In August 1994, as soon as it was considered safe, Dr Dom Colbert, and a medical team of four sister-nurses, Brenda, Fionnuala, Dorothea and Eileen, drove across the Ugandian border into Rwanda. They had no mandate from anyone or any organisation to be there.They were motivated by a deep sense of shame and anger that such an appalling holocaust could have happened.* They had their medical skills, a little money, and an old clapped out pick-up truck.
They drove towards the capital, Kigali, about 20 miles away. It was eerie. There was nobody about. No streams of people heading to market, carrying crates and boxes on their heads, that you see in all African countries. No big black ‘high-nellies’ wobbling along, laden with impossible loads of bananas or charcoal on back and front, and carrying a passenger or two on the cross-bar. ‘The country looked sad as if in sympathy with the people’.
The capital was not much better. There were some stalls on the side of the road selling little African carvings. Their buyers were EU personnel and UN peacekeepers. Black market racketeers gestured you to approach. They offered a fabulous rate of local currency in exchange for US dollars.
Dom’s team got permission to open one of the medical clinics destroyed in the killings. The staff had with been murdered or fled. With local help it was soon back in business. They found accommodation in an abandoned convent (12 of the sisters there had been murdered ), and soon got into routine of delivering babies, dealing with general sicknesses, and distributing food and clothes to people who called.
One day while driving up a steep hill near the clinic, the truck refused to budge another inch. Within a short time a sizeable crowd of about 20 people slowly appeared. They looked wretchedly thin and miserable. But with humour they pushed the vehicle up the hill, and cheered when it burst into life the other side. Dom came back to thank them. ‘What can I do to repay you?’ he asked. One elderly man politely said: ‘We need food. The young have gone. We are on our own.’
Dom asked how many were you, expecting to hear that is was only a dozen or so. He was amazed when the man said ‘Four thousand!’.
‘I will get you food,’ Dom promised.
‘A big tough guy’
Medical help gradually improved. The Missionary Sisters of Charity** had a home for the dying in Kigali. The African and Asian sisters were somehow spared attacks during the massacres. In fact they hid Tutsis from the marauding gangs, and were now treated with respect. They had no electricity, and had to close their doors once it was dark. Despite being massively understaffed, people squatted on the road outside hoping to get their loved ones into the Sisters’ care.
It happened that a group of British soldiers were based nearby. Dom explained the problem ‘to a big tough guy, with a very pronounced British accent’, which Dom barely understood. But the soldier got the message. A few days later a group of squaddies, no officer in charge, drove up in a large truck. They unloaded and installed a shining new generator, and a promise of a resupply of gas for as long as necessary. It was all done with jokes, and good banter. When asked how they got permission for this, they laughed. It was nicked from the stores.
‘Do you know Cavan?’
Food for 4,000 was proving more difficult. Dom tried all the international agencies, and friendly embassies in Kigali to no avail. He was told there was no quantity of food for that number. In desperation he doorstepped the EU Mission. After waiting a day he blocked the path of the chief commissioner. Obviously in a hurry, the commissioner tried to brush him aside. ‘I need food for 4,000 people and it is urgent.’ The man looked at Dom closely. ‘Are you Irish?’
‘Yes,’ Dom replied. ‘I’m from Galway.’
‘Do you know Cavan?’
Dom replied that of course he knew Cavan. The commissioner’s attitude completely changed. He motioned Dom to follow him. Outside they met Simone, a Rwandan, and clearly someone in authority. ‘This man wants us to deliver food to feed 4,000 for one month. Will you organise that Simone?’
The following Tuesday Dom waited with his ‘helpers’. All 4,000 (it looked far more ) waited as well. Sure enough two trucks full of food arrived, as it did for the successive four weeks. Distribution began. A little kindness in a sad world.
NOTES: * During the Rwandan genocide of 1994 (east-central Africa ), members of the Hutu ethnic majority murdered as many as 800,000 people mostly of the Tutsi minority. Often hysterical mobs killed in cruel and humiliating ways. The impact on children was devastating. Those that survived witnessed the murders, rapes, and discarded body parts. Most thought they were going to be killed.
** The order was founded by Albanian born Mother Teresa, known as Saint Teresa of Calcutta. The nuns take several vows including ‘to give wholehearted service to the poorest of the poor’.
For the past few weeks I have been taking stories from Dom Colbert’s No Tears left - Biafra to Bosnia, now on sale €15. This is the second collection of Dom’s memories written and published as a request from his late, and much loved, wife Doreen.