An Eyewitness to Genocide: Life as a Bangladeshi UN Peacekeeper

The subject of this post is Retired Major Ezaz Afzal from the Bangladeshi Army (pictured below). Major Ezaz is currently the Director of Security at my university; his task being to keep all staff and students safe and secure both on and off campus as far as possible.

However, prior to this he also led a fascinating life in the military. In the early to mid 1990s, Major Ezaz witnessed two conflicts, both of which became infamous for incomprehensible crimes against humanity, and genocide. Before moving to Bangladesh, I spent a year teaching in Rwanda, and prior to that I wrote my Master’s thesis on the devastating genocide that ripped Rwanda apart.

With over 10,000 soldiers, Bangladesh is actually one of the top providers of troops to the UN. Bangladeshi soldiers have served, and continue to serve, as peacekeepers in a whole host of different countries and missions. I first came to hear of Major Ezaz’s experiences in the UN during a presentation he gave at the university about his time as a peacekeeper in Bosnia. He gave an intriguing and frank insight into his experiences there, but my ears pricked when he revealed to his audience that directly prior to the Balkans he’d seen active service in Rwanda.

I met many different people during my year in that same country, but I rarely, if ever, got the chance to speak to anyone directly about what it was like to be there in ’94. It just never seemed like an appropriate question to ask, unless it was brought up in conversation. So, I saw this as an opportunity.

UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda) was extremely controversial. Slammed for its ineffectiveness to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, and infamous for its eventual withdrawal and abandonment at the height of the killing, I was anxious to hear the Major’s take on things and to get an idea of just what it was like to be there, witness to such unimaginable horror.

Major Ezaz is a very warm and affable guy. He welcomed me into his office and we exchanged some of the Kinyarwandan words we both remember. Perhaps as strange as this may seem, he clearly has a lot of fond memories of his time in Rwanda and reminisces with great passion and exuberance. His unit arrived in January 1994, and for the Major it was his first UN mission.

At this point genocide was certainly not a widely acknowledged possibility, and the UN’s assignment was generally expected to be both straightforward in execution and short in duration. There was however undoubtedly great tension and instances of sporadic violence, and as the country prepared for the upcoming presidential election in May of that year, the role of the peacekeepers was to help facilitate this, and to aid the continuing peace process.

Major Ezaz and his troops’ place of duty was at the parliament building in Kigali, where their task was to provide protection to the opposition party representatives from the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front). Their leader at the time was one Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s current President. The Major told me that during this period he and his fellow soldiers led a fairly ‘normal’ life (for a UN Peacekeeper). When on duty they would carry out routine security tasks, and once their work was done for the day they’d enjoy the local beers and nightlife, and this is how it went on for the first three months of his time in East Africa.

At this point he admitted to feeling very little danger and enjoying a good relationship with the Rwandan people he was working with. However, in the early evening of April 6th 1994 this all changed dramatically. Major Ezaz told me it had been a normal day like any other, and he’d just finished dinner when the news came through that President Habyarimana’s plane had been downed near the airport as it came into land, killing everyone on board, including the Rwandan president and the president of neighbouring Burundi.

Rwanda transitioned almost instantly from relative calm to frenzied chaos (albeit organised chaos), and it would remain this way for months to follow. The Major said it all came as a big surprise to him and many of his fellow UN soldiers. They had no idea that the subsequent events had been planned for several years. Within one hour they heard reports of the killings that had started all across the city, and the night sky was filled with the sound of gunfire and explosions. The Major’s location changed from the parliament building to the national stadium where many of the UN troops were based. His experience in Rwanda was about to change completely.

On the morning of April 7th he made his way to the parliament building, much like any other day in Rwanda. However, there was something different about the route taken on this day. It hadn’t changed at all, it was just the road was more congested than usual, not with vehicles, but with dead bodies. For the first time in our conversation Major Ezaz’s tone dropped, and he was now talking about an entirely different Rwanda to the one he’d spent the previous ten minutes referring to with such affection.

On reaching the Parliament he was told to turn straight back and return to his permanent base at the stadium. Even in this short time the piles of bodies had mounted. At this point I attempted to press my ‘interviewee’ into describing just how he felt upon being confronted with these sights. His response was not a surprise, yet I’m not sure what else you can say but, “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.” Who would? I imagine even as a UN soldier you never really expect to witness such wanton destruction, violence, and inhumanity.

From this point, just hours after the death of the President, Rwanda became a country of violence and death. I was told about the drunken soldiers and militia looting and raping at will. Routine journeys that had once taken an hour now took five as you negotiated your way through the relentless roadblocks. Roadblocks manned by crazed characters working on a cocktail of alcohol, drugs and sheer adrenaline, all fueled by the hate radio that pumped out warnings of ‘cockroaches’ (Tutsis and Tutsi sympathizers) in your midst and the rewards you’d receive if you helped in the mission to exterminate them once and for all. It’s all incredibly chilling.  

I asked the Major if he had been scared when approaching these roadblocks. A fairly stupid question I admit, but his response was telling nonetheless. A resounding “YES,” as he described the fact they were controlled by young boys, almost always armed, and always drunk or high with absolutely no discipline. There was little telling what they might do, like a grenade with no pin, the blue helmet of the UN was little deterrent, and there was a reason for this.

It was fascinating, if not a little unreal to hear Major Ezaz talk about these situations personally. Situations I’d read about in books, but never recalled to me by someone witness to such mayhem. I asked him to describe the most intimidating encounter he faced during his service in Rwanda. He mentioned several, but the one which stood out most personally was a standoff involving himself, some of his men, a small group of Belgian soldiers, and a deep crowd of Interahamwe (Hutu militia).

The activities which preceded the encounter were symbolic. Earlier in the day ten Belgian peacekeepers had been ambushed, shot, and hacked into pieces by the militia. Their blue UN helmets tossed around like prize trophies. The UN mission didn’t have a mandate to stop the killing of Rwandans. They could only fire if fired upon, and the genocide perpetrators knew this.

However, the brutal murder of the ten Belgian soldiers was a clear message from the Hutu power movement directly to the UN and the outside world – leave, you can’t stop this, we’re in control now. With ten of their own soldiers now dead, killed in such a brutal fashion, the UN was faced with the dilemma of respond with increased force, or leave. Tragically for hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, the UN chose option two. It wasn’t long after that the world peacekeeping force gave in to the militias and decided the risk was too great and the Rwandan people not worth saving.

Major Ezaz told me that some hours after the ten Belgians were killed, another group of twenty-five soldiers of the same nationality found themselves in a precarious and life-threatening situation as they became stranded between their base and a frenzied mob. Vastly outnumbered and most certainly in great danger, the soldiers needed instant and decisive assistance.

I was told by the Major that this was both his proudest yet most heart stopping moment in Rwanda. His men somehow managed to hold off the mob and direct the Belgians to the safety of their base, using very little force, but a significant amount of courage and composure, and only after considerable tension and provocation by the crazed young militiamen. The unpredictability of the Hutu militias and their increasing ambition and fearless confidence played a very definite role in the UN’s reluctance to stay and commit soldiers who would potentially end up meeting the same fate as the ten Belgians.

During our conversation Major Ezaz reminisced about another tragic situation which left him with two distinct emotions; one of sheer horror, and the other enormous pride. It occurred at his base in the national stadium. Shortly after the start of the killing he described how Tutsis began to arrive in great numbers in search of shelter and protection from the barbaric killing mobs that had overrun the city. Many Tutsis were now essentially refugees in their own birthplace. The UN was at least able to provide a very basic safe haven to those ‘lucky’ enough to make it there.

However, it was unable to prevent shells fired from outside the stadium walls causing devastation wherever they fell. Unfortunately the Major saw this with his own eyes one day as a shell exploded amongst a group of people in the refugee area of the stadium. Fourteen people were killed in this one strike alone, and according to Major Ezaz these types of attacks were not uncommon. He described how he and his troops rushed to the scene to find complete devastation.

Nevertheless, amidst the horror eight lives were saved by the work of the Bangladeshi army medics. Speaking in obvious earnest, he expressed the pride he felt for his men in this situation. He spoke of the genuine fear of contracting HIV as there was often little time to think before diving into catastrophes and responding decisively and proactively to scenarios similar to that above.

I won’t lie. I was hoping to hear deep, personal stories from my interviewee. I wanted to hear him describe how he felt and what he saw when he closed his eyes on those rare occasions he was able to catch some sleep between the shells and the mass influx of desperate refugees. In reality however, this was purely a selfish desire on my part. As I mentioned before, I’m intrigued to get a sense of just what it was like to be in Rwanda in ’94. A Rwanda in absolute stark contrast to the one I fell in love with sixteen years after the Major’s experience.

However, it’s none of my business, and as such I didn’t press too hard, even though I desperately wanted him to describe the emotions he felt each day as more and more people arrived at the stadium, their eyes filled with fear, their final, despairing hopes resting in the hands of the UN – the international ‘peace keeping force’ whose very role is to protect innocent people from the irrational brutality of genocide.

The problem was the UN didn’t want to admit to it being genocide. Admitting the action of genocide would’ve meant acknowledging a very real duty of responsibility to end it. Thus, on the 25th April, 1994, 18 days after the killing began (and 82 days before it was eventually stopped by the RPF) Major Ezaz and his battalion left on a plane to Nairobi, Kenya. As shells fell around the airport, and machetes continued to be wielded in hate down below, Major Ezaz said goodbye to a UN mission that had begun with a quiet confidence and ended in tatters, and a country that had provided glimpses of joy and warmth, but overwhelming images of abject suffering and cruelty. He has never been back.

When I asked the Major the obvious question of how he felt at this point, as he watched the green hills drift into the distance below, he provided a suitably obvious, but simple answer….sad. However, he told me very honestly that remaining in Rwanda would’ve evoked an even greater torment in his heart as it would’ve meant standing by and bearing witness to yet more murder, rape and mindless cruelty, with no mandate to stop it.

This confession and acknowledgement of both the futility and ineffectiveness of the UN mission to prevent the genocide, even at this stage, was both telling and soul-destroying. I asked where he feels the blame lies, and he pointed to the UN as a whole and also, a little surprisingly for me, General Romeo Dallaire.

Dallaire was the Canadian Force Commander of UNAMIR and therefore in charge of the entire UN mission in Rwanda. Major Ezaz met Dallaire on a number of occasions and told me how he just couldn’t understand, even to this day why his Force Commander, as the highest ranked UN military representative in Rwanda at that time, didn’t take the risk by disobeying his superiors back in the US and engage in a more forceful approach to ending the killing.

It’s an agonizing question that has haunted Romeo Dallaire ever since 1994, and if you feel inclined to read more about this I would point you to Dallaire’s personal account of his experiences during the genocide, entitled ‘Shake Hands with the Devil.’ It’s a fascinating read, which provides thorough explanation and analysis into just why his hands were so frustratingly tied by UN hierarchy, based thousands of miles away from Rwanda, who appeared to have had little knowledge or interest in the suffering of the Rwandan people.

After reading this book I came away feeling nothing but deep, sympathetic admiration for Dallaire, and therefore a little disappointed to hear my interviewee’s critical personal judgement of the same man. However, Major Ezaz has the experience of being there in ‘94, witness to it all, whereas I was merely a ten year old boy, obsessed with football and unable to point to Africa on a map, let alone Rwanda.

In May 1994, two months after his arrival back in Bangladesh, Major Ezaz was deployed to Bosnia, forced to witness yet another war, and yet another example of man’s inhumanity towards man. Genocide was once again on the agenda, and in a depressing parallel to Rwanda, the UN’s mandate fell well short of actually protecting civilians. Following this, in 1999, he found himself back on the continent of Africa, again with the UN, on a mission to aid Liberia’s recovery from their own brutal civil war. I braced myself for another candid testimony from the frontline.

However, our time was up, and so I’ll have to make a future visit to the Major’s office and enjoy a cup of tea with him as he regales me once again with further tales of a very different life to that of an AUW Deputy Director of Security.

I’d like to express my sincere thanks to Major Ezaz for taking the time to speak to me about his experiences, and for also allowing me to include some of his own personal photographs.