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There and back: one soldier's recollections.

Ten years ago Major Phil Lancaster (ret'd) was sent to Rwanda as military assistant to Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian commander in charge of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). A career soldier with one UN mission under his belt, Maj. Lancaster soon found himself witness to an unimaginable horror--over the course of 100 days an estimated 800,000 people were massacred while an indifferent international community occupied itself with the OJ Simpson and Tonya Harding media charades.

Maj. Lancaster currently manages a de-mining project with the United Nations in Afghanistan. In an exclusive interview with Esprit de Corps, Maj. Lancaster speaks about the operational limitations of the Rwandan mission, his quiet battle with post-traumatic stress disorder and how the world has yet to learn its lesson from the tragedy.

Esprit: You arrived in Rwanda shortly after the genocide began in earnest. How prepared were you for what awaited you?

Lancaster: I had a fairly good idea what was going on from the news coverage and was expecting the worst imaginable sort of conditions. I had been to Africa on leave in the early '70s and had made good friends with one of the African students with whom I went through post-grad studies; so I had some idea of Africa. Twenty-five years of military experience, including a UN tour, gave me the background experience I needed to fit into virtually any kind of military operation. I speak fluent French and had studied enough anthropology to be culturally sensitive. While nothing can prepare you for that sort of thing, I don't think I was totally unprepared. Besides the other stuff, 25 years of dealing with bureaucracy gave me a fairly strong capacity for stick handling around obstacles.

Esprit: What was the biggest constraint you faced while working in Rwanda?

Lancaster: Where to start? Was it the overwhelming feeling that no one cared? Or perhaps the deep conviction that I had landed on another planet? If you want a list of things missing, start with the fact that I had to use my personal laptop to run the General's office. We had six usable phone lines on the mission, only one of which was available to the General, and all the military staff! We had little to eat, no running water, limited drinking water, no amenities except what we could scrounge. However, the real constraint was the same one that affected the mission as a whole; an utter lack of military or political power. All we had were our collective imaginations and the leadership of a man [Dallaire] who understood how important it was to let us use them.

Esprit: What kind of welcome did you get when you returned to Canada-by both colleagues and regular Canadians?

Lancaster: I came home to a country obsessed with OJ Simpson's gloves. The drama of the genocide had already been forgotten by most of the people I met and the press, including this magazine, had already started to savage General Dallaire over the death of the 10 Belgian soldiers. I remember being challenged by a number of fellow officers over this issue and had a hard time convincing most of them that they had not understood what had happened at all. Few of my fellow officers had any idea of what it had cost to do what we did. However, there were a few who did and who seemed to understand when I would get unreasonably angry at some of the comments I heard. While I think most Canadians I met had already lapsed into forgetfulness, there were a few who had paid attention and who had some serious questions.

Esprit: Rwanda brought PTSD to the fore as an issue for the CF. From your experience, how do you think the Canadian military has dealt with the issue?

Lancaster: I can only speak about my own experience as I left the Army in 1998 and have lost touch with what's going on now. If my experience is a valid indicator, the initial efforts to help missed the mark because the professionals engaged could not connect with the mission context or with our experience very well. This is hardly surprising given Canada's incredibly safe and peaceful environment. What I experienced seemed to be an attempt to impose general theory on particular experience. Moreover, I resented, and still resent, the implication that the rage I still feel is somehow pathological and must be "treated". Am I not entitled to be angry at the indifference that allowed 800,000 people to be butchered? I would think less of myself if I "healed".

Esprit: Has the CF done enough to help those suffering from PTSD?

Lancaster: Again, based on my own experience, I had a very hard time getting counselling or help when I felt I needed it. While there is a bureaucracy in place now to follow and help PTSD victims, it didn't work very well for me.

Esprit: There is a stigma associated with PTSD. Why is this? What needs to be done to overcome the misconceptions?

Lancaster: There may always be a stigma. I suppose it follows from suspicion that the syndrome is grounded on questionable research and that the actual manifestations the syndrome describes are effects of personality disorders or moral weaknesses. Are they misconceptions? I wonder. But frankly, I never felt the need to justify my own condition to anyone, other than my wife, who is often bruised by it.

Esprit: How have your experiences in Rwanda impacted on your life? What is the worst memory you struggle with?

Lancaster: Rwanda changed everything. I couldn't begin to describe the change without taking far more space than would interest you so would prefer to leave the question alone. Sorry, but I'm not willing to discuss my memories. While they might titillate some of your more voyeuristic readers, they have no relevance to anyone else.

Esprit: How do you cope with your Rwandan experience?

Lancaster: Like anyone else who has lived through bad times, I put one foot in front of another and keep going. Having been back to Rwanda many times since the genocide, I am very aware of how much more difficult it is for the survivors, les rescapes, to keep going and am ashamed of occasional bouts of self-pity that I may sink into. My own strategy has been to find other wars. It seems to be working so far but I still find it really difficult to go home for very long.

Esprit: Has the international community learned its lesson from Rwanda?

Lancaster: No! But we must remember that the international community is an amorphous mass of nations and intentions rather than a set of stable institutions able to formalize lessons learned into institutional responses. Genocide is political and could be thought of as a kind of mass ambush in which the perpetrators include deception measures to blind outside observers to what is going on.

There have been eight officially recognized genocides since the Holocaust and each one presented slightly differently from early instances. It could easily happen again if the international community's attention was distracted, if war was used to mask genocide, if we continue to rely on a non-existent international system to act as if it had moral agency instead of accepting that moral agency is the domain of individual human beings who have a responsibility to act.

General Dallaire understood this but was unable to convince the bureaucracy of the UN that they shared the responsibility he accepted. Hannah Arendt's essay, On the Banality of Evil suggests a number of reasons why we will never be completely safe from genocide. Ironically, the more we try to develop a system to protect ourselves against it, the more likely we are to make a virtue out of the kind of drone-like behaviour that allowed the Rwandan genocide to happen. I don't think Kofi Annan's recent mea culpa is unnecessary. Although he is not personally responsible for causing the genocide, he was responsible, as a human being, for not trying to do something to stop it.

Do we seriously think that our international system has either the capacity to respond automatically in the right way to the next genocide or that it has somehow figured out how to get its human components to live up to their moral responsibilities better? I doubt it.

Esprit: How do you think the Rules of Engagement should be changed for foreign intervention missions such as Rwanda?

Lancaster: That's like asking what rules of play should be followed to ensure a win in the next World Cup. The very existence of ROE represents a serious flaw in thinking about how to achieve mission success. A better way to work would be to issue a clear mission objective, apply the doctrine of minimum force and then let a commander get on with the job with the understanding that he is responsible for any unreasonable excessive use of force. The fundamental problem with ROE is that they must be based on speculation about conditions that may be deliberately manipulated once the ROE are known. We have had ample experience of protagonists playing with UN troops in the full knowledge that they are limited by ROE. What we want from any mission is success. With ROE, we seem to think there is some great virtue in following rules even if they lead to failure. Bad idea for soldiers.

Esprit: You have left the CF but continue to do humanitarian work with the UN in Afghanistan. One would have thought that the Rwandan experience would have shaken such idealism, any desire to "fix the world"?

Lancaster: Why do you think I am driven by idealism? Is it not possible to do this sort of work for much more down to earth ideas? I don't think it possible, or even desirable to fix the world. But I do think it's worth trying to improve some parts of it that are seriously broken. And I can't quite bring myself to ignore the misery I have seen when I have the capacity to do something about it even if only for one person at a time. What are you doing with your life, that's more important.

Suggested Reading:

Michael Barnett. Eyewitness to Genocide: The United Nations and Rwanda, 2002.

Romeo Dallaire. Shaking hands with the Devil, 2003

Alison Des Forges. Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda, 1999

Philip Gourevitch. We wish to inform you we will be killed tomorrow with our families, 1999

Linda Malvern. A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda's Genocide, 2002
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Title Annotation:Phil Lancaster
Author:Martin, Alan
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:6RWAN
Date:Apr 1, 2004
Words:1768
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