of Hutu and Tutsi influence - the only group to lose out on racial lines were the Twa, a pygmy tribe. It is true to say that Tutsi became a descriptor of social, political and financial (based on agriculture and some primitive mineral extraction) success but intermarriage was common place and individuals would re-define their identity according to their ambition. The arrival of the German colonists changed this equilibrium as they sought to rule, as colonists often did, through a dominant tribal chief and wrongly identified the ascendant Tutsi chiefly regime with monolithic tribal control. So it is reasonable to lay some blame with the Germans and the Belgians who followed after WW1 for erroneously polarising Rwanda along so called tribal lines. The Belgians added to this by disenfranchising the Hutu chiefs of their land in the 1920s and stoked the myth of the Tutsi "cockroach" destroying Rwanda from within. It was Rwandan political opposition to colonial rule which was to create the so called Hutu/working class momentum which led after end of colonial rule to the victimisation of anything identifiably Tutsi, intellectual or ruling class. In the genocide of 1994 all moderate, affluent and intellectual Hutu families suffered the same fate as their so called Tutsi neighbours; they were all “Tutsi cockroaches” because the ruling so called Hutu politicians had said so.

(2) UNAMIR was originally established to help implement the Arusha Peace Agreement signed by the Rwandese parties on 4 August 1993.  UNAMIR's mandate and strength were adjusted on a number of occasions in the face of the tragic events of the genocide and the changing situation in the country.  UNAMIR's mandate came to an end on 8 March 1996.  The headquarters of the mission was in Kigali, Rwanda.

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