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.
The rest of us can wonder, idly, whether we would have summoned the courage to risk our lives on behalf of the strangers being slaughtered around us. Dallaire doesn’t have that luxury. He lives with the record—with the facts of his decisions, and the faces of those he couldn’t, or didn’t, save. He remembers,
It was terrifying and surreal to be talking to someone, sometimes someone you knew, listening to them pleading for help, and being able to do nothing but reassure them that help was on the way—and then to hear screams, shots and the silence of a dead line.
Imagine having to choose between placing unarmed UN monitors at risk or ignoring the cries of civilians. Dallaire has never invoked the alibis that have given comfort to President Clinton and other statesmen. He is too honest to pretend that nothing more could have been done.
Much of Dallaire’s guilt stems from the deaths of blue helmets under his command. When RTLM, Rwanda’s “hate radio” station, began broadcasting commands to “kill Dallaire,” they identified him only as “the white man with a mustache.” Dallaire knew that other whites in UNAMIR would be vulnerable, but he couldn’t afford to shield them. When Dallaire lost soldiers, he accused himself. Reflecting on the death of a Uruguayan military observer, he writes,
As far as I was concerned, the ambush had also been a result of my judgment…. I had agreed that the patrol needed to go. The UNMOs suffered the consequences of my poor operational decision.
Elsewhere, he notes, “My decision took sons from their parents, husbands from their wives, fathers from their children.” Most memoirs cast the behavior of the writer in a sympathetic light; Dallaire’s unsparing reckoning has few precedents.
I used to wonder how it was that Dallaire, the man who did the most to try to prevent the genocide, could feel the worst. But this is not a paradox. The man who would try to do the most would inevitably be the man least capable of making excuses for himself, his men, his country, or his planet. The only way risky action is ever taken on behalf of mere principle is when moral feeling—a hugely discredited quality in military and political life—overpowers reasoned self-interest. Czesl/aw Milosz wrote in The Captive Mind that moral action “proceeded not from the functioning of the reasoning mind, but from a revolt of the stomach.” Dallaire is a man who felt and who continues to feel. He is one of very few among us who has allowed himself to absorb the full gravity of what we allowed to occur in Rwanda. When evil is let loose, the man who does the most will always feel the worst, just as the man who feels the worst often stands the best chance of doing the most.
Dallaire was ridiculed for his prescience and mistrusted for his emotion. He was told repeatedly, as he pleaded with the UN for troops, that he was looking at the situation in a “simplistic fashion.” As the days passed, he began to crack, began “inhabiting the horror.” The genocide tapered off, and foreigners began flooding in. He grew bitter. “Perhaps it was the attitudes of some of them or the photo ops they arranged of themselves beside mass graves,” he writes, “or the way they were able to step over bodies without seeming to notice those people had once had names.” When he heard the news of the wholly unexpected French intervention that would benefit the Hutu government, he threatened to shoot down French planes if they attempted to land in Kigali.
At meetings, he recalls, he began ranting “like a cartoon general.” At headquarters in Kigali, he felt as though he was suffocating. Even though the Hutu militants had marked him for assassination, he preferred driving around Rwanda than fielding calls from New York or greeting VIPs who brought nothing but demands on his time. He writes that he had developed a death wish. “I hoped I would hit a mine or run into an ambush and just end it all,” he recalls. “I think some part of me wanted to join the legions of the dead, whom I felt I had failed. I could not face the thought of leaving Rwanda alive after so many people had died.”
In the late summer of 1994, Dallaire bought some goats, and found some peace watering and feeding them as they roamed around the UN compound in Kigali. One day, a pack of wild dogs infiltrated the premises and attacked his goats. Dallaire grabbed his pistol, sprinted across the parking lot, and emptied his entire clip in the direction of the dogs. Although his shots missed their targets, Dallaire was pleased that he had saved his goats. His satisfaction didn’t last long. “When I turned to go back to my office,” he writes, “I saw at least fifty pairs of surprised and concerned eyes staring at me intently.” He took note of their expression—“The General is losing it”—and he realized it was time to leave Rwanda.
When he got home, though, it was other sets of eyes that haunted him—the eyes of the ten dead Belgian soldiers whom he had found mutilated in a pile at the morgue, and the eyes of the 800,000 dead Rwandans. In 1998 he traveled to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, so that he could testify against the masterminds of the genocide, and he plunged back into memory. At a news conference after his testimony, Dallaire said,
I found it very difficult to return to the details…. In fact, at one point yesterday, I had the sense of the smell of the slaughter in my nose and I don’t know how it appeared, but there was all of a sudden this enormous rush to my brain and to my senses…. Maybe with time, it will hurt less.
It has not.
Dallaire suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and became suicidal. Neither the Canadian military nor the UN Secretariat tried to help him. He hadn’t been in official combat; he’d only been a peacekeeper. The higher-ups didn’t seem to understand that being a bystander to genocide was as traumatizing as any traditional combat tour. Indeed, because of the feeling of impotence and guilt generated by such missions, the fallout might be worse.
Dallaire immersed himself in therapy and began to speak out about the severity of PTSD and the reluctance of the armed forces to acknowledge it. In a thirty-minute video made for the Canadian army called “Witness to Evil,” Dallaire described what he had been through:
I became suicidal because…there was no other solution. I couldn’t live with the pain and the sounds and the smell. Sometimes, I wish I’d lost a leg instead of having all those grey cells screwed up. You lose a leg, it’s obvious and you’ve got therapy and all kinds of stuff. You lose your marbles, very, very difficult to explain, very difficult to gain that support that you need.2
Dallaire carried a machete around and lectured on PTSD, but he couldn’t sleep and found himself nearly retching in the supermarket, suddenly transported back to Rwandan markets and the bodies strewn within them. In October 1998 Canada’s chief of defense staff, General Maurice Baril, asked Dallaire to take a month of leave because of the “stress” he had been experiencing. Dallaire was devastated. After hanging up the phone, he says, “I cried for days and days.” He tried to keep up a brave public front, sending a parting e-mail to his subordinates that read:
It has been assessed essential that I recharge my batteries due to a number of factors, not the least being the impact of my operational experience on my health…. Don’t withdraw, don’t surrender, don’t give up.3
Dallaire returned from leave, but in December 1999 Baril called again. He had spoken with Dallaire’s doctors and decided to force a change by issuing an ultimatum: either Dallaire had to abandon the “Rwanda business” and stop testifying at the tribunal and publicly faulting the international community for not doing more, or he would have to leave the Canadian military. For Dallaire, only one answer was possible: “I told them I would never give up Rwanda,” he says. “I was the force commander and I would complete my duty, testifying and doing whatever it takes to bring these guys to justice.” In April 2000 Dallaire was forced out of the Canadian armed services and given a medical discharge. Dallaire had always said, “The day I take my uniform off will be the day that I will also respond to my soul.” But since becoming a civilian he has realized that his soul is not readily retrievable. “My soul is in Rwanda,” he says. “It has never, ever come back, and I’m not sure it ever will.”
Dallaire calls his memoir “a story of betrayal, failure, naivete, indifference, hatred, genocide, war, inhumanity and evil.” It is a soldier’s story, and a witness’s story. For Dallaire, army service was everything—“my mistress, my muse and my family.” Yet despite a distinguished career, because Dallaire refuses to forget what happened in Rwanda, his name will forever be associated with failure—the world’s failure to protect and his own failure to persuade. By returning to those dark days, Dallaire hasn’t answered nagging questions but he has aired them. His questions about the indifference of the outside world have become our questions.
Dallaire made a second trip back to the UN tribunal in Arusha. In March 2004, he had the opportunity to testify against Colonel Theoneste Bagosora, the leading Hutu génocidaire. “I know you can’t look for closure after genocide,” Dallaire told me, “but seeing Bagosora in handcuffs was as close as I’ll ever get.” Before the genocide Dallaire had warned his bosses that extermination of the Tutsis was imminent, and during the genocide he had warned the killers that they would be punished. Having proven devastatingly prophetic about the occurrence of the genocide, it is small solace that some of the killers have in fact ended up behind bars.
Dallaire’s message is straightforward: “After nearly a decade of reliving every detail of those days, I am still certain that I could have stopped the madness had I been given the means.” He is bearing witness on behalf of the lost Rwandans, but also on behalf of those he’s never met—those in places like Darfur, Sudan, who are alive today but who may be dead tomorrow. Dallaire’s father and father-in-law helped liberate occupied Europe from the Nazis, and he grew up with the slaughter of six million Jews as a standard of evil. Now that Dallaire has done so much to draw attention to the Rwandan genocide, now that statesmen have again resolved to “never again” allow “such a crime,” he fears that Rwanda may become the new standard—delaying action until the death toll reaches 800,000.
Dallaire is not naive. He knows that states pursue their interests and rarely exert themselves on behalf of strangers. But just because he understands that intervention is unlikely, this does not mean that he accepts the inaction of his peers. With respect to the slaughter in Darfur, he has criticized governments for the “scandal” of their “lame and obtuse” response. The same US government that resisted use of the “g word” in Rwanda is today applying the word to Darfur. Using the word genocide “nearly flippantly,” he says, “is nothing more than political semantics” when the major powers are doing “absolutely nothing on the ground” to stop it. Dallaire demands tangible action: an intervention force made up of troops from the African Union and from NATO (although he believes US forces should be excluded because their presence would exacerbate the conflict).
Dallaire’s book offers a record of human frailty and savagery. It also stands as testimony to courage—courage under fire, and the even more elusive courage to reflect on one’s own failings. Dallaire never intended to become a witness or a nuisance to governments. And he never expected to become a writer. But he has done so, and, with his actions and now his words, he has offered us a model for the future—and the old slogan to which he has given new meaning. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Let’s go.”
November 18, 2004
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. ↩
Mike Blanchfield, “General Battles Rwanda ‘Demons’: After Witnessing the Atrocities of Genocide, Romeo Dallaire Has Had to Endure the Belgian Government’s Criticism,” The Ottawa Citizen, December 13, 1998, p. A3. ↩
Luke Fisher, “Besieged by Stress: The Horrors of Rwanda Haunt a General,” Maclean’s, October 12, 1998, p. 24. ↩