Combat Medic: An Australian's Eyewitness Account of the Kibeho Massacre (review)
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Reviewed by
Terry Pickard. Combat Medic: An Australian's Eyewitness Account of the Kibeho Massacre. Newport, NSW, Australia: Big Sky Publishing, 2008. 192 pp. Photographs. Illustrations. Glossary. $19.95. Paper.

The end of the genocide in Rwanda brought a new regime to power under the Rwandese Patriotic Front. It also saw a country in ruins, with many hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons in IDP camps. The largest of these—with over 150,000 IDPs—was at Kibeho, in southern Rwanda. Under duress, fearful of conditions in the country, and possibly used as a human shield by Hutu extremists responsible for the genocide, the IDPs had resisted earlier calls to evacuate the camp and face justice. In April 1995, one year after the start of the Rwandan genocide, the Tutsi-dominated Rwandese Patriotic Army (RPA) opened fire on the internally displaced Hutu at Kibeho. An estimated eight thousand women, men, children, and babies were slaughtered. Among the few non-Rwandan witnesses were a handful of Australian U.N. soldiers. Powerless to stop the shooting or even to provide basic medical care (despite being trained to do so), they experienced the hell of Kibeho and were later accused of having "just stood by." Combat Medic is the witness account of Terry Pickard, whose mission to Rwanda "as a medic and a soldier" had originally been a professional dream come true. Pickard initially ran an Australian medical ward in Kigali before being deployed to Kibeho. Back in Australia, his wife was due to give birth.

Pickard's eyewitness account exposes the full horror of what happened at Kibeho: the ruthless behavior of RPA soldiers primed with intoxicants; the helplessness of the U.N. soldier who faces a "mass casualty situation," can attend to a only few select "priority patients," and is ordered not to intervene; the nervous tactic snipers inside the camp used to sow confusion and provoke a shootout between the RPA and the Australians, whose discipline told them not to return fire; the rawness of human carnage; the appalling realization that no one can be mentally prepared to see helpless persons being slaughtered one after the other; the tricks of the mind as the helpless onlooker copes by dehumanizing the victims (seeing only the injuries, no longer the humans); and the nerve-jangling negotiations with the RPA before the Australian unit was allowed to leave. Pickard's account offers genuine insights: "I believe making light of the horror was something I did because I could not afford to fall apart. I had a job to do. I was a soldier, a sergeant and a senior medic. But most of all I was Australian, and we don't fall apart. I couldn't let my team down and I needed to lead by example" (84). But Pickard's on-the-spot determination and a touch of chauvinism could not prevent the psychological damage he would sustain.

If it took more than a decade for Pickard to bear witness and unburden himself through this book, the reason was that he could not mentally have written it sooner. Writing became part of his emotional recovery, a long and painful process aggravated by the sheer incomprehension of those who welcomed him back to Australia. Besides not being able to convey the full [End Page 189] extent of the horror, not even to his army superiors, Pickard continued to struggle with questions that could not be answered: Did he always choose the "right" casualties for treatment? Could he have made better decisions? Presenting us with a set of graphic photographs taken during the slaughter and smuggled out of Kibeho and Rwanda at considerable risk, Pickard then takes us through personal journal extracts that chart multiple setbacks and some rare glimpses of hope on the way to recovery. Those setbacks include the humiliation of seeing an RPA captain lay a wreath on Anzac Day (the annual commemoration of the Australia–New Zealand Army Corps, commemorating service in World War I) on April 25 while Pickard was still in Rwanda (and only shortly after the Kibeho debacle); the futility of the assistance provided by Australian psychologists trained in PTSD; the ferocity of flashbacks and...