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  • Vermilion Voice

‘25 Years After: Songs & Stories of a Canadian Soldier in Rwanda’

Left, Mark Latisaur, Tim Isberg, and John Hewitt performing at St. Jerome’s School on November 4. Photo Angela Mouly

Right, A child soldier in Rwanda. Photo credit unknown

Vermilion Allied Arts hosted Tim Isberg, singer-songwriter and veteran soldier at the Lakeland College Theatre on November 3, and he went on to perform at St. Jerome’s School on November 4.

Twenty-five years ago working with the United Nations as an unarmed military observer, Isberg travelled to Rwanda as a young captain on his very first mission abroad. There he witnessed genocide, and in Vermilion he told the story about his experience in 1994.

According to Isberg, at the time, Hutu and Tutsi tribes were the main ethnicities in Rwanda and the Hutu were the basis of power. Previously until 1959, the Tutsi’s were in power. The Tutsi’s children had left after the revolution and came back as the Rwandan Patriotic Front or army (RPA). Their leader was trained in America and was part of the Arusha Peace Accords to give the Tutsi’s a form of government entity. Leading up to 1994, a lot of hatred was shared on radio and in news such as, ‘The Tutsi’s are cockroaches and need to be exterminated.’ To this day, you can hear this kind of hatred being spewed. Young children were trained for many years to kill the Hutus in their country. The Interahamwe was the youth group for the Hutu side.

The president’s plane was shot down in Kigali on April 6, and on April 7, the genocide began.

Approximately 800,000 – one million people were killed over 100 days. That is 10,000 per day in a country the size from here to Calgary to Edson. There were two million displaced persons (like refugees in your own country). The Displaced Persons camps were mostly Hutu because 800,000 Tutsi people died.

“Some children your age were already caring for other people’s children. What really affected me was how fast genocide occurs; and I’m a soldier. Like throwing a rock in a pond, in Rwanda, it was like a handful of pebbles were thrown; each one causing it’s own effects. How can you possibly stop something like that? It’s quite remarkable in a sad, sad way,” said Isberg.

He was there for a whole year, not in a contingent with other soldiers. There were few Canadians in Rwanda at the time and he drove around observing and taking notes, collecting data, attended meetings. He did a lot of liaison work sharing information between agencies, government officials, and NGO’s. He facilitated services between those who could provide help and those who needed it. Living like a local, he had no power or plumbing and lived in a hut. Growing up in rural Alberta, he felt he had a few things going for him. He survived on beans, bananas, and rice and had difficulty finding access to medical help.

“There wasn’t a lot of food when I got there; a lot of carcasses and burned out vehicles. With media attention in Bosnia and elsewhere, there was not a lot of global support. People in Rwanda weren’t murdered by long range weapons; they were face to face with a machete. It is hard to imagine that happening to 10,000 people per day,” said Isberg.

Going 200 kilometers takes a five hour drive through hills and mud; the road networks don’t exist. The roads were treacherous and the vehicle standards were not the same. Driving skills were suddenly more important as you had to use your ingenuity to pass obstacles. They also travelled with helicopters at times, but smoke from cooking fires in combination with humidity and temperature differences made flying unsafe. Sometimes they would drop him and couldn’t come back to get him.

According to Isberg, after the genocide the RPA were in power and began rounding up people accused of being killers.

“The UN said that the prisons exhibited the worst conditions they had ever seen. Children younger than you were in prison with both women and men. With limited room, there were 8,000 people standing in Kigaili Prison,” said Isberg.

Part of his role included public interrogation of Interahamwe suspects. He visited the displaced persons’ camps some who housed 80,000 people. He explained how dangerous the camps were; housing killers along with those seeking refuge. He reported on mass graves and said, “They were in rivers and streams, caverns and crevasses; the hillsides were dug away stacked with bodies, with the dirt thrown back and banana trees planted over top. I got fairly good at telling how many bodies could fit in certain spaces. Eight hundred thousand bodies; how do you deal with that? Because you have training, confidence in what you have done, and friends,” said Isberg.

For perspective he explained that during the United States Civil War, 600,000 Americans were killed over four and a half years (meaning more Americans killed than in all of the world wars combined); and still in Rwanda, 800,000 people were killed all in 100 short days.

“Rape is a weapon of war. In many cases, Tutsi women were raped by Hutu soldiers,” said Isberg before showing a photo of a genocide baby that had been discarded in the bush nine months after one of these occurrences.

He went on to describe the child soldier issue saying that children were taken from their villages lured with bravado or revenge, and sometimes fueled by drugs or alcohol.

“Boys can’t wait to be a man; in Alberta it’s kind of like not being able to wait to drive a truck. It was much like the human trafficking right here in our own province. Child soldiers and human trafficking have a relationship. It’s not just the boys, the girls cooked and cleaned, helped with logistics, loaded magazines, and more. Child soldiers didn’t just happen 25 years ago; they happen in places around the world today. In the Sudan, Congo, East Asia, Afghanistan, and Iran child soldiers are still being exploited today. A photo a friend of his had taken showed a child with pants rolled up, shooting a gun, while carrying a teddy bear back pack,” said Isberg.

He commended the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldier Initiative for their efforts. He said that the country was in complete chaos and that for him; there was the ugly, the bad, and the good of what he saw.

According to Isberg at the time of the genocide, women in Rwanda did not have a lot of authority, but when all the men died, they took over the household, worked in government, and owned land.

Isberg explained that Rwanda is also beautiful and known as the land of 1,000 hills, and shared pictures of some of the tea plantations and banana trees. He witnessed a lot of hopes and miracles and went on to describe the strength of people and the immense resiliency of the children.

“They are full of love and laughter and life,” said Isberg.

He was also appreciative that he made really good friendships while he was there, and went on to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, and meet Dian Fossey’s best friend while visiting the mountain gorillas. Originally from small town, Fort MacLeod, Alberta he found that in some ways he was able to use his experience an opportunity.

“My first education was in Environmental science, and in the volcano mountains, park rangers prevent poachers; what an experience!” said Isberg.

He still feels the need to go back and said, “For you 25 years is history; for me it was like yesterday.”

He noted that now there is a new problem, with no children to take care of their elders.

“Just because it happened 25 years ago, doesn’t mean there aren’t effects until this day.

At St. Jerome’s School, he shared his story and discussed the role of a peace keeper, the purpose of the United Nations, some of his challenges and limitations. He went on to discuss people’s international responsibility surrounding humanitarian issues / genocide and how as a discerning citizen, why it's important to remember what happened in Rwanda.

Playing and singing several songs based on his experience, he was accompanied by Mark Latisaur on Mandolin and guitar, and John Hewitt on bass.

With his presentation, Isberg has toured Alberta and hopes do continue across Canada. For more information, you can visit

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