Sorrows of a Hero


Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda is the memoir of Roméo Dallaire, the United Nations force commander in Rwanda during the genocide of 1994. A Canadian lieutenant general, Dallaire and his tiny contingent of blue berets created havens in hotels and churches and saved the lives of as many as 25,000 people during the one hundred days of the killings. But in a disaster that nearly beggars belief, Dallaire’s United Nations Assistance Mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR) was forced to stand helplessly aside as innocent Tutsi trapped inside the country were set upon by Hutu extremists.1 Shake Hands with the Devil, published a decade after the genocide and a number-one best seller last year in Canada, in both English- and French-language editions, is the testimony of a soldier still burning with fury at what he watched unfold before his eyes.

What Dallaire did in Rwanda during the genocide and after has made him a hero to many—but a hero, he has said, succeeds in his mission. Since Rwanda, Dallaire has himself become a victim of the genocide, suffering from a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder that led to his nervous collapse and attempts at suicide. In her touching introduction Samantha Power writes that it is not a paradox that the man who did the most to save the innocent feels the worst: “He is one of the very few among us who allowed himself to absorb the full gravity of what we allowed to occur in Rwanda.”

Over the years Dallaire has helped many writers with their accounts of Rwanda, including Power herself, Philip Gourevitch (We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda2), and Alison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch (Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda3). But he believes that no one has captured the story as he lived it.

Dallaire’s gritty and detailed account is filled with the realities of violence, related in an often blunt and brutal prose. At its best (and worst) Shake Hands with the Devil has a claustrophobic and dread-filled first-person urgency that suggests Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Sent on a terrifying mission meant to bring the light and reason of the civilized world to the dark continent, Dallaire is the foreigner returned with a tale of horror. But he is also an insider, himself a participant in the horror.

But Dallaire hasn’t written a book about his personal tragedy. In fact, Shake Hands with the Devil ends on the day he left Rwanda, just after the genocide ended. His aim, instead, is to document precisely how the genocide came to pass. It is an account that challenges many of the accepted historical interpretations of the genocide so far.

The narrative of the mass murder, as widely known, can be stated briefly. Nearly 90 percent of Rwanda’s population are Hutu, and the minority are Tutsi. After centuries of rule by great European powers,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.