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Shake Hands with the Devil’

In response to:

Sorrows of a Hero from the May 26, 2005 issue

To the Editors:

Guy Lawson’s review of Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Roméo Dallaire [NYR, May 26], while providing some useful insights into the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, also needlessly confuses some critical issues.

The first problem is the surprising number of simple inaccuracies. To begin, Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide, which he cites, was not “a report of the Organization of African Unity.” The OAU, for the only time in its existence, established an independent high-level international commission to investigate the genocide. The report was issued by that panel. I was its author.

Lawson writes that “centuries of rule by great European powers” set Hutu and Tutsi against each other. In fact, Germany and Belgian colonial rule lasted for six decades. “Hutu hate radio” was not created by Rwandan journalists but by extremist members of the ruling Hutu elite including the president and his wife’s brothers.

Lawson writes that when the plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down on April 6, 1994, Dallaire was ordered by New York to evacuate the foreign (i.e., white) population of Rwanda, and that he “oversaw the safe departure of virtually every white person in the country.” The reality was subtly, but vitally, different. UNAMIR was instructed to help evacuate foreign nationals. But the actual evacuation was largely carried out by more than a thousand heavily armed Belgian, French, and Italian troops that intervened for that sole purpose. Another 1,500 Belgian, American, and French troops were on standby in the region. None made any attempt to protect Rwandans at risk. None was ever offered to bolster Dallaire’s pathetic force. All left immediately after their evacuation mission was completed. The genocide went on, undisturbed by foreign intervention.

Besides these factual inaccuracies, Lawson’s review also suffers from unhelpful and unprovable speculation. As I had done in my own review of Dallaire’s book for The Globe and Mail newspaper in 2003, Lawson emphasizes the controversial role played during the genocide by the rebel RPF forces, largely Tutsi, under Paul Kagame, now Rwanda’s president. The most dramatic news in Shake Hands with the Devil is Dallaire’s accusation that Kagame’s military strategy, brilliantly conducted to conquer the country, also allowed the Hutu génocidaires more time to slaughter Tutsi.

Lawson disagrees with the conclusion of our report that a military truce between the génocidaire government and the RPF in fact would have led to a heightening of the slaughter in areas controlled by the extremists. He responds:

But, on the other hand, had the peacekeepers been able to intervene in the killings of Tutsi civilians with force, they might have stopped the slaughter while also separating the belligerents. In other words, if he had been given the authority and troops he had requested, Dallaire might well have prevented Kagame from continuing the war.

First, this bizarrely implies that Kagame, not the génocidaires, was the chief problem here. Second, as was already entirely evident, the Clinton administration was determined that Dallaire never get any reinforcements, guaranteeing that UNAMIR never had any capacity to intervene against the genocide with force.

By introducing these feckless speculations, Lawson leads the reader away from the overriding conclusions about the genocide reached by the authorities cited in his review—Dallaire himself, Linda Melvern, Samantha Power, Alison Des Forges, and yes, the report of the OAU-appointed panel. These were that outside powers like France and Belgium were complicit in making the genocide possible, and that other powers, above all the US and Britain, were complicit in allowing the genocide to be executed. As we watch the role of “the international community” in Darfur, we see that the lessons learned from Rwanda are exactly none.

Gerald Caplan

Richmond Hill, Ontario

Guy Lawson replies:

I did not imply that Kagame was “the chief problem” in Rwanda. On the contrary, as Caplan must know, I wrote:

Blame for the genocide lies first and always with the génocidaires, some of whom are now on trial in Arusha, and the countless Interahamwe and ordinary Hutu civilians who set upon innocents with machetes.

The complicity of outside powers does not contradict Dallaire’s contention that Kagame opposed international intervention and refused to hasten his military campaign of conquest during the genocide—that is, that Kagame and the RPF also bear a measure of responsibility for the killing. It is not true to say that any suggestion of fault on the part of Kagame is tantamount to laying the entire, or primary, blame on him.

I likewise did not disagree with the conclusion of the OAU report about the ill effects that would likely have resulted from a military truce between the government and the RPF. In fact I agreed with and cited the conclusion. I went on to make another point: a forceful international intervention might have stopped the genocide, as Dallaire claimed and most everyone agrees, but it is also likely that there was no way to intervene without also stopping Kagame from achieving his war aim of total victory. This is not feckless speculation. The matter lies at the heart of Dallaire’s account. At the height of the genocide, Kagame told Dallaire he would neither agree to a cease-fire nor allow foreign intervention. “Those that were to die are already dead,” Kagame said. “If an intervention force is sent to Rwanda, we will fight it. Let us solve the problem of the Rwandans.” The threat was issued, obviously, before Kagame knew Dallaire’s force would never be bolstered. Why else threaten? In his review of Dallaire’s book in The Globe and Mail, Caplan wrote that “the likely impact of this dramatic charge [against Kagame] should not be minimized.” That is precisely what Caplan now attempts to do.

Further investigation into the genocide may seem pointless to Caplan but history will almost certainly prove otherwise. Shake Hands with the Devil is filled with unanswered questions, contradictions, speculations; Dallaire does not pretend to have the final word, or that there will be a final word. The former UN force commander sees the tragedy in its many dimensions, not as a parable of good versus evil, or simply another example of the disgraceful behavior of the great powers and the United Nations. Darfur indeed shows that not enough has been learned from Rwanda—including by those like Caplan who righteously cite the tragedy as if it contains one self-evident moral. As an eyewitness still living in the bewildering shadows of genocide, Dallaire reminds us what catastrophe on such a scale demands of all: humility, an open mind, and the desire to always seek the truth.

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