Lt General Romeo Dallaire led the 1994 UN Mission to Rwanda where he saw 800,000 men, women and children slaughtered by extremists. Before the genocide, Rwanda had been the largest recipient of Canadian aid proportionally in all of sub-Saharan Africa.
Abandoned during the 1994 crisis by the world community, Rwanda’s greatest advocate was one lonely Canadian, Romeo Dallaire, who forced the tragedy of the Rwandan genocide onto the world stage. “The people of Rwanda”, said Dallaire in his book/DVD Shake Hands with the Devil, “were not an insignificant black mass living in abject poverty in a place of no consequence. They were individuals like myself, like my family, with every right and expectation of any human who is a member of our tortured race.”
“Too little and too late” summarized the response of the UN bureaucrats and the international power-brokers. Dallaire wrote in his book: “There was a void of leadership in New York (UN). We sent a deluge of paper and received nothing in return; no supplies; no reinforcements, no decisions.” The UN did produce numerous resolutions about Rwanda, but as Dallaire noted, “The resolution’s phrases were pure UN-ese: ‘having considered…express regret…shocked…appalled….deeply concerned…stressing…expressing deep concern…condemns…strongly condemns…demands…decides…reiterates…reaffirms…calls upon…invites…decides to remain actively seized of the matter.’” Dallaire sadly described the UN as “an organization swamped and sinking under the dead weight of useless political sinecures, indifference, and procrastination.”
In the midst of this betrayal, Dallaire stood strong and made a powerful difference in saving thousands of Rwandans. As a man of deep Christian faith, Dallaire faced the reality of cold-blooded evil, but was not defeated by it. In his acclaimed book “Shake Hands with the Devil”, Dallaire commented: “After one of my many presentations following my return from Rwanda, a Canadian Forces padre asked me how, after all I had seen and experienced, I could still believe in God. I answered that I know there is a God because in Rwanda I shook hands with the devil. I have seen him, I have smelled him and I have touched him. I know the devil exists, and therefore I know there is a God.”
One of Dallaire’s chief way of saving Rwandan lives was in his intentional cultivation of the media. “The media”, said Dallaire, “can be an ally and a weapon equal to battalions on the ground.” The CBC Radio show ‘As It Happens’, with Michael Enright, played a key role in waking up a very sleepy, apathetic Canadian population. Dallaire commented: “The media was the weapon that I used to strike the conscience of the world and try to prod the international community into action.”
Dallaire shows the gift of remarkable vulnerability in talking about his feeling and core beliefs: “My Christian beliefs had been the moral framework that had guided me throughout my adult life. Where was God in all this horror? Where was God in the world’s response?” He suffered deeply from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome upon returning to Canada, and has taken many years of counseling to recover. Dallaire wrote: “I wanted to scream, to vomit, to hit something, to break free of my body, to end this terrible scene. Instead I struggled to compose myself…”
Near the end of the Rwandan UN Mission, Dallaire was so exhausted by the trauma that he started to collapse internally: “…my manners and my sense of humour, two essentials of leadership, were fading fast…” His own staff noticed that ‘The General was losing it’ and rightly concluded ‘…if I (Dallaire) wasn’t replaced, I would be dead in less than two weeks’ Dallaire vulnerably shared (in his book) “…how guilty I felt abandoning my troops before the mission was over, how guilty I felt that I had failed so many people and that Rwandans were still dying because of it.” Dallaire’s self-recriminations and ‘what ifs’ nearly ate him up inside: “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.”
“Why”, asked Dallaire, “were we so feeble, fearful and self-centered in the face of atrocities committed against the innocent?” Dallaire concluded that “We are in desperate need of a transfusion of humanity.”
May God give us that needed transfusion of humanity to which General Dallaire points.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin
-previously published in the Deep Cove Crier/North Shore News
-award-winning author of the book Battle for the Soul of Canada
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