Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda.
The story of Romeo Dallaire and his experience as force commander for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) continues to unfold. His gripping account of his time in Rwanda in the months before and during the war and genocide that began in April 1994 earned him a Governor General's Literary prize, as well as a lengthy stay on the bestseller's list. A documentary film based on the book and his return to Rwanda came to theatres in 2004. Early in 2005, Romeo Dallaire became a senator.
But Dallaire has also had his detractors. A scathing article in one of our "national" newspapers recently accused Dallaire of attending too many meetings in Kigali, Rwanda's capital, trying to broker a peace while Belgian paratroopers under his command were captured and killed. The article prompted further accusations (from some embittered retired service people) that Dallaire was too inexperienced, too bureaucratic, or both. Such opinions provide a neat context within which we can assess this book. Was Dallaire hero or villain? Were Rwandans victims of Western apathy? As Dallaire himself relates in this superb account, Rwanda in 1994 was too complex a place to be summed up with simple answers.
So, is Dallaire a complex figure? The son of a Dutch mother and a French-Canadian soldier, Dallaire grew up in Montreal's east end where scraps between French and English kids were common. (Dallaire fought on either side.) A child of the Quiet Revolution, Dallaire remained a staunch federalist and graduated from College Militaire royal de Saint-Jean (CMR) and then Royal Military College in 1969. In October 1970, Dallaire was a young lieutenant in a newly-formed French-speaking artillery unit assigned to protect the National Assembly in Quebec City. Soon after, Dallaire was on the fast track, facing jibes along the way that his bicultural background helped his advance. By 1991, Dallaire was a brigade commander in Quebec, increasingly uncertain that classic peacekeeping applied in the post-Cold War world. When in June 1993 Dallaire was ordered to lead a UN mission to Rwanda, he asked "Rwanda, that's somewhere in Africa, isn't it?"(p. 42).
Was Dallaire prepared to separate and disarm two rival armies while he helped implement a fragile peace deal? Of course not, and Dallaire admits as much. Prior to this mission, Dallaire had trained peacekeepers, but he had no field experience, little "political expertise," and no background in African affairs. Few Western soldiers did in 1993. Was his French background a factor in his selection? Of course it was, but in a country where the combatants spoke both English and French, Dallaire was a logical choice. "In the end," he admits, "I decided that this was my chance to learn first-hand what would work in the changing nature of conflict in the post-Cold War world" (p. 44).
Though Dallaire still holds out hope for the United Nations, Dallaire discovered the UN to be a difficult, highly political place in which to work. After a brief tour of Rwanda in August, Dallaire and his small staff recommended an "ideal" deployment of 5,500 troops. But such a UN deployment was not possible. The UN authorized UNAMIR with Dallaire as its force commander in October 1993. His "viable option" of 2,500 troops was a mixed collection of Belgians, Tunisians, Bangladeshis, and Ghanaians. Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh became his political head of mission, and a source of considerable friction (p. 122).
As UNAMIR worked towards fulfilling the terms of a fragile peace, Dallaire sought to learn the complex political realities of Rwanda. But he admits that he was in "uncharted waters--the geography, the culture, the politics, the brutality, the extremism, the depths of deception practised almost as a Rwandan art form--all were new to me" (p. 101). In addition, there were the bewildering challenges of running a multi-national force with few resources in central Africa. Fights over vehicles and office supplies were endless. Nevertheless, as Christmas of 1993 approached, General Dallaire felt the mission had made progress.
A fragile Rwandan provisional government appeared possible in the new year when Dallaire learned of a "third force" of extremists bent on disrupting the peace accords. But when he asked the UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) to allow him to raid secret caches of arms stockpiled in Kigali, Dallaire was refused: "At the time there was simply no appetite for any operation that might lead to 'friendly' casualties--the whole atmosphere within the DPKO and surrounding it was risk-averse" (p. 147).
Everything spiralled into chaos after 6 April 1994. Impatient with delays in establishing a provisional government, the UN Security Council voted that day to extend Dallaire's mission for six more weeks, after which it would withdraw. That day, an aircraft carrying the Rwandan president crashed at Kigali airport. Confident that the international community would not intervene, extremist Hutu elements began a killing spree, targeting Tutsis and moderate Hums. In the chaos that followed, Dallaire used his meagre force to protect whomever they could. On 7 April, a section often Belgian soldiers in Kigali were ordered to protect the interim prime minister. Angry mobs killed them all.
To Dallaire's disgust, both his Belgian and Bangladeshi forces withdrew from the mission just as a 100-day civil war and genocide commenced. Dallaire was determined that UNAMIR remain, but with a skeleton force of less than 500 troops, it could do little to stop the killing. It is difficult to read Dallaire's accounts of the mass murder, rape, and mutilation that took place in Kigali and the countryside.
Against such scenes, the reader can only share Dallaire's outrage as his urgent appeals for more troops met with little action in the Security Council. To Dallaire, it was the Americans and the British who orchestrated the delays. (Clearly the American withdrawal from Somalia a year before had had an impact on the Clinton administration.) The French were no better, first by proposing an evacuation of Rwandan orphans, a move that further undermined the neutrality of Dallaire's mission. Then in June, the French organized a separate humanitarian mission into western Rwanda. It was a hypocritical, destabilizing action in Dallaire's view, for it strengthened the resolve of, and ultimately protected, the very people who were doing the killing.
By July 1994, Dallaire was still waiting for the troops authorized for UNAMIR 2 when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) claimed victory in Kigali. While tens of thousands of refugees overwhelmed the French in their Protection Zone, the Americans launched into neighbouring Zaire a "massive and magnificent airlift that amazed any who saw it" (p. 480). Dallaire found it bitterly ironic: where was the US at the height of the genocide? By the time UNAMIR 2 had come up to strength through the summer of 1994, there was much still to be done, but Dallaire's time in Rwanda had taken a heavy personal toll. He left Africa on 20 August 1994. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; General Dallaire retired from the army in 2000.
Few international actors come off unscathed in this blunt account. Many Belgians still blame Dallaire for the death of their troops on 7 April 1994, but he answers their charges, and lays a few of his own. On the Belgian decision to leave Rwanda, Dallaire was outraged: "The former colonial masters were running from this fight with their tails between their legs" (p. 310). Humanitarian aid agencies also frustrated Dallaire for their insistence that they remain neutral: "It was my opinion that, in this new reality we had all inherited, they were defining their independence so narrowly it often impeded their stated aims" (p. 493). On the French and Americans Dallaire lays particular blame, for they had the resources but lacked the political will to intervene when they were most needed. But Dallaire is also clear that blaming the "West" for the genocide is misguided: "the Rwandan genocide was the ultimate responsibility of those Rwandans who planned, ordered, supervised and eventually conducted it" (p. 515).
Dallaire will continue to have his critics, though none will be harsher than Dallaire himself. Certainly much has changed in the decade since the Rwandan genocide, but with the spectre of Darfur in the headlines at present, Dallaire's account stands as a sobering statement of how humanity can fail countries on the verge of collapse.
University of Waterloo
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2005|
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