15 June, 2004Issue 3.3AfricaPolitics & SocietyWorld Politics

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Hero, Failure, or Casualty?

Phil Clark

Lt.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire (with Major Brent Beardsley)
Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda
Random House, 2003
562 pages

In late April 1994, Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), drove through a village outside the Rwandan capital, Kigali, stopping repeatedly to clear corpses from the road.

The putrid smell of decaying bodies in the huts along the route not only entered your nose and mouth but made you feel slimy and greasy. This was more than smell, this was an atmosphere you had to push your way through…. With no real protection and amongst a population that had epidemic levels of HIV/AIDS… our hands became more covered in dried blood, in pieces of flesh. It seemed that traces of this blood stayed on my hands for months.

As Dallaire describes vividly in Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, this blood – accompanied by an overwhelming sense of helplessness and guilt and the terrifying memories of the genocide – will stay with him forever. Shake Hands with the Devil records the horror of the genocide, as the Tutsi minority was engulfed in violence and as Dallaire attempted to fight through the murderous atmosphere, hampered by the indifference and proceduralism of his superiors at UN headquarters in New York (several of whom lobbied for the disbanding of UNAMIR soon after the violence escalated), to save as many civilians as he could from the genocide and ultimately to save himself from going under.

Wracked by visions of the killing of nearly 1 million Tutsi and Hutu moderates and the failure of his peacekeeping mission to stop the genocide, Dallaire left the mission early, one month after the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) defeated the Hutu-led government in July 1994 and halted the genocide. Upon return to his native Canada, Dallaire spiralled into despair and depression and was diagnosed with acute post-traumatic stress disorder. He twice attempted suicide, most recently in June 2000 when he was found half-conscious on a park bench in Hull, Quebec, after swallowing a cocktail of alcohol and anti-depressants.

As Samantha Power writes in her 2002 book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, “It is both paradoxical and natural that the man who probably did the most to save Rwandans feels the worst”.

Numerous commentators have lionised Dallaire for his fight against the genocidal and UN-imposed odds to keep his mission afloat. In Steven Silver’s 2001 documentary “The Last Just Man”, Linda Melvern’s A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide and Carol Off’s The Lion, The Fox and the Eagle: A Story of Generals and Justice in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, Dallaire is a source of steadfastness and redemption amid a sea of violence and UN intransigence.

Not everyone, though, considers Dallaire a hero. As Dallaire himself mentions in his book, the French government – whom many (including Dallaire) accuse of providing training and logistical support to the Hutu leaders of the genocide – demanded mid-way through the genocide that he be replaced as head of UNAMIR. The French argued that Dallaire was acting outside his UN mandate by attempting to save civilians rather than simply keeping the “peace” and, more crucially, by criticising the French and other UN member states for refusing to provide him with the necessary troops and equipment to fulfil his mission. The Belgian government has sought unsuccessfully to interrogate Dallaire for his failure to save ten Belgian paratroopers under his command who were captured and killed by Hutu militiamen while protecting the Rwandan Prime Minister, a Hutu moderate. Belgium withdrew all of its peacekeepers, the best-trained members of UNAMIR, from Rwanda soon after the murder of the paratroopers. Dallaire’s right-hand man in UNAMIR, Col. Luc Marchal, was later court-martialed by the Belgian Army but found innocent of negligence contributing to the paratroopers’ deaths.

Arriving in Rwanda soon after the signing of the Arusha accords in August 1993, which created a power-sharing arrangement between Hutu- and Tutsi-dominated parties (a political transition which UNAMIR was mandated to oversee), Dallaire describes feeling optimistic about the chances of fostering ethnic harmony in Rwanda. Between January and April 1994, however, Dallaire received intelligence reports that the Hutu government in Rwanda was training youth militia, drawing up lists of Tutsi in communities around the country and stockpiling machetes. Dallaire sent a now-infamous telegram to UN headquarters in New York, where Kofi Annan was Head of Peacekeeping Operations, warning that mass violence was imminent and calling for a bolstering of UNAMIR’s troop force and mandate in order to protect civilians. Annan and his colleagues rejected Dallaire’s calls for a strengthened mission, emphasising the need to stay within the limits of the original mandate. This decision rendered UNAMIR impotent when, on 6 April 1994, a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down over Kigali, sparking the first waves of killings that swallowed the country and would have obliterated the Tutsi population if not for the RPF intervention to halt the genocide.

Dallaire describes chillingly the numerous occasions in early April in which he fielded telephone calls from desperate Tutsi living in Kigali, begging him to send UNAMIR troops to save them, only for him to hear screams as the Hutu killers burst into their homes and murdered them as they were telephoning for help. Dallaire describes the red, dusty streets of Kigali and the usually-iridescent green hills surrounding the city as so choked with rotting corpses that rats grew to the size of terriers from feasting on human flesh. Dallaire and his troops “watched as the devil took control of paradise on earth and fed on the blood of the people [they] were supposed to protect”.

The tone and language of Shake Hands with the Devil belie the emotional and psychological battle which Dallaire must have fought as the sick veteran became an author. The staccato sentences, packed with technical detail, often devoid of emotion or reflection, pile up like a patient’s recounting of painful memories to a therapist. The patient seeks order and control over the past and for the time being is incapable of assembling the fragments of memory into a comprehensible pattern for fear that too much reflection will increase trauma. Dallaire’s need to get it all down on paper is sometimes tedious:

One of my last duties before leaving [UN headquarters in New York] was to create the name of the mission. The “United Nations” part of it was a given. Since our task was to assist the parties in implementing the Arusha agreement [between the government and the RPF ], “Assist” seemed a good term. And lastly, we were doing it “for Rwanda”…. UNAMFR did not sound right. So I decided to take the I from the second letter of ” Mission”. UNAMIR – the acronym was refined on a napkin in a Manhattan restaurant.

Shake Hands with the Devil is nonetheless much more than a military man’s glacial rendition of the events surrounding the genocide. Dallaire’s brutal honesty in assessing both his own actions and those of the individuals and governments he considers to be complicit in the violence overcomes his literary deficiencies. Shake Hands with the Devil is not an easy read, both because of Dallaire’s stilted writing and the nature of the events described, but his deep personal engagement with the people and places of this tragedy (an engagement for which he eventually paid a heavy price), gives momentum and huge emotional impact to his firsthand account.

The questions which Dallaire asked himself during his mission still haunt him: Should he have disobeyed his superiors’ orders and intervened more directly to protect civilians? If UNAMIR was unable to save innocent Rwandans, should it have been in Rwanda in the first place? What does the experience of the genocide say about the willpower of the UN and the rest of the international community to intervene in countries of no strategic interest to the West? These questions so overwhelmed Dallaire that by the end of his time in Rwanda he drove regularly into the countryside with “a death wish”. “I hoped I would hit a mine or run into an ambush and just end it all,” he says. “I think some part of me wanted to join the legions of dead, whom I felt I had failed. I could not face the thought of leaving Rwanda alive after so many people had died.”

Dallaire reminds us repeatedly that his personal suffering is minuscule compared to the agony and loss of the millions of Rwandans whose family and friends were killed in the genocide. “This book,” says Dallaire, “is a cri de coeur for the slaughtered thousands, a tribute to the souls hacked apart by machetes because of their supposed difference from those who sought to hang on to power.” Although Dallaire claims this book “is not a story of heroes and villains”, he is quick to praise those whom he believes acted heroically during the genocide, particularly the ten Belgian peacekeepers and other members of UNAMIR who sacrificed themselves for the mission and an array of local and international officials and everyday Rwandans who risked their lives in order to save others.

Dallaire is also unequivocal in his identification of the “villains” of the genocide. The most guilty, Dallaire says, are the Hutu extremists who “planned, ordered, supervised and eventually conducted” the genocide. As Dallaire shows throughout this book, the genocide was planned meticulously over several years. Prominent among the orchestrators of the genocide was Chief of Staff Col. Théoneste Bagosora, who upon the death of the President after the plane crash on 6 April, assumed control of the army and political affairs. In the final weeks of the genocide, Dallaire encountered Bagosora in a Kigali hotel. Bagosora threatened that if he ever saw Dallaire again he would kill him. The next time Bagosora saw Dallaire was in January 2004, after the publication of Shake Hands with the Devil , when Dallaire was called as a key witness to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Tanzania, where Bagosora is currently being tried for genocide and crimes against humanity. If Bagosora is found guilty he will be sentenced to life imprisonment.

Dallaire holds the international community accountable for failing to respond adequately to the plight of the Rwandan population and in many instances for seeking actively to block the efforts of UNAMIR to save civilians. After the Hutu extremists, Dallaire identifies France and the US as next in the order of the culpable. Both governments used their position on the UN Security Council to lobby for either the curtailing or complete abandonment of UNAMIR. Dallaire accuses France of aiding Hutu preparations for the genocide and of protecting génocidaires after August 1994 through a French-led UN peacekeeping mission known as Opération Turquoise which oversaw the mass movement of refugees from Rwanda into Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), including many of the leaders of the genocide who found safe havens in the jungles and refugee camps across the border.

In the final category of the culpable are Belgium and the UN, the former because it withdrew all of its UNAMIR troops after the deaths of the Belgian peacekeepers, and the latter because it failed to provide the necessary equipment and troops to allow UNAMIR to fulfil its limited mandate. Dallaire also criticises the UN for having stuck strictly to that mandate even when it became clear that what was happening in Rwanda was no ordinary civil war. “[A]t its heart,” Dallaire says, “the Rwandan story is a story of the failure of humanity to heed a call for help from an endangered people”. Through a combination of misinterpretation of the situation on the ground, indifference toward countries of little strategic importance to the West, and at times outright racism toward Africa, the UN and the international community as a whole failed to live up to the principles of protection for the vulnerable which had guided the formation of the UN in the aftermath of the Second World War. While the ultimate responsibility for the genocide lies with the Hutu extremists, Dallaire argues, the hands of the UN and its member states, especially France and the US, also drip with blood.

One of the most controversial features of Shake Hands with the Devil is Dallaire’s criticism of the actions of the RPF, the anti-genocidal force and now the ruling party in the Rwandan government, led by Major-General Paul Kagame, the commander of the RPF in 1994 and now the President of Rwanda. Dallaire argues that the RPF not only committed crimes of its own in attempting to halt the genocide but that it could have saved many more civilians by crossing government lines earlier rather than encircling the country as the RPF did and waiting for a strategic moment to strike at the heart of the genocidal regime. Kagame’s main aim, Dallaire argues, was not to save civilians but rather to overthrow the Hutu government. In a startling passage at the end of the book, which will no doubt create waves in Kigali, Dallaire wonders whether the RPF, which consisted largely of descendants of Tutsi who had fled to Uganda after anti-Tutsi pogroms in the 1960s, may have incited the genocide (for example, as some observers have argued, by shooting down the Hutu President’s plane on 6 April, a claim which the RPF denies vigorously) in order to justify a counter-offensive which would allow them to eventually take over the country. “I found myself thinking such dire thoughts as whether…the genocide had been orchestrated to clear the way for Rwanda’s return to the pre-1959 status quo in which Tutsis had called all the shots,” Dallaire says. “Had the Hutu extremists been bigger dupes than I? Ten years later, I still can’t put these troubling questions to rest”.

Dallaire’s RPF conspiracy theory, shared by the French and others, is far-fetched. There is no doubting that the RPF committed war crimes while attempting to halt the genocide and that, when it gained political control over the country, it was afforded by the international community a moral carte blanche as a result of having defeated the genocidal regime. However, Dallaire’s argument that the RPF may have deliberately incited the genocide contradicts his own evidence that the extremists had been plotting the genocide for years and had begun to prepare the Hutu population for the killing spree by training youth militia and stockpiling machetes. The extremists hardly needed the RPF’s incitement to carry out genocide and they had the personnel and the weapons to do so.

Does Shake Hands with the Devil paint Dallaire as a hero, as many have characterised him? Dallaire on occasions acted heroically in Rwanda, defying his UN superiors in order to save civilians and confronting Bagosora and his coterie with the evidence he had gathered of the genocide they had masterminded. Perhaps, though, the most heroic thing that Dallaire has done is to confront his own feelings of guilt and futility in order to produce a detailed, personal record of the genocide. Dallaire himself rejects the label of hero and instead describes himself as yet another “casualty of the genocide”. As Dallaire emphasises repeatedly, the true heroes of the genocide are those individuals who were killed while attempting to protect others and the true survivors are the millions of Rwandans who lost loved ones during the genocide. Too often making heroes of individuals such as Dallaire distracts us from identifying the ignorance and indifference which allowed the international community to ignore Rwanda at its most desperate hour. Many of the people who now lionise Dallaire were among those who failed to grasp, or simply did not want to know, what was happening in Rwanda in 1994. Elevating Dallaire to the status of hero (especially considering the fact that his trauma is a consequence of his feelings of failure) is simply another form of detachment, when what Shake Hands with the Devil shows clearly is that what Dallaire – and all survivors of the genocide – need most is others’ understanding of what they have endured. Like Dallaire, most survivors do not want to be considered heroes. Instead, when survivors feel that they are ready to talk and that an empathetic audience is ready to listen, they want a chance to tell their story. Only by listening to these stories will we learn how events like the genocide were possible and what can be done now to help survivors rebuild their lives.

Phil Clark is an Australian DPhil student in Politics at Balliol College, Oxford. He was born in Sudan and grew up in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. His doctoral thesis examines post-genocide justice and reconciliation in Rwanda and issues of reconciliation and forgiveness in post-conflict societies more broadly.