Harrowing Rwandan genocide account in newly-released Defence Forces files

Irish veterans recall lucky escapes on UN service in the Congo and Chad


A harrowing account of arriving in Rwanda at the height of the genocide there in 1994 is among more than 150 audio files being released by the Defence Forces.

Commandant Michael Walsh, now a retired officer, was seconded by the army to help Goal in its relief efforts. He arrived as thousands were fleeing to the city of Goma which was just across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

In his account to the military archives oral project, he recalled landing in Rwanda in the summer of 1994 to be met by an Irish army officer on the ground and by John O’Shea, then the chief executive of Goal.

“We arrived at the airport. As we were landing, the refugees were crossing the runway. They were left and right of it dying,” Mr Walsh recalled.

“Cholera and dysentery had hit very bad. During the journey from the airport to the house [they were staying in], the first thing you noticed was the smell. There were bamboo mats wrapped up and inside every mat was a dead person.

“Two Irish army officers had just spent the day burying the dead. We said, ‘how many today?’ and they gave a conservative figure of 2,000 they had handled.”

The testimony of Mr Walsh is one of 140 extracts from interviews conducted with 16 Defence Forces personnel, mostly veterans, which are being released to the public.

More will be released in the future and interviews with veterans are continuing to take place.

Captain Daniel Ayiotis, the officer in charge of the oral history project, said it was a “natural extension” to the accounts in the Bureau of Military History.

Those accounts from veterans of the revolutionary period were finally opened to historians in 2003.

The latest releases follow on from that period. He explained: “It is the first systematic attempt to capture the first hand accounts of people who have been involved directly and indirectly with the defence forces.”

One of the oldest accounts in the archives is from Art Magennis who was born in Ardglass, Co Down in September 1919. In June 1940 he joined the Irish army.

He speaks in the archive about comforting the mother of an Irish soldier who was killed in the Congo.

Corporal Seamus McDermott reflects on having been under fire in trenches in Albert Park, where the United Nations forces were based in the Congo in 1961.

He was in a trench with a Private Smullen from Athlone when a bullet was fired between their heads.

“This bullet lodged in a sandbag behind us. That was close enough for comfort.”

He spoke of his anger at the treatment of the Jadotville veterans of A Company, 35th infantry battalion.

Their now celebrated defence against Katangan mercenaries in September 1961 was once derided as an abject surrender.

Mr McDermott said the men led by Pat Quinlan had agreed to a ceasefire which was requested by the Mayor of Katanga. The Katangan rebels reneged on the agreement.

“I think that anybody who was involved in derogatory remarks should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves,” he said.

“There was none of this negative behaviour immediately after the event that I witnessed. We had the height of respect and admiration for how A Company had acquitted themselves in Jadotville.

“As far as I am concerned they were not prisoners, but legally detained hostages.”

Defence forces chaplain Fr Jerry Carroll recalled an incident in 2008 when there was a tense stand-off between Irish troops and Janjaweed militiamen surrounding a refugee camp in Chad.

The Janjaweed had an anti-aircraft gun pointed at the Irish. One of the Irish officers had a mortar ready to fire if provoked. “We stood there for a good minute. It felt like an hour. All he had to do was drop the finger. It didn’t come to pass. They decided to reverse, do a u-turn and go back into the bush.”

The collection can be accessed at http://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/oral-history-project/people-in-the-collection