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Rwanda and the Great Lakes

Rwanda and the Great Lakes: A personal view from the Oxfam Archive (Running time: 35 minutes)

This podcast is the second part of a recording (part one) made on 25 August 2005 as part of the Oxfam Archive Oral History project and is an interview with Maurice Herson, Editor of Forced Migration Review and previously Deputy Humanitarian Director and Head of Humanitarian Programme Advisory Team at Oxfam. Maurice left Oxfam in December 2004 after nearly 17 years with Oxfam. He made a huge and lasting contribution during this time which was largely with the Emergencies (later Humanitarian) Department. Maurice had many interesting and challenging times with Oxfam including in the Sudan and in the Great Lakes crisis of the mid-1990s. The interview was carried out by John Magrath who has worked for Oxfam since 1985, in a variety of communications and research roles. He was Press Office Manager during the Great Lakes crisis.

Running time: 35 minutes

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JM Let’s talk about one of Oxfam’s most famous and difficult experiences which you were incredibly intimately involved in which was the Great Lakes emergency and the Rwanda genocide.

MH Yeah.

JM How did you get involved in that?

MH I think I already said that in mid-1993 I took a job in Oxfam House and my job title was ‘Emergencies Officer’. I was recruited by one of the people who I persist in thinking of as one of Oxfam’s great men, who was Nick Stockton, who did a lot for Oxfam. He certainly did a lot for me and has remained a friend. And the Emergencies Department, which had just been formed then, had about six of us, I think. And there were two or three Emergency Support Personnel, ESPs. Just to give an idea of what’s happened since, when I left at the end of 2004 the department had 112 people of whom 48 were HSPs, Humanitarian Support Personnel. So the department and Oxfam’s humanitarian work had grown enormously at that period and I was privileged to be part of that. But when I came into the department, I was the French speaker, which gave me choice places like Zaire, as it was then. And so in 1993 I went in to Zaire, but I also went to Rwanda where there was a huge population of people who had been displaced, Internally Displaced Persons, IDPs, as we persist in calling them. And we had a programme there. So I was in Rwanda a couple of times in 1993 and so knew the place, and the team, and the programme, and the country, and a bit about it. And when the genocide started I was actually on holiday at the beginning of April 1994 but came back a couple of days later having started watching all these images on television; stuff that doesn’t need talking about on this tape particularly. And because it was one of my geographical areas of concern I went with a colleague to Bujumbura in Burundi because Kigali was not a place to go into at the time. In fact we were still trying to get people out of it at that stage. We went to Bujumbura, Burundi, I suppose to have some sort of proximity to Rwanda but also to deal with refugees some of whom were managing to get into northern Burundi and we designed a programme there that I left my colleague behind to try and manage. I remember a conversation with you, John; I was sitting on the ground next to a Landrover with a sat-phone. I think I took Oxfam’s first ever mobile, portable sat-phone with me to Burundi and I remember a conversation between us about Oxfam wanting to call it genocide and you were mandated to talk to me and see whether you could convince me that we ought to do it or find out what my view of it was from being, if you like, next door. And so that’s when all that was happening.

JM My recollection is actually almost the opposite. Isn’t that interesting? Because my recollection of it is that you made that phone call when the word ‘genocide’ had barely been mentioned and what you were saying, and correct me if I’m wrong, was that you were looking at and counting the numbers of people who were coming over the border and you said “There are almost no Tutsis coming over the border” and that it was… I’m not saying it was you who first said this seemed to be a case of genocide, but it was actually quite news to me. I mean it was something which made me sit up [and go “Oh my God! Are we actually talking about genocide here?”].

MH I’d happened to be in Rwanda when the coup in Burundi started. I use the word ‘started’ because it went on for many years after. And something like 300… 350,000 people came across the border. It was one of my first experiences of seeing that happen and walking somewhere and seeing tens of thousands of people literally standing around, wondering what to do next… And thinking right, well this is what the job I’m doing of emergency work for Oxfam means. This means me not standing around wondering what to do next but actually doing something about it. And I suppose we expected something similar would happen in Rwanda; that tens, hundreds of thousands of people would flee from what was happening in Rwanda and come across the border. And in fact there were very few of them. Oh, I don’t know, twenty, thirty thousand maybe in total, spread across the whole of the border region. It seemed like that number anyway, which is very few. And one day we went down to the border, a staggeringly beautiful place, and the Burundian immigration/customs people advised us not to go any further but asked whether we could help somebody. There were a couple of people who’d escaped from Rwanda and they were two people who’d been cut up with machetes… you know, were survivors of attempts to kill them. [We took them to], I think it was, an ICRC hospital in Kayanza. [I was] sort of then beginning to realise what was actually going on. It was at that time that Oxfam came out and called it genocide; and I’m sure I didn’t start the word but I probably provided the observation that set people thinking about it maybe. And I then came back to Oxfam House, once that programme was designed and funded, and took up my place as Emergencies Officer in the Emergencies Department and it was so different then than it is now. I did on my own what there would be now at least half a dozen people doing. I mean I was reading all of the material, I was doing all the filing, I produced four filing drawers full of material. Every week I was expected to write a programme update and I remember sitting up till midnight, one-thirty in the morning every week because everybody expected it on their desk on Tuesday morning. And it was on Monday night I spent doing that. I had a key to the door which we don’t have any more, and I remember photocopying it and walking round the building in the middle of the night and putting it on people’s desks. We didn’t have e-mail of course. It was an incredibly difficult and stressful time. And just the scale of what was happening, what was coming in, just reading the endless reports of atrocities. None of this did any good to my personal relationships I hasten to add. It wasn’t hard working seven days a week you know, 18 hours a day, because it was so utterly absorbing. And it was so utterly compelling in the sense of needing to do things, and the struggle to do things. And there was all the advocacy work and of course I was right at the centre of it. I did endless radio interviews, endlessly reading people’s copy or writing things for the press and so on, which you must remember because you were in the press office.

JM I suppose, yeah, I do remember but what I also remember was how there was this strange sort of hiatus between what you observed at the border and Oxfam putting out a press release. And we put this press release out which said that Oxfam fears that genocide is happening in Rwanda and I think that was the first time that… certainly the first time an NGO had said such a strong thing. And it was a very big thing. [There were] a lot of discussions I remember within Oxfam House, whether we were right or not. And we absolutely were right. But I remember the incredible frustration of trying to get journalists interested in it because at the time there were the… was it the elections in South Africa?

MH All the journalist were in South Africa watching the elections.

JM That’s right and it was almost impossible to get to talk to journalists who were interested. But I do remember talking to one journalist and he was very… he said what evidence have you got that there is genocide happening? And I used your experiences and I talked to him about the lack of people coming over the border and yes, I remember that you’d seen people who had been mutilated and how very few people seemed to be Tutsis. And of course there were reports of bodies coming down the rivers as well but it wasn’t enough. He was basically saying “Well, that’s actually an absence of evidence.” And I remember feeling very, very dispirited about it and I suppose I look back and I always think “Well, could I have done more? Could I have really pushed it? Could I have phoned lots more journalists? Could I have really made more of a hue and cry over it?” And I think I was dispirited by the lack of reaction and I think possibly also I was still influenced by this ambivalence within Oxfam about whether we were right, about whether it was actually genocide. And there were all sorts of discussions about the legal meanings of genocide…

MH And Nick Stockton no doubt weighing in heavily on that one.

JM Ah yeah, indeed. But it was very difficult. And it was only when the journalists came back, you know. And it’s a terrible thing to say, that they could only cope with one big African story at a time.

MH But they… what they had was a fantastically positive African story, and the will not to have a terrible African story at the same time was probably quite strong there as well and we’ve come across similar sorts of things. But I think it was one of those seminal moments in lots of ways including in terms of our relations with the media - all the stuff around Rwanda. Our ability to leverage coverage - that’s a horrible phrase, sorry – but, you know, to get coverage, our ability to get our analysis there, our public profile was very significantly changed around that time in lots of ways. It was extraordinary as well how Oxfam House kind of got taken over, and I think rightly, by all the events in the Great Lakes. There were a lot of extreme difficulties between the Emergencies Department and the Desks who were, technically, responsible for things. It’s not worth going into either the personalities or the ins and the outs of the argument but it is worth saying that there’s a tension there about the right of the emergency worker to weigh in somewhere where there are long-term development programmes… has always been and continues to be contentious in a variety of different ways. We manage it better and worse in lots of ways but the basic issue has never gone away and never will go away ‘cos it’s an issue that exists out there. And we struggled with it and there were so many - I’m looking for an adjective to put with my emotions and I can’t find one – so many emotions that we were all living with in our different ways that made it really difficult to knuckle down to sensible discussions and I remember some extraordinarily unproductive discussion. And I also remember some extraordinarily unproductive time sitting in these huge co-ordination meetings where I was the centre of attention in a way because I knew most, had been there… I mean, if you like, I was the person who was bringing the most information to the meeting. And having to do it day after day after day and the ill-discipline that we had in running it like that. You know, there’s something where we’ve changed quite a lot. We’ve got that kind of thing much better under control now so that there isn’t this ability for Oxfam to pour 100 people into a room most of whom have no reason for being there but, you know, everybody had to be part of it. And those who weren’t felt, frankly, marginalised. And I suppose in some ways they were but again I am not apologetic because I think that the organisation needed to devote itself to that crisis. I think when we tried to ape that in a way with the Balkans I think we got it wrong; we did too much of that, we got carried away. But I think at the time of the crisis in the Great Lakes we were right.

JM I remember you’re right about the emotional stress. I was thinking… it brought it back as you were saying it how first Anne MacIntosh came out and had seen the most awful, awful things and had escaped finally across the border, had left people, friends behind and there were our own staff still inside Rwanda, in the capital, who were in hiding and almost impossible to know, absolutely impossible to know what was happening to them.

MH Well, I don’t know whether you remember in the relatively early days after I came back from Bujumbura one of the things that was happening was the Deputy Country Representative, Anne’s Deputy, was a woman called Esther Mujawayo, and Esther and her family were taking refuge in a convent in Kigali and we could sometimes get through on the phone and those phone contacts were very precious to us and I’m sure they were to Esther as well. I spent a lot of time with Esther over the months and years afterwards and I think they were very precious to her and I remember distinctly the day that the Interahamwe came and took her husband out and killed him in front of the door, in earshot of all of them and I wasn’t on that phone call with Esther that day but I remember that news being brought into the meeting and our sense of shock and helplessness at that. And it’s not that we hadn’t realised before but Esther was somebody who a lot of people knew and had a good reputation and a lot of us knew her and, you know, I learnt other even worse things in some ways that happened to members of her family but to know that she had witnessed the murder of her husband, and their children had witnessed that really brought it home to us in a very immediate way. Very, very difficult times for the organisation; very, very difficult times for individuals. And Anne MacIntosh, who you mentioned, I haven’t seen her for years now but I know that for quite a few years she had not got over that experience. Got an MBE for it, whatever that does for you. On with the narrative maybe.

At a certain point in early to mid-June, so about six weeks later or so, we decided that we needed to go and have another go at Rwanda and a couple of colleagues, Paul Sherlock and Cathy Mears, were in southern Uganda making little trips into the parts of Rwanda that had been liberated, if that’s the right word, by the RPF, the Rwanda Patriotic Front, that [has] since become the government. And I went back to Bujumbura to try and go in from the south into the part that was still held by the old Rwandan Government and made several trips in there and tried to work out what to do with… there were many people who were displaced, all along the road and around the villages in the south. And there seemed to be a stalemate at the time. But suddenly that stalemate broke and it became impossible to go in through the south because the RPF had started to overrun it and the fighting was happening there and so I took a car and… another amazing experience… I drove myself from Bujumbura across the border to Uvira and then up the escarpment to Bukavu and then along Lake Kivu to Goma and one of our colleagues was there, I suppose on a sort of learning exercise; she was a relatively inexperienced emergencies person, Anna McCord, at the time. It was a little programme; there were about 900 Tutsi refugees who were in a camp there, one of the best refugee camps I’ve ever seen, it had so much attention at that stage. And she and I started going daily into Rwanda from Goma and in the end I started going in on my own because it didn’t feel safe enough for Anna to feel comfortable, I don’t think. Getting within sight of Kigali one day and meeting the mayor of Kigali with his cronies; he’s one of the people who’s been at the Genocide Court… International Tribunal. And we could see the city burning just over the hill. Finding people who were in the most extraordinarily appalling condition. Many people who’d been displaced for several years from their previous displacement, I mean stuff that it is impossible to describe really. What happened one day was we decided to stay overnight and parked in a school and got the headmaster’s permission to sleep on the desks and we were woken up just before six in the morning by shooting. And there were already around, by our calculation, something like 200,000 people who were on the move and in this area and what was happening was the RPF was advancing and were gonna take over. And people literally got out of their beds, and ran out of their doors leaving their doors open, grabbing their kids and a pot or something if they could, and running. The hillsides were covered with people running away. And standing and watching the numbers grow in front of us. I remember every day that I could coming back and getting on the sat-phone from my comfortable hotel in Goma, The Karibu Hotel, and getting on the phone to Oxfam House saying 200,000, 300,000, 400,000… you know, I’m convinced it’s half a million people on the move but also saying, and I am convinced that the numbers of people who have been killed were going up in the same way. Saying too, to a disbelieving Oxfam House, in the end, there are a million people who have been killed here. And people saying “nah, probably a hundred or two hundred thousand, it’s easy to mistake numbers”, and arguing and I have to say I was proved right. And I don’t know how I was getting those numbers but I’m convinced that, however it was, that it was the right information and everybody else nowadays is as well. And a disbelieving Oxfam House as well that didn’t want to do the things I wanted to do.

JM Again, my recollection, and I don’t know when this was, but I do remember you talking about, I think, 800,000 and - you were talking about that earlier - that again was one of the planks by which we argued that a genocide had occurred. Because I think even at an early stage you were saying there are no Tutsis here and you had actually worked out… and I seem to remember you actually said “I did it on the back of an envelope”. You had remembered what the population of Tutsis was in Rwanda previous to that and you said “There are no Tutsis here” so you can therefore surmise that something like 800,000 people had been killed. And again, I think, I remember saying that to journalists and just not getting… I mean, complete disbelief. There was no belief at all…

MH It’s incredible isn’t it?

JM And they said “How do you know? How do you know that?” And I said “Because Maurice is there and he’s not seeing any Tutsis and there were 800,000 in the country” and again, you know, they couldn’t accept that. It was just a hunch; there was no evidence at the time.

MH Of course, now it is accepted. Interesting stuff about our ability to be good at this. And I think it’s one of the things that I always was good at, what’s in the humanitarian business we call “assessment”. And I always feel sorry that I’ve left it behind and become a bureaucrat. But I don’t know how I did that. I don’t remember doing it. I know I still possess on my computer the reports that I was writing at that time. But I remember every day coming back and saying “Look, you know, I’ve driven back from an area where there are 400,000 people and they have nothing and it’s cold. I mean it’s cold and it’s wet and I want blankets.” And Oxfam House’s response is “Well, we’ll let you know tomorrow”. I said “I don’t want to know tomorrow; I want to know now. ‘Cos, you know, if we’re gonna do [it], we’ve gotta do it now.” But [they’d say] “Well, how’re we going to monitor the distribution?” And my answer to that was “We’re not. We are going to give people blankets because they need them. And we aren’t going to monitor the distribution because when we go back the next day they won’t be there; they’ll have moved on to somewhere else.” And this whole thing going on and finally ending up in Gisenyi on the border and by then the RPF had taken over all of Rwanda. A little diversion – I travelled for a few days with, I think it was the Minister of Social Affairs, or something who was my guide in the car. I was driving but he was the guide. We stopped somewhere one day and we were surrounded by Rwandan army at this road junction and we had a discussion. “Where are you going? Why are you going?” And all the rest of it and thank you very much and we’re off. And as I put the car into gear this soldier jumped on the back of the car. So I pulled on the handbrake, knocked it out of gear, and leaned out and said “I’m sorry, we can’t give you a lift”. And he said “Go”. And I said “I’m sorry, I can’t give you a lift”. And our rules were you don’t carry people with guns, you don’t carry belligerents. Very sensible. Quite right. And I said to him “I’m sorry, I can’t do it. I’m not allowed to.” And he said “I’ve got a gun. And you are allowed to. And you’re going to. Because I want to go the same way you’re going.” And I got out of the car and he was standing on the bumper at the back hanging onto the roof rack. And I said to him “I’m sorry, I can’t” and he said “You’re gonna go”. And I reached in and I turned off the engine. And he lost his temper. And he jumped off and he cocked his gun and he pointed it at me and I was convinced for a moment that I was about to be shot. I’m sure now I was about to be shot. And luckily one of his mates just knocked the gun out of the way and said “Don’t do it” and said to me “Get in the car and go, quickly” and he held this guy back. And it was the closest I ever came to dying in the cause, I suppose. And again, it’s one of those things that made us think about security. Yes, we don’t carry belligerents but, frankly, if the man with the gun says you do, you do. My experience but it was one of those things that Oxfam absorbed. Anyway, ended up in Gisenyi. Gisenyi town had every car in Rwanda in it. It was a small town that had… well, again I estimated a million people in it and nobody believed me. And we had these little tiny coordination meetings in Goma every evening. There was us and MSF Holland and ICRC; I think there was only the three agencies. We used to sit around, everybody would bring a bottle of coke, and throw a packet of fags on the table and the coordination meeting was [us] all sitting in somebody’s hotel room for an hour discussing what we’d all seen and thought that day, what our headquarters were saying. And somebody came from the ICRC and said, “Oh, by my estimation 50,000 people have just crossed the border, the next post up in the hills”, and we went “oh oh”. And we’d thought we had a couple more weeks to plan. We’d all decided that it would happen but we had two weeks and suddenly it was Wednesday afternoon, Wednesday evening and we didn’t and we all went down to the border early on Thursday morning and the border was just full of people and cows and children and cars and just the most unbelievable… and we stood just back from the border and every day on Thursday, on Friday and then Saturday which was only half a day of people moving across the border, we compared notes and we decided a million people came across the border. And nobody believed us but we were right. Goma is a small town, 200,000 people maybe, with a million extra, many of whom were in a pitiable state. It was not a pretty sight. People were just dying on the roundabout. There were unsanitary conditions, shall we say. There was not water, there… it was, it was bad. And there’s nowhere to stay. It’s volcanic rock… I mean, all the stuff that people know. I called up a colleague from Bujumbura on the Sunday morning, Mike Youde. He and I jumped in a car and went and located a couple of the places where camps, Kitali camp in particular… we found that that day. And they turned into camps of 300,000 people. I mean they were an unbelievable size and in unbelievably unsuitable places as well for a variety of reasons that aren’t directly related to this kind of storytelling that we’re doing. And I stayed there and I did… I don’t know what I did… endless stuff all day and then in the evening getting on the sat phone and talking to Oxfam House and then sitting down and writing a report and sending it off over the satellite phone. And I don’t know how many interviews I did but I do know that they were continuous. I remember doing evening television in New Zealand followed by morning television in California. I have no idea how much I talked about that. And the journalists started pouring in and I was doing lots of journalist interviews as well. I remember sitting down with three journalists from the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Financial Times or something, and they were another load who I’d insisted on talking to together because there were too many interviews to be done. And one of them asked me about… it was The Times, it wasn’t the Financial Times… one of them asked me about the UN, “How was the UN doing?” and the UN, frankly, wasn’t doing terribly well. And I said “Well, they’re not doing very well.” And he said “What do you mean?” and I said “Well, they appear to only have one gear and it’s slow” and it became a headline and I got told off by Oxfam House for saying that about colleagues in the UN.



  • John Magrath


  • Rosie Dodd

Recorded: 25 August 2005

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creative commons logo (CC) BY-NC-ND This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Rwandan refugees. Zaire, 198#. Photo: Oxfam.

Rwandan refugees at the site of what would later become Kibumba camp. This photo was taken a few days after an enormous influx into Goma.
Zaire, 1994.

Photo: Oxfam

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Last updated Sep 09, 2011