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A Hero of Our Time


In most wars it is images and artifacts that emerge to shape our memory of events. The recent Iraq war may be remembered less for the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue than for the pile of naked bodies in the Abu Ghraib prison. The Bosnia war gave us the stick figures looking out from behind barbed wire in Serb-run concentration camps and a Muslim woman who escaped Serb guns in Srebrenica but who then hung herself from a tree in a refugee camp. Rwanda will be remembered for the scores of whitened, bloated bodies that bobbed down the Kagera River, and for the proud, humbled visage of the Canadian general Roméo Dallaire.

General Dallaire was the commander of the 2,548-man United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, or UNAMIR, which the states on the Security Council established in October 1993 to monitor a peace agreement between the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front and the Hutu-led government. Within two months of arriving in Rwanda, Dallaire began warning of the horrors that lay ahead, and when the genocide began he described the massacres as they were happening. He was ignored and written off as a simpleton and a “loose cannon.”

Dallaire is best known for the fax he wrote three months before the start of what would become the fastest killing campaign of the twentieth century. On January 11, 1994, he wrote to Kofi Annan, who ran the UN peacekeeping office in New York, that, according to “Jean-Pierre,” an anonymous informant high up in the inner circles of the Rwandan militia called Interahamwe, Hutu extremists “had been ordered to register all the Tutsi in Kigali.” “He suspects it is for their extermination,” Dallaire wrote. “Example he gave was that in 20 minutes his personnel could kill up to 1,000 Tutsis.”

Jean-Pierre had warned not only of a threat to Rwanda’s Tutsi but also of the militants’ plan to murder a number of Belgian peacekeepers in order to “guarantee Belgian withdrawal from Rwanda.” The informant was prepared to identify major arms caches scattered throughout Rwanda, but he wanted passports and protection for his wife and four children. Dallaire admitted the possibility of a trap but said he believed the informant was reliable. He told Annan that his UN forces were prepared to act within thirty-six hours. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Dallaire signed the cable. “Let’s go.”

Annan’s response was firm. Dallaire was not to confront the extremists. In October 1993, just three months before Dallaire sent his fax, eighteen US soldiers had been killed in Mogadishu in Somalia. Annan believed—probably correctly—that the United States and its allies would not want to cross what became known as “the Mogadishu line.” But instead of confronting the major powers or attempting to shame them by leaking the alarming news, Annan told Dallaire to lie low, to stick to his limited mandate, and to notify both the Rwandan president—who was himself known to be implicated in the plot—and the Western ambassadors in Kigali of the informant’s claims. Dallaire contested the decision, arguing by telephone with UN officials in New York and sending multiple additional faxes. Even after Dallaire had confirmed the reliability of the informant, his political masters would not budge. “You’ve got to let me do this,” Dallaire pleaded. “If we don’t stop these weapons, some day those weapons will be used against us.”

On April 6, 1994, the Rwandan president’s plane was shot down, the genocide began, and, just as Dallaire had warned, the Hutu militia attacked the Belgian peacekeepers, butchering ten of them. The Belgian government withdrew its 450 troops—the backbone of the UN force—and the UN mission unraveled. On April 21, in the single most shameful act in the history of the United Nations, the states on the Security Council voted to withdraw most of Dallaire’s UN forces from Rwanda—despite reports that tens of thousands of Tutsis had already been murdered. Dallaire insisted on remaining. For more than two months he and his much-reduced force of about five hundred soldiers, unarmed monitors, and civilian staff watched helplessly as the bodies piled up around them.

It took Roméo Dallaire more than seven years to write his gripping, chilling, and, above all, honest book.1 In it Dallaire reminds us of the impossible choices that faced him in Rwanda every day. The genocide occurred a decade ago, but we can still hear him almost pleading for answers to the questions he cannot escape: If I had done something differently, could I have saved my Belgian soldiers when they were in the custody of the Rwandan Presidential Guard? Should I have ignored the direct orders I received from New York—orders not to protect Rwandan civilians and not to use force until fired upon? Was I right to remove the bullets from my pistol ahead of my meetings with the leaders of Interahamwe militia forces, or should I have given in to the compulsion to kill men whose shirts were “spattered with dried blood”? Should I, Roméo Dallaire, have shaken hands with the devil? A full decade after the genocide, Dallaire is still looking for the military and moral guidance that he never received.

Dallaire’s book is important. Other accounts have described the horror of those days, but we have never heard at length before from the man who had the privilege—a privilege that quickly became a curse—of being entrusted with Rwanda’s future. We have read before of the 2,500 shoddily equipped, motley troops who made up UNAMIR. But here Dallaire offers unforgettable details. We learn about Bangladeshi troops who were so unprepared for combat that they deliberately sabotaged their vehicles by placing rags in the exhaust pipes so they wouldn’t be able to move when ordered to do so. We read about a Ghanaian soldier who was so jumpy that when Dallaire approached his observation post, he soiled his pants.

We already know that Dallaire and his men witnessed the worst crimes of the second half of the twentieth century, but we see these crimes differently when we read about Brent Beardsley, Dallaire’s aide-de-camp and close friend, who discovered the remains of a massacre in the Gikondo church and watched a baby who survived crawl onto his dead mother in an attempt to feed upon her lifeless breast. We know that many Hutus continued to carry on with their daily routines, even as rotting corpses were being loaded onto trucks for disposal in mass graves. But Dallaire saw those trucks: “blood, dark, half-coagulated, oozed like thick paint from the back of them.” He describes the day he saw a young Hutu girl in a light dress and sandals slip and fall on the pool of blood beside a truck. Although she got up immediately, he writes, “it was as if someone had painted her body and her dress with a dark red oil. She became hysterical looking at it, and the more she screamed, the more attention she drew.”

Dallaire recalls the rat that wandered around the UN compound. His men thought the creature was a terrier—so fat had it grown on the flesh of dead Rwandans. Dallaire once picked up a Rwandan child whom he saw twitching with life. But when he held the “tingling and mushy” being in his arms, he realized that the movement was caused by maggots feasting on the dead youth. He came across the whitened skeletons of women who had been raped: “The legs bent and apart. A broken bottle, a rough branch, even a knife between them.” As he writes: “It’s as if someone has sliced into my brain and grafted this horror called Rwanda frame by blood-soaked frame directly on my cortex.”

We know that the nationals from the world’s most powerful nations left Rwanda almost as soon as the genocide began, but here Dallaire recalls that nobody in New York bothered to inform him ahead of the deployment of elite Belgian and French paratroopers who descended upon Rwanda to evacuate their nationals. He was at first encouraged by the sight of the elite commandos. He believed the evacuation forces—some 1,500 in all, not counting the additional 250 American Marines on standby in Burundi—with their state-of-the-art weapons could have teamed up with his overstretched and undernourished troops to fend off attacks against Rwandan civilians. Once it became clear that the foreign commandos intended only to look out for their own, Dallaire hoped they would leave their weapons, their rations, or at the very least their water supplies for his peacekeepers; but the blue helmets were instead left to fend for themselves. Later, when French forces were deployed to Rwanda in late June, Dallaire was incredulous when they shamelessly informed him they had come to rescue their “old friends” in the genocidal government.

France and Belgium deployed their troops to Rwanda in order to protect their nationals and advance their national interests. But Dallaire’s UN force—the only group there concerned with protecting Rwandans—got no help. Diplomats in New York wrangled over the makeup of a prospective new force but never sent him troops to stop the killing. It is no wonder that he replaced the traditional salutation of “best regards” at the end of one of his UN cables with: “At this point, [the Force Commander] finds regards very difficult to express.”

Just when it seemed as though the UN mission had hit bottom, Dallaire’s forces had to fend off threats from an unexpected new source: the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front. Paul Kagame, the rebel commander, had military and strategic objectives that conflicted with Dallaire’s humanitarian aims. Kagame was on a mission to conquer the country. He scoffed at the talk in New York of a UN intervention. “For what reason?” he asked Dallaire. “Those that were to die are already dead. If an intervention force is sent to Rwanda, we will fight it.” And when the French deployed their forces independent of Dallaire’s chain of command, the RPF attacks on Dallaire’s small force multiplied; the RPF said it couldn’t distinguish between the peacekeepers and those they considered invaders. RPF soldiers attacked the airport, which Dallaire’s blue helmets were holding in order to guarantee continued deliveries of humanitarian aid. They staged a number of deadly ambushes against UN troops and unarmed monitors. Dallaire again felt betrayed.

Kagame had his own grounds to find fault with the UN mission. In May he sent word to Dallaire that ten members of his extended family were still in hiding in Kigali. Dallaire dispatched his military observers, who knocked on the door and found no one. When they tried again the following day, they found bodies lying on the floor. The initial UN visit had alerted the neighbors to the presence of Tutsis in hiding, and the génocidaires had responded to the tip and butchered Kagame’s ten relatives.


President Bill Clinton and other world leaders have publicly lamented their failure in Rwanda. Since what they regret is that they didn’t do anything while 800,000 people were being murdered, they don’t have much to remember. In April, May, and June of 1994, they were busy with other things. Entirely different is the account of Dallaire, who lives haunted by thousands of moment-to-moment decisions, and who thinks not so much of “800,000 deaths” as of specific people.

  1. 1

    Roméo Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (Carroll and Graf, January 2005). Parts of this essay will appear as a foreword to the book.

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