Major Stefan Stec

UN peacekeeper on 'Mission Impossible' in Rwanda
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The Independent Online

The Polish military officer Major Stefan Stec was a peacekeeper with the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda - Unamir - during the 1994 genocide. He was a recipient of the Polish Cross of Merit for Bravery, awarded to him for exceptional courage in Rwanda, saving lives at risk to his own. He was personally thanked by the Polish President Lech Walesa, a singular honour.

Stec was tall, strong and with fearsome energy. He went to Warsaw's military academy at 18 wanting to be a military scientist but it was the time of the post-Cold War UN renaissance, and Stec volunteered for international service. He was accepted for training at the Polish peacekeeping centre in Kielce. His first UN mission was to Phnom Penh, where most of his time was spent investigating traffic accidents for Untac, the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia.

Then came Rwanda, a small and most ill-equipped mission. Described by optimistic politicians as "classic" peacekeeping, it was intended to oversee a transition from dictatorship to democracy. Stec arrived in Rwanda in November 1993 and said how almost immediately UN soldiers called it "Mission Impossible". The racism, the Hutu Power militia, the human rights abuses - Rwanda was a powder-keg. At that time Stec remembered, "Genocide hung in the air." But no one could ever have imagined the scale of what was to come.

At the first massacre site to be discovered by the peacekeepers at Gikondo on 9 April 1994, Stec found a large pile of charred identity cards, all bearing the Tutsi designation. He filmed the bodies in the streets and believed he had evidence of genocide, the first Unamir officer to use the word. "But we were explicitly forbidden to use the word genocide in our correspondence to New York," he said. Massacres like this would become commonplace.

There were an estimated 10,000 people being killed each day. Stec and four fellow officers created a Humanitarian Action Cell to co-ordinate and organise rescue teams. They devised a plan for the creation of secure zones, the co-ordination of relief agencies and protection of the population. But in New York the Security Council, at the instigation of the UK, had determined that Unamir be withdrawn, leaving a "token force" to "appease public opinion" and to negotiate a ceasefire in the renewed civil war.

Stec believed stopping the killing was more important. The rescue and protect missions continued, each one posing a direct threat to the lives of Unamir soldiers. At one point 5,000 people a day were dying for the want of food and water. The council failed even to send supplies to the remaining peacekeepers. Stec wrote begging cables to New York. "We never got anything," he said. Once he sent one line: "Immediate help necessary." It was for the want of petrol, not courage, that more people were not saved. Stec said his loyalty to the UN was taxed beyond measure and he even thought that perhaps he should join the Rwandan Patriotic Front to try to stop the killing.

He left Unamir after the genocide was over and determined that the story of the failure over Rwanda be correctly understood, and he found his voice with students who were riveted by his direct experiences. His contribution at the Imperial War Museum in London, during the 10th anniversary commemoration, organised by the international student group Never Again, was forthright. "Everybody pretends," he said. "The politicians pretend they don't know. The media pretend that they provide us with the truth."

Stec made a home in The Hague with his partner Heather Kilner and, working in computer technology, saved enough money to create the Amahoro Foundation, a charity to assist children in Rwanda, particularly orphans, to advance education and relieve poverty. It proved successful. There were no plush offices, no salaries, no costly four-by-four vehicles. The foundation had a website designed by Stec, its chief executive officer, and relied on volunteers. One aim was "to connect people of goodwill", which Stec certainly achieved. He continually proved his own maxim - so much can be achieved with so little.

The 2004 film Hotel Rwanda does not fully recognise the righteous stand and heroism of Stec and his fellow UN officers. It had been Stec who had stood in the lobby of the Hôtel des Mille Collines and read the names of those who were to be evacuated to the airport. "I had a Schindler's list of the people we were allowed to save," he said - "only those with the right visas to enter Belgium." A few blocks away, at the St Famille Church, 5,000 starving people were trapped. Every night militia came to kill. "We did nothing for them because no one there had any visas . . ."

There were 91 such sites throughout the country, but only enough Unamir soldiers to stand guard at four of them.

Linda Melvern

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