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Witness to Horror

A former U.N. peacekeeper now living in Nashville recalls the horror of war

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For Eben Aryee, Rwanda was the worst.

He saw horrible sights almost every week during his time as a U.N. peacekeeper. In Sierra Leone, rebels routinely chopped off arms and hands when they entered a village. In eastern Congo, he and his men would come upon dead bodies at spots where anti-government guerrillas set up roadside checkpoints.

In Liberia, Eben saw a woman who had been disemboweled, with the body of her unborn child beside her. He learned that teenage rebels had wagered on the gender of the baby, then killed the woman to settle their bet.

"But Rwanda was the worst," Eben says. "Nothing could be worse than Rwanda."

Eben, who moved to Nashville last August when he enrolled as an MBA student at Vanderbilt's Owen Graduate School of Management, served for 14 years as a logistics officer in the Ghanaian army. Because they were viewed as honest brokers, the Ghanaians were peacekeepers in many of Africa's hot spots. In 1994, he wound up living his own version of Hotel Rwanda.

Eben, who received proficiency training at the British Army's School of Logistics, was used to relying on his own resourcefulness to manage logistical operations in countries that had limited infrastructure even without a war going on. He was accustomed to witnessing the aftermath of atrocities perpetrated by murderous, seemingly purposeless, rebels. Yet nothing quite prepared him for the genocide.

"What made Rwanda the worst was that people were being slaughtered, and you could not intervene," says Eben. "And what struck me most was how the Tutsis just resigned themselves to their fate. They would line up on command and be hacked to death."

Eben speaks of most of the events he saw in Africa in the dispassionate manner of a military officer. At other times, when the realities seem to affect him most deeply, his voice turns quieter, and he repeats his sentences.

"I keep seeing those things [in my mind]," he says. "Even now, it's hard to sleep sometimes. And sometimes it's hard to talk about. Hard to talk about."

When the killing began, the Ghanaian troops withdrew to defensible positions in Kigali, the capital. The peacekeepers from other nations evacuated. The Ghanaians remained, attempting to set up safe havens within the city.

Eben's unit defended the soccer stadium—Amahoro—whose name, ironically, means "peace." The remainder of Ghana's 600-man contingent established other safe areas at the airport and in the now-famous hotel.

For 28 days, they protected and fed more than 6,000 Rwandans inside the stadium. Every day, Eben says, they came under attack.

"The Hutus would threaten us," he recalls. "They'd say, 'We'll give you 30 minutes [to turn over the Tutsis].' " The Ghanaian commander steadfastly refused.

The Hutus responded by lobbing artillery shells into the stadium almost every day. During the monthlong siege, a number of refugees were killed—Eben still isn't sure how many—along with three of his fellow peacekeepers.

"We came to know a lot of them," Eben says of the Tutsis and moderate Hutus who found refuge throughout the stadium. One of his challenges was organizing the refugees into groups to handle food distribution and other tasks. "They all had lost friends and family," he says. "Giving them things to help with was like therapy. It was a way to try to help them hang on to some hope."

Rationing limited food among 6,000 people tested all of Eben's skills in logistics management. "We had lost most of our equipment," he says. "So we were using composite (C) rations."

Finally, after four weeks, the Tutsi rebel army pushed the Hutus out of Kigali. The aftermath in some ways was almost as difficult as the siege. "When they started digging up mass graves," Eben says, "we kept going to these areas and seeing what really happened."

Once Tutsis established control in Rwanda, the Hutu genocide perpetrators and families moved into eastern Congo, where instability still prevails. Meanwhile, the Rwandan government sponsored its own rebels against the Congolese government, seeking to carve out a sphere of influence as central authority in the country broke down.

Last year, Eben was just across the Rwandan border in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He and other members in a team of six carried no weapons and often lived among the rebels, serving as military observers. Sometimes the rebels were friendly, but the situation was always dangerous. Last summer, one of Eben's friends, a major in the Ghanaian army, was shot dead at a rebel checkpoint.

That loss helped cement Eben's resolve to make a move he had been contemplating: leave the army and go to business school. "I realized I had this experience in logistics," he says. "I thought, 'Why don't I look at a way to leverage my expertise?' Maybe I need other skills to go with it."

So Eben resigned his commission and in August left the village of Kanyabayonga in eastern Congo for Kindu, where he caught a flight 1,000 miles west to the capital, Kinshasa. From there, he boarded a plane going back in the direction from which he had come, to Ethiopia, and another from Ethiopia to Milan, and then from Italy to Newark, and from New Jersey to Nashville. Four days after leaving the war zone, he was preparing to attend classes at Vanderbilt.

With his MBA, Eben hopes to go into consulting as a specialist in supply chain management. Eventually, he wants to return to Africa. "We have a lot of problems with warehousing and distribution, lots of spoilage with agricultural and food products," he says. "But Africa is a huge place with lots of potential—if we can stop the wars."

Sometimes, he has to remind himself that, barely nine months ago, he was in another world. Sometimes, despite the memories that still haunt him, he misses his life as a peacekeeper: "the serenity and quiet of the remote areas, driving around on patrol." Sometimes, it even seems strange to sleep on a real bed, instead of the least uncomfortable spot in the field.

During his tour of duty in the Congo, Eben occasionally returned to Rwanda on logistical missions. He'd pass by the soccer stadium; he'd go through the airport; he had a strange sense of invisibility. "I'd walk among people, and they had no idea I had been there [during the genocide]," he says.

He feels invisible in Nashville sometimes, too. Even though he had never been here before, there's also a sense of déjà vu. Now, he realizes, he is applying skills from that other world to the world of business. "You learn to blend into various environments of people of diverse nationalities and different ways of looking at things," he says. "And you learn to live with people. You depend on your friends for survival."

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