The hero and the horror

What a perfectly Canadian irony. Our own Roméo Dallaire is the genuine article, a world-class hero, and everyone in the world knows but him.

The Globe and Mail
November 1, 2003

The hero and the horror
Gerry Caplan

Shake Hands with the Devil:The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda
By Roméo Dallaire (with Major Brent Beardsley)
Random House Canada, 562 pages, $39.95

All genocides have their unique characteristics. Throughout the 100 days of Rwanda's genocide in 1994, for instance, government officials and clergymen, mostly Catholic priests, persuaded terrified Tutsi to seek sanctuary in churches or schools. Scores of thousands did so. Trapped and defenceless, they were then systematically slaughtered by the Hutu army and youth militias, often abetted by former neighbours.

After the genocide, 200 massacre sites were preserved, displaying tens of thousands of skeletons, many of them still twisted in unimaginable torment. Many of these sites are churches and schools. There's another rarely noted yet quite remarkable characteristic that marks the genocide in Rwanda.

The human symbol, the embodiment, the very face of the Rwandan genocide — the carefully planned and systematically executed extermination of three-quarters of the Tutsi population of the country, perhaps 800,000 unarmed men, women and children, guilty only of being Tutsi — is a white Canadian soldier. And I mean "face" literally. The jacket cover of Michael Barnett's study Eyewitness to a Genocide: The United Nations and Rwanda, features a photograph of Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire. The jacket cover of Carol's Off's fascinating The Lion, The Fox and the Eagle: A story of Generals and Justice in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, carries three photographs, one of them Dallaire's — the noble lion. (Off's weaselly and cunning fox is Canada's other most famous soldier, Lewis MacKenzie.)

The Last Just Man, a much-praised Canadian documentary on the Rwanda genocide, is Dallaire. The hero of Linda Melvern's A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda's Genocide, the best short study of the genocide, is Dallaire. In Madeleine Albright's new memoir, Madam Secretary, she acknowledges the central role of the United States in preventing the Security Council from stopping the genocide when she was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Albright generously pays tribute to "those who were right" at the time — four NGOs and Dallaire.

The hero of the report I wrote for a panel appointed by the Organization of African Unity is Dallaire. Now comes yet another book whose cover features a photograph of a uniformed Gen. Dallaire looking like a central casting version of the ideal soldier — noble, steadfast, trustworthy: in a word, heroic. As it happens, he is, in real life, all those things.

Anyone who understands the first thing about Dallaire knows how deeply he must deplore the inappropriate status he feels he has attained. Yet the arrival of Dallaire's own eagerly anticipated memoirs is bound to perpetuate his unsought role. I fear this will be yet another cross he's going to be forced to bear, though he can hardly cope with a new one.

Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda is Dallaire's personal insider experience of one of the greatest calamities of the past century, yet one that could have been prevented with ridiculous ease. As just about all students of the genocide agree, as force commander of the United Nations Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), Dallaire was one of the few honourable actors in a drama where most of those who wielded influence and power were guilty of indifference, arrogance, callousness, intransigence, racism, extremism, opportunism, stupidity or cowardice.

In fact, this memoir reveals that the human obstacles Dallaire faced in trying to prevent and then minimize the genocide were even more intractable than many of us had quite understood.

To be sure, Dallaire pays tribute to a small band of humanitarians and soldiers for their integrity, bravery and, yes, heroism. It's a reflection of the small world that really cares about the genocide that most of us will know them: Amadou Ly from Senegal, the senior UN official in Rwanda; Brigadier General Henry Anyidoho, his trusted Ghanaian deputy commander; Dr. James Orbinski, the enormously dedicated Canadian who led the small Médecins sans Frontières team through the last half of the genocide; Phillipe Gaillard, the intrepid Swiss head of the International Committee of the Red Cross who remained in Rwanda throughout the 100 days of genocide, saving countless souls.

Linda Melvern and I happened to be present in a small hotel in London two years ago when Gaillard and Dallaire came together for the first time since the genocide ended, and their long, passionate, tearful embrace shook us both to our very cores.

Readers of these memoirs will be repeatedly shaken. Dallaire's descriptions of the bodies of maggot-infested children and sexually mutilated girls and women that he routinely encountered every day for three months are hardly bearable for the reader, let alone for him. So are the stories of the cold-blooded murders committed against individuals who will be well known to anyone familiar with Rwanda.

Dallaire tells of the phone call he received on the first morning of the genocide from Helen Pinsky, a Montrealer who had married Landoald Ndasingwa while he was a student in Quebec. They and their two kids returned to live in Rwanda where "Lando" became the only Tutsi member of a quasi-dictatorial Hutu government, a faction of which was already conspiring to perpetrate the genocide. The family was now in grave danger. Dallaire promised Helen they'd be evacuated from the country. Lando then called one of Dallaire's senior officers. While they were on the phone, génocidaires broke into the Ndasingwa home and murdered Lando, Helen, the two children and Lando's mother.

I helped co-ordinate a large international movement of volunteers called Remembering Rwanda, committed to commemorating the 10th anniversary of the genocide next April; Dallaire was an original supporter. One of my fellow co-ordinators is Louise Mushikiwabo, who lives in Washington and was Lando's sister. When I'm in Kigali, I stay at Chez Lando, a hotel built by Lando and now run by his and Louise's sister, Anne-Marie Kantengwa. During the genocide, Kantengwa hid for a month in a neighbour's ceiling before she and one of her daughters escaped the country. But like almost all other survivors, she lost much of her family, a brother, her mother, sister-in-law, niece, nephew and two of her three children.
Kantengwa told me that her surviving daughter, now going to university in Brussels, denies that she ever lived in Rwanda. But Kantengwa herself has just shocked and thrilled her friends and remaining family by running for parliament, campaigning like an old trouper, and winning. When Dallaire finally left Rwanda, almost exactly a year after his arrival, his highly emotional farewell party was held at Chez Lando, which hadn't been closed since the Landos were murdered four months earlier.

The next day, Dallaire, already beginning to crack up, obviously suffering the first symptoms of advanced post-traumatic stress disorder, wracked with guilt for having in his own mind failed his mission, near suicidal, flew out of the country. He has, so far, never been back. It is true that Dallaire failed to convince those with the power and resources to intervene to stop the genocide. But it's also true that there was no way he could have succeeded, as all the evidence, including his own, conclusively documents. Plucked from the bosom of the Canadian army to command a small, miserably equipped, almost token UN mission, he quickly understood that no one in New York understood how precarious and explosive the situation in Rwanda really was. Under the cover of a stalled civil war between the Rwandan government and the Rwandan Patriotic Front rebels (the RPF), made up mainly of the sons of Rwandan Tutsi who fled the country years earlier, Hutu extremists in the government were plotting a violent anti-Tutsi conspiracy.
He then learned that no one else cared. Neither before the genocide, as security in the country palpably deteriorated, nor during the 100 days of the genocide itself, did he ever receive reinforcements. In fact, although it seems beyond credulity even to write these words, two weeks into the genocide the Security Council voted to decimate his force. A month later, they voted to beef it up again, but deliberate U.S stalling tactics, which he describes, meant that no reinforcements arrived until the genocide had been ended by the RPF victory.

Instead of moving heaven and earth to end the killings, it was Rwanda's tragedy that just about everyone but Dallaire and his people had other agendas and interests. Shake Hands with the Devil explicitly spells out Dallaire's hierarchy of Rwanda's betrayers, and it's largely consistent with the findings of most students of the genocide. "The ultimate responsibility" lay with the power-hungry faction of Hutu extremists who surrounded the president and "planned, ordered, supervised and, eventually, carried out" the genocide.

Second come both the United States and France. Before the genocide, the French gave unconditional advice, arms and international legitimation to the race-based Hutu dictatorship. During the genocide, they intervened militarily, allowing much of the unrepentant génocidaire leadership to escape into Zaire to fight another day, leading, in turn, to the subsequent appalling wars in central Africa.

As for former U.S. president Bill Clinton, his sole priority, after 18 Rangers were killed in Somalia six months earlier, was to avoid any political backlash at home from having more American soldiers die in some obscure African country. At the expense of nearly one million Rwandans, he succeeded. Compared to these front-runners, Dallaire concludes, the failings of the UN Secretariat and of Belgium, while serious, "were not in the same league."

But there is one unexpected addition to Dallaire's list, and it comes in the standings immediately after France and the United States. "The deaths of Rwandans can also be laid at the door of the military genius, Paul Kagame [the RPF commander], who did not speed up his [military] campaign when the scale of the genocide became clear, and even talked candidly with me at several points about the price his fellow Tutsi might have to pay for the cause." Dallaire believes Kagame made an immoral choice in refusing to deviate from his strategy of defeating the government in order to save lives. Since Kagame is now the president of Rwanda, the likely impact of this dramatic charge should not be minimized.

In the end, all readers of this cri de coeur will want to know how Dallaire is doing? Has writing this long book provided the catharsis he needs to find some inner peace? Does he get any sustenance from the knowledge that no authority on the genocide believes him a failure? Or from the absolute certainty that his feeble, dysfunctional little UN mission in fact saved tens of thousands of lives? Or that there's overwhelming agreement — including even former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright — that had attention been paid to his urgent appeals much of the genocide could have been prevented? The answer, I'm afraid, is precious little.

Rwanda is planning next April's 10th anniversary commemoration. Friends of Rwanda from abroad will be invited. I think Dallaire believes it may finally be the right time to return. He'd reconnect with surviving friends, such as Kantengwa, MP, who, despite their pain, traumas and nightmares, have moved on with their lives. I know that some Rwandans want to use the occasion to honour him.

This would be the ultimate tribute, and many of us are hoping it will finally persuade him, as nothing else has yet done, that the failure was not his, that he did his absolute best, that his merciless self-flagellation can and must cease. What a perfectly Canadian irony. Our own Roméo Dallaire is the genuine article, a world-class hero, and everyone in the world knows but him.

Gerald Caplan is author of Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide, the report of the International Panel of Eminent Personalities, appointed by the Organization of African Unity to investigate the Rwandan genocide.


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