Chewing up the psyche

Starting any new job is daunting, but few people can relate to distributing food in a mined soccer field in the aftermath of genocide.

Such was the task that Juliette, a female relief delegate for the International Committee of the Red Cross, found herself undertaking in the Rwandan capital of Kigali in 1994.

Juliette was part of the first wave of delegates to arrive in Rwanda in August after the genocide. The Rwandan Patriotic Front had formed a post-genocide government in July. She remembered arriving in Rwanda to find minimal Red Cross infrastructure. Apart from some previous travel in Africa and being francophone, she had no relevant experience for the job. She stated how to do her job, “every element of my being needed to move outside of my comfort zone and go to the edge of my knowledge”.

So Juliette soon found herself distributing food on soccer field in August 1994. Surrounded by a crowd of a thousand Rwandans, she had been organizing bags of flour and beans when there was a loud explosion. The crowd dispersed and Juliette and her colleague drove to see what had happened. An old man had stepped on a landmine, and his leg was badly mutilated.

They drove the man to the local, barely functioning, hospital. Juliette then returned to the distribution site, now knowing that the site was mined. Unable to turn the crowd back, she had to walk alongside the food sacks knowing that at least that path was safe. Juliette remembered thinking, “This is going to be what I have to deal with on a daily basis. It was mind-blowing”.

However, Juliette carried on with the task of food distribution. Twelve communes were chosen due to their level of vulnerability. A Red Cross agronomist had performed an initial survey to review crop conditions. Juliette then conducted an informal rapid assessment survey. She explained that this meant estimating how much seed would be needed for the following year, reviewing the community’s main source of food, going to the market see what was available, and discovering the last time the villagers had eaten meat. From this, Juliette team deduced the tonnage of beans, seed, maize and oil needed.

Juliette explained that the first few distributions ended in riots due to insufficient amounts. She recalled saying, “this is ridiculous – there’s got to be a way around this. I don’t want to be doing this for the next 3 months. Having recognized that at the end of every time I do this somebody’s going to get trampled, somebody’s going to get hurt, somebody’s not going to get what they came for”.

Juliette faced many psychological, as well as logistical, challenges.

Juliette voice wavered as she recalled driving through deserted villages. She stated that in some “the stench of bodies was very prevalent, and depending on how close you got, overwhelming. There were no bodies there that I saw lying on the ground, but we knew there were mass graves.” She described how “sometimes what would happen when there was rain, or a grave had been buried too shallow, the dogs would dig up human bones.”

She reflected that “it took me a while to understand how it was chewing up my psyche in terms of the sense of this horror and the evidence of the horror I was seeing everyday and that I was absorbing every day.”

“I had the worst, most horrific nightmares of my life when I was living in Rwanda”, Juliette added.

Juliette returned to Canada in December 1994, struggling with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. However, she did not regret her time in Rwanda. She confessed, “I knew it was going to stretch me. I was scared shitless. I thought that this is my growth opportunity and that’s exactly what it was”.