Shake Hands with the Devil:
The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda
Originally published in Canadian Foreign Policy, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Spring 2004), pp.119-128.
Lieutenant-General (retired) Roméo Dallaire was reluctant to write this book, procrastinating for years despite ardent pleas from friends and associates. He did not want to relive the hellish nightmare of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the most intense slaughter of human beings since the Second World War, and revive his feeling of utter helplessness in the face of merciless machete massacres. It is hard for anyone to contemplate, let alone describe in detail after witnessing up close, the systematic slaughter of 800,000 human beings in a mere hundred days with no one trying to stop it. Well, almost no one. Fortunately, Dallaire made a supreme effort, and to his credit he found the courage to write his story, including the small successes and the colossal failure of his mission.
This book is a play-by-play account of his experiences as Force Commander of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). Dallaire is a keen observer, writing in captivating detail about the situations and people he encountered, from the kind and calm Kofi Annan (“trying to save the UN from itself”) to the blood-soaked militia (Interahamwe) leaders whom he could not consider human because of the unthinkable atrocities they had engineered. Leaving a meeting with the génocidaires he felt he had “shaken hands with the devil,” and felt guilty for having “actually negotiated with him.” Still, their agreement to allow UN transfers of captives across the battle lines would save lives, though not as many as UNAMIR’s other efforts to provide protection and humanitarian aid.
Probably Dallaire’s greatest disappointment is that he was not permitted to take preventive action before the genocide was unleashed. He had caught wind of a mysterious “third force.” A conscientious informant had told him about macabre plans by extremists to “exterminate” the Tutsi minority in Kigali. Dallaire requested permission to raid the extremists’ arms caches in Kigali, which were a violation of the Arusha Peace Accord that UNAMIR was to help implement. But UN headquarters, still reeling from the failures of an overly-aggressive Somalia experience, repeatedly “blew the plans out of the water”, ordering a defensive posture that would not offend any parties to the conflict. Furthermore, Dallaire’s New York superiors alleged that his innovative plans were outside the mission’s mandate. Like a good soldier, Dallaire followed his orders.
Though frustrated, under-resourced and under-staffed, the Canadian general pushed as far as he could to make a difference. And in this, he was quite successful. He saved tens of thousands of lives. He conducted transfers of innocents, both Hutu and Tutsi, between enemy sides. His thinly-spread UN peacekeepers guarded half a dozen unofficial safe areas and patrolled or visited many other safe havens regularly, providing medical and humanitarian aid. The King Faisal hospital, the Amahoro stadium and UN Force Headquarters quickly became overpopulated with thousands of terrified civilians. UN soldiers made many daring rescues, placing their lives on the line to save civilians from murder by machete or machine gun. Dallaire engaged in “shuttle diplomacy”, moving between the belligerents’ zones at great risk to his own life, especially after he was targeted for assassination by Hutu extremists. He chaired meetings of the belligerents, fostered formal and informal agreements between them (including the Kigali Weapons Secure Area agreement early on) and conveyed important messages between the leaders. But the mediator’s role did not prevent him from berating the leaders after attacks on UN workers or violations of the Accords or affronts to his deep sense of humanity.
After the genocide had been raging for several weeks for all the world to see, he finally received a robust mandate from New York but not the forces needed to implement it. Virtually no nation (Canada having been the notable exception) was willing to send its soldiers into this raging conflict. Belgium had withdrawn its contingent after suffering a lethal blow—ten paratroopers deliberately targeted on the first day of the genocide. Still Dallaire worked away, fraying both his forces and his wits, until both seemed to give way. When his UN military observers (UNMOs) eventually questioned whether their patrols were worth the risks they entailed, he curtailed these missions. And when he noticed that, due in part to his inability to sleep, he was frequently daydreaming, losing his temper and repeating himself to his soldiers, he asked to be relieved early.
The last month in Rwanda was bittersweet for Dallaire. He witnessed the end of the most brutal phase of the genocide after the Rwandese Patriotic Front took Kigali on July 4 (though he wondered why they did not capture Kigali sooner). While he vehemently disagreed with the French Opération Turquoise that protected the Hutu population fleeing into Zaire, he used UNAMIR to minimize clashes between RPF and French forces. After the genocide had subsided, a number of embarrassed and guilty nations finally started sending troops, though it was, in Dallaire’s words, “too much, too late.” Towards the end of his term, he was honoured in front of his officers with Canada’s Meritorious Service Cross. Characteristically, he felt ashamed of “being decorated ahead of so many of my troops” (p.404) who had risked so much.
In telling his story, Dallaire has done the United Nations and the world a great service. He describes many of the troubles and tensions routinely found in UN peacekeeping operations that desperately need to be fixed (and gradually are being fixed), problems aggravated by the extreme stress of conditions in Rwanda. First, there was the headquarters-field tension. In New York, the staff of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) could not meet the mission’s desperate logistical needs, despite incessant demands made under extenuating circumstances. (The implementation of the UN’s Brahimi Report of 2000 is helping solve this problem.) A risk-averse leadership in New York proved unwilling to give UNAMIR flexibility in the interpretation of its mandate and DPKO provided minimal information or feedback to the peacekeepers in the field, leading Dallaire to believe that the belligerents were better informed than he about intentions in New York. Furthermore, the ridiculous restriction on the rules of engagement (“not to fire unless fired upon”) imposed by DPKO meant a peacekeeper could not shoot even if a gun was pointed at his head, and even if a massacre of innocents was being conducted in front of him. (Perhaps as a result of the Rwanda experience, the trend has been to make peacekeeping more robust or muscular, though this has meant, in some cases, shifting responsibility from the UN to organizations like NATO.) In New York, a hands-off and apparently uncaring Security Council, led by its Permanent members, did not even try to prevent the oncoming genocide. Before the slaughter, the US emphasis was on keeping costs down and even after the genocide had exploded onto the world scene the US avoided the word “genocide” for many weeks because of the legal obligation to act that this word implied under the 1948 Genocide Convention. (Memory of this negative experience may have influenced subsequent US policy. In 2004, for instance, Secretary of State Colin Powell would proudly point out that the US was the first nation to label the killings in Darfur, Sudan, as a genocide, though there has been, at the time of writing, little US commitment to action.) No doubt there was, and there remains, a deplorable lack of political will in the Security Council to take creative and forceful action to prevent atrocities, especially in Africa.
Within the field mission itself, Dallaire felt a number of tensions and failings. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG), the “politico” who is head of mission, was passive and aloof, preferring to stay in luxury in Nairobi than be close to the action in Kigali when conditions worsened. SRSG Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh, who had been appointed by Boutros Boutros-Ghali, acted in ways partial to Hutu leaders, and rarely took the initiative, eventually isolating himself and his political staff from the rest of the mission. The value of a creative and competent SRSG was underlined after Booh-Booh resigned and was replaced by a dynamic and insightful individual, leaving Dallaire to “only dream of what Shaharyar Khan might have done for Rwanda if he had been the one who had led the mission from the start” (p.463). It was a similar case for the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), who handled the supply of goods and contracted services within a UN mission. Dallaire’s first CAO was parsimonious and a nitpicker, unable to push the New York bureaucracy and exacerbating the great shortages in the mission. This CAO eventually resigned in frustration when the rules were bent by SRSG Booh-Booh. (Though the selection of SRSG and CAO remains the prerogative of the Secretary-General and DPKO, one would hope that through gained experience better choices would be made. DPKO is currently instituting a civilian recruitment system where career paths can be made within UN peacekeeping so that good personnel are retained while poor ones are dropped.)
As in most peacekeeping missions, the national contingents arrive with wildly varying attitudes, training, leadership, equipment, competencies and commitments. Dallaire had to contend with the aggressive and colonial attitudes of some Belgian soldiers, though the Belgian contingent formed the backbone of his mission. (The Belgian Senate later advocated the policy that Belgium should not send peacekeepers to its former colonies.) The Belgian contingent commander, Colonel Luc Marchal, however, is portrayed as a very competent, dependable and committed Kigali sector commander, undeserving of the court-martial he received after his return to Belgium (which, fortunately, ended in acquittal). The Bangladeshi contingent came without the requisite equipment and, even more tragic, without permission to take the required risks. It became a burden on the mission and was evacuated at the outset of the genocide, embarrassing the UN even in the hasty and overly enthusiastic manner of its withdrawal. The Bangladeshi medical platoon was an exception, headed by a superb surgeon who performed marvels in an overwhelmed King Faisal Hospital. The Ghanaians receive uniform praise from Dallaire for courage, commitment and staying power. In fact, Dallaire wanted a Ghanaian Brigadier to take over command after he left, but the UN Secretary-General chose a Canadian instead. While Canada received poor marks for mission support prior to the genocide it was top of the class afterwards, as the only country to reinforce the mission in April and May 1994 (p.207). The risky Canadian Hercules flights into Kigali became the life-line of the mission during the genocide. The Canadian military observers and humanitarian teams also performed yeomen service.
In the book, Dallaire admits to some personal failings, though this was not the mea culpa that he first thought of writing. He wonders if he was adequately trained and experienced enough, this being his first field command and his first tour in Africa. He faults his inability to identify early the villainous “third force” that was behind the killings and assassinations, and he feels he was duped by the extremists, especially in the early hours of the genocide. In a bizarre turn, he even wonders if he was duped by the RPF and its leader Paul Kagame as the possible hidden hand behind the whole sordid affair, though all the evidence in the book points towards the Hutu extremists as sole authors and perpetrators of the genocide. Most importantly, he wears upon himself the burden of failing to find an effective solution and to gain sufficient international support for his force.
As a man of great conscience, Dallaire seems to take Rwanda’s burden onto his own shoulders. Doing that is as unbearable (he did try to commit suicide several times after the mission) as it is unfair. Dallaire did what he could, going far beyond the call of duty and making personal sacrifices that few UN commanders have ever made. Now, with this book, he does more good by describing his experiences for future generations of peacekeepers, policy makers and the world at large.
The book is a long read, no doubt, at over 500 pages. At times, it reads as easily as gripping fiction and feels as suspenseful as a thriller movie1 , 1 A movie drama called “Hotel Rwanda” was released in 2004, based, in part, on Dallaire’s experience, with the UN commander being a composite of several UNAMIR peacekeepers. A documentary based on the book and titled “Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire” was also released in 2004. with a dramatic plot line and a mysterious villain, but, being reality, it is a great deal more complex. Fortunately, the reader is aided by three maps, a 22-page glossary of terms and a thorough index to help sort things out. The heroes are, undoubtedly, the courageous peacekeepers but unlike fictional heroes they are unable to stop the tragedy, only to mitigate it a bit. At points, they seem to make huge mistakes. One is left wondering whether UNAMIR’s threats of withdrawal only encouraged the génocidaires and whether their efforts to establish a ceasefire between battling armies were misguided since it was the genocide within Hutu territory that should have been targeted. The mass slaughter would have raged on even if a ceasefire between forces had been achieved; perhaps it would even have gained strength as the Rwandese Government Forces could have devoted more resources to the macabre task. It was the RPF victory that eventually put a halt to this greatest of crimes against humanity (though the RPF were certainly not clear of responsibility for some atrocities themselves.) There was also the sad but usual UN penchant for dealing exclusively with official leaders, not getting to the real powerbrokers and troublemakers, e.g., the extremists who were the “spoilers” of the peace process. But UNAMIR was not permitted to stray from the restrictive instructions from New York.
Two shortcomings of the book can be cited. Dallaire does not tell the reader UNAMIR’s original mandate, which was contained in the Security Council resolution that created the mission. (Resolution 872 is not even mentioned.) Therefore the reader cannot judge how right or wrong were Dallaire’s superiors in New York when they claimed that his proposed actions were exceeding the mission’s mandate. Readers might be misled when Dallaire asserts that it was within his mandate to “provide security for the citizens of Kigali” (p.202) when, in fact, the resolution only gives him authority to “contribute to the security of Kigali”, a much weaker mandate. Secondly, Dallaire asserts that he could have stopped the genocide with a brigade of well trained and equipped troops but he does not tell us how that could have been done. We have to take him at his word and believe the conclusion of the “high ranking officers” (p.547) who analyzed his plan at a 1997 session at Georgetown University (where the judgment was, in fact, far from unanimous). Still, many (including this author) believe that Dallaire could have greatly mitigated, if not prevented, the genocide if it had he had been given the proper resources and mandate (see Dorn and Matloff, 2000).
The account is an intensely personal one and therefore presents a biased view of Rwanda and the UN mission, but Dallaire is self-critical and scrupulous about factual accuracy (demonstrating a fantastic memory). At times, especially towards the end of the book, the storyline becomes repetitive and somewhat tedious, leaving the impression that Dallaire is simply taking events out of his diary and presenting unnecessary details about unimportant meetings.
In the final analysis, however, any criticisms of Dallaire and his book are minor since he is rightfully a hero of humanity who has, in addition to his remarkable service within Rwanda, produced a monumental work about the tragedy of the UN in Rwanda, displaying admirable literary skills, an uncanny memory and great insight. The lessons of Rwanda are invaluable, and may already have been learned in part: witness the humanitarian interventions in Zaire, Kosovo and East Timor before the decade was over.
Dallaire was not only a proactive commander of UN forces but also the voice of humanity, working hard for peace and then denouncing and protesting after the abominable horrors had begun. In doing what he could with the limited means that he had, he has redeemed humanity in part, showing that courageous and committed individuals do exist.
The world must thank Dallaire for facing his demons and telling his story. He may not have been able to save the many lives that were lost but his account and his recommendations may yet save lives in the future. If only by increasing the awareness of the weaknesses and challenges of the UN, and indicating solutions, he is making the world a better place.
Dorn, A. Walter and Jonathan Matloff (2000), “Preventing the Bloodbath: Could the UN have Predicted and Prevented the Rwandan Genocide? ”, Journal of Conflict Studies , Vol. XX, No. 1 (Spring 2000), p. 9.