Day of reliving horror and helplessness

Day of reliving horror and helplessness

TODAY, like every Anzac Day for the past 15 years, Ken Pedler will be battling to avoid a return to “the kids, the victims and the rapes”. He will be trying not to recall the smells and the bodies – and his helplessness as he stood by and watched the unfolding of the worst of the world's crimes.

It is a battle in – and with – his own mind. And it is a battle he almost always loses.

Before his deployment to Rwanda, Pedler, then a 21-year-old private, had never seen a corpse (he saw the casket of a dead uncle, but it was closed). By the end of his six-month tour, he had seen headless bodies, been offered children to rape and stepped inside a church so clogged with corpses that he could not reach the pulpit.

All that time – the worst memory of all – there was nothing he could do to intervene.

“I would just stand around and watch things happen,” he says. “We deployed to Rwanda and within a day or two we were coming across decapitations, bodies piled up. It was straight from the word go. It took a while to get into your head what was happening.

“After a while your brain closes into a knot and you just don't care. I just thought everything was a joke. It was surreal … I just got callous and I turned evil. I was not the only one. We got to a point where we stopped caring for life … If you're surrounded by evil, you become evil.”

For many of the 630 Australians who served in Rwanda from August 1994 to August 1995 – part of a United Nations mission to end genocide of an estimated 800,000 people – the service has left unmendable scars.

“It is the kids, the victims and the rapes,” Pedler says. “That is what keeps popping in your head. I have a four-year-old daughter. I think about how I saw kids over there and I did nothing. The soldiers would rape them and offer to me – that's what gets me now … That is one of the things I have to live with … You just stepped over bodies … Everyone who I know suffers from it or was discharged from it.”

More than 220 of the 630 veterans from Rwanda have made successful disability claims, and 889 separate claims have been lodged, figures from the Department of Veterans' Affairs show.

Twenty-six per cent of Rwanda veterans have been assessed with post-traumatic stress disorder so far, compared with 35 per cent of Vietnam War veterans, 10 per cent of East Timor veterans and 4 per cent Gulf War veterans.

Forty-eight veterans have been assessed with alcohol abuse and 39 with depressive disorder. A Defence official involved in assessing the impact told the Herald up to 85 per cent of the Rwanda veterans suffered mental health problems.

Pedler says a counsellor consulted the soldiers in Rwanda but “we all said we're fine and went back to watching TV”. At home he received a psychological screening form – a “pick-and-flick paper” – in the mail. Otherwise “we got nearly no help”.

The Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Alan Griffin, blames the high rates of trauma on the rules of engagement and exposure to atrocities. A series of reviews has been ordered by the Government to assess the psychological screening and treatment of soldiers and veterans.

“You talk to people who were there and they tell you it was hell on earth,” he says. “There is no doubt it had a significant impact on the people who served there … Now we need to make sure the problems are dealt with.”

Pedler served in the first tour to Rwanda. Arguably, the second Australian tour, in early 1995, was worse. In late April 32 Australian soldiers and medical staff watched as 4000 civilians were hacked and shot to death at a refugee camp. Some soldiers were forced to quit – on medical grounds – within weeks of returning to Australia.

“In Rwanda our hands were tied,” Pedler says. “We knew who the militia were in the refugee camps but we were not allowed to touch them. We were not allowed to do anything. Unless they shot at you, we could not return fire. Sometimes we did what we could to get them to that stage.”

Defence says it reviewed the rules of engagement after the Rwanda mission and was “satisfied” – though the rules were heavily criticised in subsequent UN reviews. The mission was only classified as “warlike” – which has implications for entitlements and medals – in 2006, after a review by Defence and the Federal Government.

Six years after his time in Rwanda, Pedler, who lives in south-eastern Queensland with his wife and daughter, served in East Timor, where he hoped to “do some good” and try to recover from his Rwanda experience. He says the rules there were “nothing like Rwanda”; soldiers were allowed to defend themselves and others.

But in 2004, then a corporal, he was discharged from the army with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was 31 and has not worked since.

“I think about it nearly every day. It is just something you carry with you. At night you can't get to sleep. Thoughts hop into your head. Then it gets in your dreams … A lot of anger comes out of you on Anzac Day. You think about it more. I don't really go out. I go to dawn service and that's that.”