Address by Air Commodore Tracy Smart, AM
to the Australian Peacekeeping Day Memorial Service on 14th September 2015
at the Australian Peacekeeping Memorial Site on Anzac Parade Canberra- 14 Sept 2015
Distinguished guests; peacekeepers and peacemakers, both retired and still serving; their families; ladies and gentlemen. Good morning. It is a privilege to address you this morning on Australian Peacekeeper's and Peacemaker's Day, marking the 68th Anniversary of the first Australian peacekeeping mission.
Australia has a long and proud history of peacekeeping and peacemaking in many of the world's trouble spots. Since that first deployment of civilian and military observers to the UN Good Offices Mission in Indonesia in 1947, over 80,000 Australians have served in more than 50 missions all around the world. And of course our people continue to serve, from UNMISS in South Sudan, to UNTSO in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, and on UNAMA in Afghanistan.
The contribution and professionalism of Australia's Peacekeepers – military, police and civilian – has earned the respect and admiration of Governments and individuals throughout the world. In these missions, young Australian peacekeepers have often operated in very difficult and dangerous conditions. A number have given their lives in the service of peace and many more have been injured and traumatised by their deployment. Today we thank them for their service and sacrifice, and also that of their families.
I am very proud to say that I have twice had the privilege of wearing the blue beret - 20 years ago in Rwanda in 1995 and in Timor Leste in 2002. The former, Australia’s contribution to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda, has become legendary, particularly the extraordinary efforts of our personnel during the massacre at the Kibeho Internally Displaced Persons camp on 22 Apr 1995. As our people did their best to assist those in the camp to leave peacefully, the Rwandan government forces had other ideas. The final death toll was probably over 4000 people, although the official numbers were an order of magnitude less. These events have certainly taken their toll on those who bore witness but if not for the bravery, discipline and restraint of my colleagues who were present during these horrific events, the outcome would have been far worse. It is a miracle that no Australia lives were lost at that time.
There is no doubt that it was a tough deployment for both contingents, even outside of this specific traumatic event. For many of us it was our first ever deployment, and for half of my colleagues in Med Company it was their first time overseas - period. We were a long way from home, with of course no internet in those days and we could only phone home by buying phone cards and lining up to use the special pay phone. We were working in a culture that was completely different to our own, and in a country that was recovering from a terrible civil war and genocide. Evidence of this was all around us, even for those of us in the second contingent; for example I vividly remember coming across human remains that had washed out from a mass grave during one of my morning walks around the hospital grounds.
My role was Officer Commanding Clinical Services and Aeromedical Evacuation Operations Officer, and as a Squadron Leader I was also the senior RAAF Officer in what was primarily an Army mission. Although our main job was to provide health care to the UN troops, most of our work was humanitarian – caring for the local population. This included people who we rescued from around the country by aeromedical evacuation or by road, and those we chose to treat who had presented to the Kigali General Hospital but who were too sick to be managed there.
We saw many clinical problems that were beyond our previous experience – from the effects of war, such as machete wounds, grenade and mine injuries, to all number of tropical diseases. We also saw lots of kids, many of them orphaned and suffering from malnutrition and diseases, and some of whom died on our watch. We sometimes had to “play God” – allowing people including children to die due to our limited capacity, many of whom would have lived in a first world country. This was very hard on our people, particularly those with kids back home.
Although most of my work was in the hospital, I also deployed down to Kibeho about two weeks after the massacre to man our Casualty Clearing Post with some nurses and medics. We (the UN) were assisting the Rwandan government troops in trying to close the camp and get people back to their homes. Conditions in the camp were dreadful – food had been cut off and there was human excrement everywhere as there were no functioning toilets. People were sick and even dying but they were afraid to leave as they thought they would be killed if they returned home.
In order to encourage them to leave we set up our health facilities just outside the camp and made a decision that we would only treat people at those locations. We went into the camp to encourage them to seek our help but with limited effect. This was extremely hard for us to deal with, but we saw it as the right thing to do. After about five days we arrived at the camp one morning and everyone had decided to leave. We were busy that day but it was very rewarding – a degree of closure for all that had happened there. We felt that we had done some good and given these people a chance.
As I said earlier, Australia’s contribution to UNAMIR has become the stuff of legend, but not always for the right reasons. The toll this mission has taken has been extreme. A PhD study of the second contingent personnel conducted six years post deployment found that over 70% felt they were in danger of being killed and over 90% of being injured during the deployment. In addition nearly 94% saw, and over 66% handled, dead bodies, and 97% witnessed human degradation and misery on a large scale. As a consequence, one in five was experiencing ongoing psychological distress at that time.
The Rwanda Study commissioned by DVA and released last year found that over 32% of those who served had an accepted claim for a mental health condition, which represents over 46 per cent of all accepted Rwanda-attributed claims. It also found higher than average rates of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
These statistics are not confined to the Rwanda mission. The DVA Peacekeeper Study, also released last year, looked at individuals who had been deployed on seven United Nations-sanctioned peacekeeping missions between 1989 and 2002, including Namibia, Western Sahara, Cambodia, Rwanda, Somalia, and two Timor Leste deployments. It found that 30% had at least one diagnosable mental health condition, with 20% of participants showing moderate levels of mental ill health and vulnerability, and 10% reporting more severe problems.
But this is not the whole story. Those six months were an incredibly experience-rich time for myself and many of my colleagues. We worked extremely hard, and had some very traumatic experiences, but there were also a lot of positive aspects. For me, the highlight was caring for the children of Rwanda, including those from the Mother Teresa orphanage in Kigali. As I saw it, each child we saved or left a positive imprint upon had the potential to grow up and make a positive difference in their country, and so represented a small victory. In other words I definitely have many good memories along with the bad. I feel very proud of the work myself and others did over there, and of how courageous our people were.
For those of us in the health world, this mission, which represented the first time we had deployed a hospital since Vietnam, was a major turning point in ADF operational health capability, and formed the building blocks for future missions, such as those to Timor Leste. It was also the making of me as a military medical officer. I don't think I'd be where I am now, about to become Surgeon General and Commander Joint Health, without my experience in Rwanda. I may not even still be in the ADF. I learned a lot about myself, about leadership, and about resilience, embracing the view that “whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger”. In other words, while some tragically have developed PTSD, I believe that I have experienced “post traumatic growth”. It has given me confidence that I can challenge myself in extreme situations and survive. And I am not alone in this. At the 6 year post deployment mark, 93% of the second contingent felt that their lives had been changed for the better by their experiences.
Learning first hand of the incredible cost of missions such as these, where people are put in harm’s way without a means to adequately protect themselves, has also been important lesson for me, and has made me committed to ensuring that we do all we can in Defence and DVA to prevent, treat, and manage such problems into the future.
Finally I feel proud that we helped a country and people in desperate need to get back on their feet. It is gratifying to see how much progress Rwanda has made. The country has enjoyed a period of relative stability and economic prosperity since the dark days of the mid 90s. Its Government development program, Vision 2020, launched in 2000, has the objective of transforming the country into a knowledge-based middle-income country, reducing poverty and health problems and making the nation united and democratic. So far they are on track in most areas with national budgets focussing on education, health, technology, skills, innovation, and creativity.
Rwanda is still very much a third world country but it is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa with a per-capita GDP over 4 times greater than it was in 1994. Rwanda was named East Africa's leading ICT nation by the UN in 2007 and its economy was ranked second in the world in terms of green investment facilitation in 2014. Investment in its infrastructure has resulted in a rapid increase in access to safe water during the past decade. Tourism has become one of its fastest-growing economic resources and the country's leading foreign exchange earner. And the country now provides over 14,400 sacks of exceptional coffee beans each year to Starbucks…and much more to other coffee shops around the world. All this may not have been possible without the efforts of our Peacekeepers in Rwanda’s time of greatest need.
This is just one person’s story of one UN mission, but in many ways it is very representative of Australia’s overarching story in the world of Peacekeeping. It is after all what Peacekeeping and peacemaking is really all about – helping countries in need to turn themselves around and to develop the building blocks for basic human security for their people. Sometimes this comes with unexpected and extreme costs but we can nevertheless be proud as Australians of the difference our Peacekeepers and Peacemakers have made on the global stage through their courage, dedication, and skills. These individuals represent the very best that this country has to offer.
So as we stand here on the site of our future Peacekeeping Memorial, which will honour all those who have and will continue to serve on Peacekeeping operations, I once again say thank you to all of my brothers and sisters in peacekeeping, and the families that support them.