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 …

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