Operation Purposeful – Finding Rwanda’s Missing Refugees

Rwandan Refugee CampFew places in the world have known such pain as Rwanda in the 1990s. The conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes stretches back in to antiquity but it was the end of colonialism and the creation of the new nations of Rwanda and Burundi that the hatred found new reasons to simmer. Both tribes were spread out across a tribal zone that stretched along the border with the once dominant Tutsi tribe in Rwanda becoming a minority compared to the Hutus.

Violence was sporadic but bloody throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Often there seemed to be no specific cause for it other than releasing the tension and it always resulted in brutal and merciless killings of large numbers of people usually families rounded up from their homes. A massacre carried out by one tribe would in turn spark a retaliatory massacre soon after by the opposite tribe and it was clear to anyone in the western world who looked at the situation that a powder keg was building and it needed only small spark for the situation to explode.

That spark came on April 6th 1994 when the president of Rwanda, Juvénal Habyarimana, and the president of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira, were killed when the aircraft they were travelling on was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. In the political vacuum that followed both sides threw themselves at one another in a brutal orgy of rape and murder. Heavily outnumbered by the Hutus the Tutsi tribe suffered the worst violence aimed at them. Entire communities were murdered in acts of ethnic cleansing whose brutality rivalled that of the situation in Bosnia.

There was intense criticism of the international community by aid workers, the media and of course the Rwandan and Burundi people for their lack of action. This sparked a military airlift program to fly aid in to the region but there was little in the way of direct action to stop the violence. Terrified for their lives many ordinary Tutsi and Hutus abandoned their homes and made the dangerous journey to the border with Zaire. Leaving their homes made them extremely vulnerable to attack by an opposing tribe as well as problems with the lack of adequate food, rest and medical attention. Nevertheless it seemed almost overnight hundreds of thousands of refugees disappeared in to the jungles of western Zaire.

The plight of these refugees coupled with the fact that the situation had spilled over in to yet another African country provoked a more potent response from the United Nations and calls came for a peacekeeping force to be deployed on the ground to find these refugees and give them proper aid. The problem was however that any large scale military effort risked getting the foreign troops embroiled in a bitter and bloody conflict as was the case in Bosnia. Their very presence could even worsen the situation if it appeared that they favoured one side over the other.

Canberra PR.9 XH131The Royal Air Force, fresh from its experiences over Bosnia, offered another solution. They proposed deploying a Canberra PR.9 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft to mount a series of mapping flights along the border between Rwanda and western Zaire to locate the refugees and then direct ground units in to intercept them and escort them to UN safe zones. Seeing it as preferable to large numbers of ‘boots on the ground’ the UN embraced the idea.

The RAF’s Canberra PR.9 force was operated by No.39 (No.1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit) Squadron based at RAF Wyton. The Canberra was the RAF’s oldest frontline type in 1996 with the original aircraft, a bomber, entering service in 1951. In its PR.9 guise it was capable of flying at very high altitudes and its array of cameras meant that a single flight could cover a vast area of land. Upon landing the photographs could be immediately viewed by RAF interpreters extensively trained in picking out tell-tale evidence of human activity on the ground.

In November 1996 a single Canberra PR.9, serial number XH131, left RAF Wyton for Entebbe Airport in Uganda. The airport itself had an interesting military history in that in 1976 during the rule of Idi Amin a group of Palestinian terrorists hijacked an Air France airliner from Tel Aviv full of French and Israeli passengers. While the French negotiated for the release of their people the Israeli’s instead mounted an impressive military rescue operation involving commandos flying a C-130 Hercules straight on to the runway.

Along with the Canberra an RAF Hercules airlifter landed at Entebbe (admittedly in a less spectacular fashion than the Isreali Hercules 20 years earlier) delivering the ground personnel and supporting equipment. Once the RAF had established themselves at Entebbe the aircraft departed for the first of a scheduled 23 missions on the morning of the 23rd November 1996. The crew of the aircraft didn’t really know what their cameras had observed until the aircraft returned and the film processed meticulously by interpreters.

In searching for the refugees in Zaire the interpreters were looking for;

  • Concentrations of people living in hastily assembled shelters
  • Signs of the mass transit of people such as tracks drawn in the ground by many footprints passing over the same area
  • Evidence of precious settlements such as extinguished fires or debris from destroyed shelters
  • Bodies from those who failed to survive the journey or were killed by fighting or starvation.

Locating bodies was nothing new to the Canberra. In 1988 a Canberra PR.9 was used to locate bodies of passengers from the Pan Am 747 that was blown up by Libyan terrorists over the remote Scottish town of Lockerbie. During the course of the deployment to Entebbe missions were also undertaken to monitor the eruption of Mount Bisoke and how it would affect the local population.

While the threat of interception by hostile aircraft was negligible the threat from shoulder launched surface-to-air missiles such as the SA-7 “Strela” was very real and therefore the Canberra was fitted with a pair of BOZ-107 chaff/flare dispenser pods under the wings borrowed from the RAF’s Tornado fleet.

The following is taken from the operational record book of No. 39 Sqn RAF and covers the date and times of the sorties as well as comments on the mission.


23rd Nov
0515-0750

No refugees seen in Biluma, Katale, Rumango and Rugari.

1015hrs-1230hrs
2,000 to 3,000 refugees in vicinity of Medaka. Mudaka to Karago and Hombo to Bunyakiri roads covered.

26th Nov
0505hrs-0740hrs

1,000 to 2,000 refugees travelling south on road between Kashewe and Mingasi. Four other areas cleared.

0945 1205
Road from south of Walikale to Makote cleared.

27th Nov
0515hrs-0805hrs
Main road from Goma to Sake containing approx 3,000 refugees probably moving towards Sake refugee camp at Minova.

28th Nov
0515hrs-0720hrs 
Minova refugee camp still occupied. 5,000 to 10,000 travelling north-west on road in river valley west of Lake Kivu.

0950hrs – 1210hrs
Shabunda and Walikale areas. 2,000 to 3,000 refugees on road moving towards Walikale. Checkpoint noted on road.

30th Nov
0525hrs-0755hrs
Three roads flown and cleared; no refugee activity seen.

1st Dec
0525hrs-0735hrs
Goma to Sake road cleared. Small number of people on road side near Lake Kivu.

2 Dec
0510hrs-0740hrs 
The Lowa river valley area. Large number of refugees camped along the road in the valley. Total 150K+. Minova camp now unoccupied.

3rd Dec
0500hrs-0635hrs 
Volcano only.

4th Dec
0505hrs-0805hrs
Goma airfield. Nzibi area flown as a mini-survey. No refugees were located.

5th Dec
0500hrs-0710hrs
Due to cloud targets not covered. An area search (target of opportunity) found no refugee activity.

0925hrs-1105hrs
Colour (photographs) of refugees in Lowa valley.

6th Dec
0630hrs-0920hrs
Lowa river valley. Refugees still present; however, new camps have been established and some of the older camps have been abandoned. General direction of drift is away from Rwanda.

8th Dec
0455hrs-0705hrs
No photography.

9th Dec
0630hrs-0920hrs
Road from Walikale to Lubutu. Small camp largely abandoned on side of road approx—500 occupants 2mm (sic) SE Lubutu.

10th Dec
0455hrs-0710hrs
PFO of volcano eruption.

11th Dec
0450hrs-0750hrs
Goma to Sake road cleared. Refugee camp 1,500 to 2,000 occupants in vicinity of Kingulubu. This camp has been in existence for several weeks but is probably getting larger.

12th Dec
0950hrs-1250hrs

Total camera failure. Crew report nil refugees seen along route Lubutu to Shabunda.

13th Dec
0435hrs-0750hrs
Roads from Lubutu to Kindu and around Shabunda cleared. No refugees were seen.

Before the Canberra returned to the UK its missions had helped locate some 300,000 missing refugees and probably saved more lives than putting soldiers on the ground to do the same job ever could have. Unfortunately the violence in Rwanda would continue for another year.

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9 responses to “Operation Purposeful – Finding Rwanda’s Missing Refugees

  1. Pingback: Defence of the Realm – Royal Air Force | Defence of the Realm

  2. Pingback: November 23rd 1996 – Operation: Purposeful | Defence of the Realm

  3. Apparently, the American Foreign Office decided that, as they had no bias towards either Tutsis or Hutus, they would wait for one side to obliterate the other, and then deal with the victors. Meanwhile, the killing rate, just for a few days, exceeded Auschwitz, with 30-35,000 killed every single day. This episode of genocide is taught at a local centre where classes can go to learn about the Holocaust, from people who experienced it. As direct witnesses of the concentration camps get old and pass on, Rwanda has become a good substitute.

    Liked by 1 person

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