“It’s the untold story of 32 people doing extraordinary things and a piece of military history that should be told.” — former SAS soldier Paul Jordan
Ten years ago, Australian soldiers witnessed a now little-remembered revenge massacre in a refugee camp in Kibeho, Rwanda, which left thousands of innocent civilians dead. As one of those witnesses, war artist George Gittoes, says, “I don’t believe any Australian soldiers have come under that much sustained fire and seen that much death … since World War II.”
A decade on, Sunday reveals there are now also many Australian victims of that awful tragedy — an alarming percentage of Diggers who served there are struggling with the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought on by what they witnessed.
As Australia again deploys troops to Afghanistan, in the 60th anniversary year of the end of World War II, we once again send young men and women into harm’s way in foreign countries, often without much thought about what impact those experiences might have on them.
For the first time the Diggers who served at Kibeho during those awful days of April 1995 tell their story.
They ask why their service in this little-known peacekeeping operation cannot be recognised as an Active Service operation so that they and their families can receive more benefits from Government support schemes designed to help soldiers overcome the condition often dismissed as “combat stress” or “battle fatigue”. Or worse, sometimes those who suffer it are dismissed as money-seeking malingerers. Yet PTSD is a very real and persistent psychiatric illness.
Current military injury compensation entitlements only allow the Kibeho veterans and other soldiers who have suffered injuries in peace-keeping operations to be compensated to the level of education or skill they had as soldiers or medics in the Army — a measure of “reasonable” rehabilitation that many former soldiers complain is grossly unreasonable. Now many of those who were at Kibeho languish at home, unemployed, living off pensions, totally and permanently incapacitated by their mental injuries.
Facing an overwhelming Rwandan Patriotic Army force, the Australians had rules of engagement that meant they were unable to intervene as civilians were massacred in front of them. Holding their fire undoubtedly saved the lives of all of those in the small Australian contingent at Kibeho, but many of those who witnessed what happened there are now terribly traumatised by their failure to respond.
They are the forgotten casualties of a growing line of former and serving military personnel claiming psychiatric damage from peacetime service with the ADF overseas. In 2004 the Defence Force’s own Budget papers acknowledged a 215-percent increase on the previous year’s costs for military compensation payments. Reportedly about 600 personnel — more than one percent of the Defence workforce — were medically discharged last year. At a time when Australia’s Defence commitments are stretched as never before in peacetime, it is a huge financial and human cost.
For the soldiers who experienced Kibeho, recognition of their contribution as Active Service might bring some resolution to their troubled memories. As one former Australian soldier who served at Kibeho tells Sunday, it would be a tangible acknowledgment. “It gives you a sense of worth. You weren’t over there for a dirty little secret that’s been swept under the carpet.”