Médecins Sans Frontières

“Genocide calls for a radical, immediate response. The only response to date has been first aid. But genocide cannot be stopped by doctors!”
MSF France Appeal published in Le Monde, 18 April 1994

“Even if it means supping with the devil, MSF is calling for armed intervention.”
                       -Dr. Philippe Biberson, President, MSF France, May 1994

Editor's Introduction

The 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, which transpired between April and July 1994, has evoked an array of introspection with participants from aid workers on the ground to members of the United Nations Security Council asking themselves central questions: What did you do during the cascading genocide, and what could you have done differently? Colin Keating, the New Zealand diplomat who served as president of the Security Council in April 1994, is the latest to express public remorse, admitting the international body “utterly failed” to recognize and halt the slaughter that claimed up to one million lives, singling out the United States and France for having vetoed efforts to condemn the violence.

While debate contorted the United Nations to the point of paralysis, impassioned and urgent exchanges were underway among other key players at the time, specifically humanitarian aid organizations on the ground in Rwanda. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), whose expat physicians and logisticians witnessed local Tutsi staff slaughtered before their eyes –  the group would lose between 100-200 nurses, nutritionists, drivers, radio operators and administrators by the time the killing subsided – struggled in particular on how best to apply its tradion of speaking out in the face of genocide.  

MSF’s internal debates, conflicts and contradictory interpretations of the situation and the organization’s response to it climaxed in a first for the humanitarian organization: On June 18, 1994, the physicians called publically for armed intervention.

“As humanitarian actors, you’re supposed to act peacefully, not call for killing people,” MSF’s Jean-Herve Bradol recalled in a recent conversation with Warscapes. “Asking for an action for intervention against the perpetrators was clearly a request to shoot them. This was clearly against humanitarian principles. In Paris, a significant portion of the board of directors was opposed to making this call. Me, I was in favor, because I was working with the team in Kigali in the month of April and saw what I saw. It took me something like a week to realize it was a systematic campaign of extermination.”

The morally and professionally wrenching question over whether to call for armed intervention is but one of the dilemmas explored in an unprecedented public accounting by MSF of its internal deliberations during the Rwandan genocide, part of its “MSF Speaking Out” series. The 80-page report – which comprises minutes from internal MSF meetings, quotes from participants, internal communications and translations of relevant press reports – is organized chronologically, and is nothing short of a gripping anatomy of the genocide as it reverberated through Rwanda to the United Nations, Paris, Brussels, Washington and beyond.  Warscapes finds it compelling not only as an intimate window into that period, but as a touchstone for evaluating some of the current arenas of mass violence the world is facing today.

“Everyone in the humanitarian environment speaks about transparency, but you generally only have the official versions that portray very favorably the actions of humanitarian organizations,” Bardol said. “Many within MSF were opposed to making our internal debates public, but it was very important to us, on the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, that these kinds of debates be exposed. To properly train younger humanitarian workers, you have to expose them to the realities of your weaknesses, your hesitations, your decisions in the moment. Most painful is the fact that we had difficulties understanding the magnitude and the severity of the situation at the beginning. We could have helped our colleagues working for MSF who were Tutsis to escape. I’m sure we could have done more. But we didn’t do it in the first days, so for me I feel a failure to be more clever or more fast; I could have saved more lives. In these documents, we expose all of that.” -Michael Bronner

Genocide of Rwandan Tutsi 1994; MSF Speaks Out is excerpted below: 

The Violence Begins


In February [1994], the Head of Mission in Rwanda, sent me a fax saying, “That’s it, we have to prepare for a clash.” … Given that the peace process was failing, “ethnist” ideology was becoming rampant, and the ever-present violence, we thought that if the situation continued to worsen there was a huge risk that some elements in the Government would target Rwandan Tutsis in a big way. What we were expecting were pogroms.
                -Dr. Jean-Hervé Bradol, Rwanda Programme Manager, MSF France 

*           *          *


MSF cannot claim – any more than the United Nations – to have said at any time: ”there’s a genocide in the making”. I never heard that. I never heard anyone say: ”machetes are being distributed” or anything like that. We were entirely focused on this advancing front, the problems of the refugees, and the huge numbers of displaced people.
                -Dr. Eric Goemaere, General Director, MSF Belgium


*           *          *

DOCUMENT: Extract from the diary  of Jan Debyser, MSF Holland Project coordinator, Murambi - Rwanda, April 1994  

Thursday 7 April. A Tutsi family is seeking refuge at our centre. Their house has been attacked. The man claims that he hasn’t dared to sleep at home for a week… A bit later other Tutsi, seriously wounded by machetes and sticks, comes to the house begging for help. About 20 Tutsi are now staying on the premises ... In our ambulance, Maryse and I drive up the hill to the centre of Murambi until we come upon a crowd of Hutu, armed with knives and machetes, barring the road and ordering us to get out of the car. We are accused of hiding a Tutsi they are looking for. A few Hutu are becoming increasingly aggressive … To the person who seems to be most amenable to reason I explain that we are only sheltering a Tutsi family, mainly women and children. I then ask what the person they are looking for has done. The crowd roars, “The President is dead, that’s the reason!” … Someone shows me a hand grenade, asking me whether I know what that is. Finally we agree that they can search our premises. We have no choice but to give in…On the way I ask what will happen to the man if they find him. “He will be killed” is the reply…The group is threatening to attack the house if we refuse to hand over the man. … A little while later the man they have been searching for steps outside the gate, his hands up. A few hotheads immediately begin to beat him up. Maryse begins to cry. A few Hutu want to reassure her, saying that nothing will happen to her. “But you are going to kill that man”, she cries. The Hutu order us to walk back to our car. Behind our back Godefroid, one of our guards, is dragged off. We call out that he belongs to our staff, but no one listens. The man who has been handed over is being beaten with sticks and hacked upon with machetes… When we arrive back home [we discover that] the Tutsi man surrendered to them has been killed between the banana trees.

*           *          *

On 8 April, the MSF France team was evacuating the southeast Rwanda camps towards Burundi but didn’t manage to get its local employees across the border. Most of them were of Tutsi origin and the team had to resign itself to leaving them behind.

DOCUMENT: Extract from the “End of Mission Report,” Loïc Schneider, MSF France logistician in Rwanda, April 1994

It was when we were visiting the team in Burenge…that we heard about the assassination of the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi. After a day on stand-by, to see which way the wind was blowing, and a night when we could hear shots, we evacuated the country for Burundi the next morning…We got together the local staff from the compound (where the team lived). Those who wanted to could come along. Some fifty locals (the majority) came with us…We set off for customs with a dozen vehicles including a 20 tonne truck carrying the local staff. Fifty metres from customs there was a military checkpoint. The order: the Rwandans must not cross the border. The team was alarmed: that would mean leaving half the staff behind in the civil war…”A,” newly arrived in the Burenge mission, tried to negotiate a passage for the Rwandans. Time was passing and night was about to fall…At 5.15 pm, “A” was still negotiating, but only for four Tutsi women who were certain to be killed. The customs officers still refused point blank. “A” started to shout out loud, which created considerable tension and led to a temporary break in the negotiations…Emotional scenes followed. I said good-bye to my driver, who had been with me for several months, and to others who I liked a lot, but I felt I had done all I could to try and get them to come with us. Other expats burst into tears at the sight of them leaving. “A,” depressed by his failure, went to find the coordinators and informed them bluntly that they would have the death of thirty Rwandans on their conscience. He was still convinced we could have got them through, that nothing could happen to a group of 30 expats overnight at the border…Everyone gulped back their tears and their anger, and at last we went through with our Zaïrean staff, who were allowed to leave the country, but only after another strict control…There was a rift in the group between the majority, who had wanted to go through without the staff, and the others who thought that we should have continued to negotiate, that we had let 40 people go to their deaths…

*           *          *

On 24 April, the last MSF expatriate volunteers left Butare for Burundi. From the top of a bridge they saw corpses floating on the Akagera River. We were counting five bodies every minute on the Akagera River.


People had been selectively brought [to the bridge], their ID cards were checked and then they were massacred. Interahamwe would collect all the people from villages to bring them together and then they would massacre them. They would hack them to death. If you paid 30 US cents, you could have a bullet. We saw this. The whole landscape was like this…The day we stood on that bridge between Burundi and Rwanda watching those bodies going by, I swore that if there is a judicial system in this world, one day these people would pay for their crimes.
               -Dr. Rony Zachariah, Medical Coordinator, Butare, MSF Belgium, April 1994



*           *          *

Call to Arms 

MSF doctors and staff debriefed in Brussels upon their return from the field made clear their opinion that genocide was taking place, and with this came the first stirrings for armed intervention:

DOCUMENT: “Opinion on the crisis in Rwanda” by Dr Reginald Moreels on behalf of MSF, Le Soir (Belgium), 6 May 1994

The crisis in Rwanda is no longer just a crisis: it is genocide. Civil society has been decapitated, both figuratively and literally. Many associates, missionaries, and NGO grass roots workers have left the country in a climate of nostalgia, sadness and even revulsion. Nostalgia for their huge investment, sadness for the skilled colleagues they were forced to leave there, and revulsion because in abandoning their Rwandan colleagues they were signing their death warrant…Is it not intolerable to let an assassin kill somebody without being able to react? Not only does such an attitude condone the massacres, it is also soul-destroying for soldiers and humanitarian workers alike. Today it is not acceptable that great powers, i.e. the most powerful members of the Security Council and the United Nations, can wage war with sophisticated weapons in the Gulf, yet not be able or sufficiently determined to neutralize machetes and relatively lightweight firearms… [W]e can now witness a genocide unfolding on our TV screens, yet the international community cannot even put Rwanda on the Security Council agenda!

...In Rwanda, there is absolutely no question of arguing for a reduced presence of the UN peacekeeping force while the carnage continues. That is why, before the whole country and perhaps even its neighbours give off an unbearable stench of corpses for decades, we at MSF – together with our sister organisations in the neighbouring countries – have called on the highest political authorities to establish security zones, starting with the larger medical facilities in towns like Kigali, Butare, Gisengi, etc. The wounded and the refugees could take refuge there whatever their ethnic origin. When we have to admit in rage and disgust that civilian patients are being killed in their beds, as is the case in Butare and Kigali, thereby making a slaughterhouse of a hospital, a place that was respected even in Somalia and Bosnia (with a few exceptions such as Gorazde), we find ourselves back in the Middle Ages … It needs to be said loud and clear, any political strategy - regardless of any theoretical discussion of the political context and history of a conflict – must choose between two courses. Either it chooses the path of human rights where, according to realistic political and economic criteria, everything possible is done to avoid enormous, serious human rights violations (conflict prevention), to alleviate them or neutralise them (conflict management). Or it chooses the selfish path of nationalism, which continues to base international relations on Realpolitik, in the guise of national sovereignty. We are not so naïve as to think we can switch seamlessly from one path to another. But if we let genocide take place in Rwanda, we will unfortunately have to admit with shame over the next few days and weeks that even Realpolitik has shed its - albeit smalL - remaining scruples.

*         *        *

On 16 May, in a TF1 news bulletin, Jean-Hervé Bradol criticised the inertia of France towards the dramatic events in Rwanda, and makes it clear it is not "tribal" violence, as depicted in much of the government-oriented French press.

DOCUMENT: Interview with Jean-Hervé Bradol, MSF France Programme Manager, 08:00 news bulletin, TF1  

…This is a political conflict. They have to stop portraying the situation in Rwanda as tribes slaughtering each other. What’s more, this description is hardly harmless. France has a particularly serious role and responsibility in Rwanda. Those now carrying out the slaughter, those who are implementing this policy of planned, systematic extermination have been funded, trained and armed by France. And that is something that hasn’t been exposed properly yet. No French authority has explicitly condemned those responsible for the slaughter. And yet the French State knows these people only too well, since it has provided them with equipment…

*        *       *

In Paris, during a directors’ meeting, and following discussion of an article by François Jean, Director of Research, MSF France decided to make a public appeal for international armed intervention to put a stop to the genocide. 

DOCUMENT: “Genocide in Rwanda – how should we act?” François Jean, Researcher, MSF France Foundation, June 1994

…The racist nature of the policy behind the massacres, as well as the clear desire to eliminate every last Tutsi, make it possible to qualify this as genocide under the terms of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide of 9 December 1948, to which Rwanda has been a party since 1975…Two crucial questions need to be asked: Once we agree to call it genocide…it would seem difficult to leave it there, especially as the extermination is continuing…[W]e need to shake this feeling of impunity that has prevailed for too long; this is undoubtedly the best way to reduce the massacres that continue in the government controlled zones, to limit the massacres or reprisals in RPF zones, to keep violence from resuming in Burundi; and we should remember that it is the reaffirmation of the notion of responsibility and justice that is, perhaps, the best guarantee of a process of social recomposition which will have to take place in Rwanda. How should we rethink our position and the way we intervene? We are faced with a dilemma: Rwanda has enormous needs; can we abstain, or fail to help the displaced because many of them have blood on their hands? … [B]etween the two extremes of abstention and unqualified intervention, what procedures and safeguards are needed to avoid mistakes? …[G]iven that this is genocide, we can’t just say it’s “business as usual.”

*        *        *

After an animated discussion at an extraordinary Board meeting on 7 June, the Board of MSF France decided that MSF should call for international armed intervention to put a stop to the genocide.


We had an extraordinary Board meeting about this issue: “Should MSF call for armed intervention?”… It occurred to us that this was the first time we had called for armed intervention. For us there was no question of it being French intervention, but international intervention. What’s more, we weren’t specific, we said: “It will just be a matter of stepping in. The attackers are well known. We need to step in, so robust international intervention is needed.” So we will call for armed international intervention. The whole organisation was there in the meeting room. We said: “Even if it means supping with the devil, MSF is calling for armed intervention."

-Dr. Philippe Biberson, President, MSF France from May 1994

*         *        *

On 14 June, three MSF directors met with the President of France at his request. He told them that France intended to intervene in Rwanda.


Philippe, Bernard and I were received by François Mitterrand. It was a completely different tune to the first discussion that we’d had with his team… what he said differed radically from the conversation we’d had in May. He threw in a remark to the effect that our intervention, our “propaganda”, had been badly received and that he had been hurt to be treated like that… Philippe asked PresidentMitterrand: “How would you describe the Rwandan interim government?” Mitterrand said, “They are a bunch of assassins…Now we’ve had enough, we’re going in. We’ll try to sort things out and save people”… He told us about Operation Turquoise, before it was officially announced…[T]here had been a change in the French position, from what I perceived as benign neutrality towards the interim government, to a humanitarian-hostile position. Those people were becoming much less attractive company now. France started to realise that it would have a major international political problem on its plate, and launched Operation Turquoise.

-Dr. Jean-Hervé Bradol, Rwanda Programme Manager, MSF France

*          *        *

During a meeting of the Directors of Operations of the various MSF sections, MSF Belgium and MSF Holland expressed reservations about the MSF France decision to launch an appeal for armed intervention to protect the Tutsi.

DOCUMENT: Minutes of the international meeting of the Directors of Operations of MSF Belgium, MSF France, MSF Holland, MSF Luxembourg and MSF Spain on Rwanda, 15 June 1994 (in English)

MSF Belgium is concerned that if MSF France leaves Kigali MSF will no longer have any action on the FAR side and will not be able to do so in the near future. This could be interpreted by some as a stain on MSF’s neutrality. MSF Holland is very worried about the possible consequences of such campaigns and is very hesitant about whether they should be carried out at all. They feel they cannot open a mission in Butare because it would be too dangerous after the release of a press campaign…They also insisted that no names should be mentioned in any report distributed by MSF as this was not MSF’s role. MSF/F agreed to both these terms.

*           *          *

On 17 June, MSF France launched an appeal for armed international intervention at a press conference. It was published in a quarter page insert of Le Monde on June 18th. The same day, the government of France announced its highly controversial decision to launch “Operation Turquois,” a military intervention to establish a “safe zone” in southwest Rwanda – highly controversial given France’s recent support for the Hutu regime, which included arms shipments. Three days later, MSF Belgium revealed the deep strain within the organization in an interview with the Belgian daily La Nouvelle Gazette:


When asked whether French intervention was better than doing nothing, Doctor Pierre Harzé of MSF Belgium didn’t hesitate: “I am convinced that doing nothing at all is better than French intervention!” He stressed that Médecins Sans Frontières France were of exactly the same opinion. The organisation, infuriated by the French government’s “humanitarian hijacking” of events, has called from the start for international intervention in Rwanda. But MSF believes that an intervention must be undertaken by countries that cannot be suspected of taking part in the conflict. This naturally excludes France, which is “completely disqualified,” and whose sudden humanitarian zeal seems “extremely bizarre” to Doctor Harzé.

Nevertheless, “Operation Turquois” began, it’s force of 2,550 French troops and 500 African troops from Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Mauritania, Egypt, Niger and the Republic of the Congo entered Rwanda with 100 armed personnel carriers, 10 helicopters, a battery of 120 mm mortars, four Jaguar fighter bombers, eight Mirage fighters, and reconnaissance aircraft.

*           *          *

Within a week of the deployment – at a June 29th press conference – other French NGOs on the France-Rwanda Committee including Médecins du Monde, Pharmaciens Sans Frontières and S.O.S Racism, declared their opposition to “Operation Turquoise,” saying that it was making the situation even more complicated. MSF Belgium continued the debate at its July 1st board meeting:

DOCUMENT: Minutes of the Board meeting of MSF Belgium, 1 July 1994 (in French)

The whole country is paranoid, and this has been intensified with the arrival of the French…With regard to the genocide: MSF France has taken a clear “anti-genocide” stance and declared its support for military intervention to stop the murder. The problem is that MSF France made a call to arms (thus setting a precedent for the association) and only the French army has intervened. The French option should have been subject to international debate, thus enabling us to redefine our international stance (humanism and MSF doctrines)...

*         *       *

At the beginning of July, the Director of Communication at MSF Belgium, who had stayed with the MSF team in Rwanda...published an assessment of Operation Turquoise in the Belgian newspaper Le Soir. A few sentences show how difficult it is to tell about the new regime’s violence in the post-genocide context.

DOCUMENT: “Unmasked,” Pierre Harzé Le Soir (Belgium,) 11 July 1994 (in French)  

Just a few days after its launch, ‘Operation Turquoise’ can be seen for what it always was in the minds of its proponents: a desperate attempt to save a faltering, bloody, but friendly extremist Hutu regime. In an extraordinarily bewildering exercise, the French government, obligingly supported by a national press that seems, for the moment, to have turned its back on any obligation for critical comment, has managed to throw a modest humanitarian veil over an intervention that quite clearly has other aims…[T]his new military-humanitarian episode forced us – in our capacity as a humanitarian organisation – to think about at least two issues:

-Firstly, that it had once again been shown that true humanitarian action cannot be reduced to simply playing the rescuer. Its value is to be found in the intention behind the action. It is this intention that gives the action its full justification and which defines its nature. If the intention is not wholly objective, then the action cannot be qualified as humanitarian. Let us not, then, be misled by apparent similarities in the actions, but rather question the intention behind them. Let us not be taken in by this lamentable trend that increasingly induces our governments to cloak old-fashioned interventionism in humanitarian rhetoric.

-Secondly, it is more than ever essential that NGOs keep their distance and maintain the power of decision with regard to “military-humanitarian” intervention.


The full series of MSF Speaking Out reports examining the group's expierences in El Salvador, North Korea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Chechnya and elsewhere - including the full Rwanda paper - is available here