Every semester when I teach World Politics I start with a unit on the Rwandan genocide. We see videos, and read the long but powerful book Shake Hands With the Devil by Romeo Dallaire. I tell students not to worry about the academic side for these first two weeks. Academia focuses on theories and objective analysis, and we’ll get to that later on in the course. Humans are both head and heart, however, and I require students to write each day about the relevant section of Dallaire’s book, and what is covered in class, in terms of what it makes them think and feel. The papers the students write are powerful in their own way. Many have never heard of Rwanda, or even know much about what is outside the US. As they discover the horror that humans can inflict on each other, they grapple to make sense of it, often ranging from anger to despair. I get tears in my eyes not only from Dallaire’s book, but even reading what students write about their reaction to the book.
Romeo Dallaire was made commander of the UNAMIR mission designed to implement the Arusha accords in Rwanda. However, when the Rwandan President was murdered and the Inherhamwe militia began it’s attempt to exterminate Tutsis, the UN pulled most of its forces out. The US and UK opposed even keeping Dallaire’s small contingent of 450 men (mostly Ghanans and poorly trained and equipped Bangladeshis), while France actively supported the Hutu government, arguing that the government was trying to bring order to Rwanda, and it was simply the out of control Interhamwe that was the problem (which was untrue).
The basic history — that Dallaire’s force was too small to help and perhaps should have just left — misses the point on what Dallaire’s experience means. Dallaire is a French Canadian military man from a military family. When he was 47 he got the job to head the UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission In Rwanda) force, noting that all he knew about Rwanda is that it is “somewhere in Africa.” The UN, burned by the Somalia case a year before, thought Rwanda would be an “easy” case. The two sides, Tutsi and Hutu, wanted peace, with Hutu moderates willing to share power with the Tutsis.
The reality of the situation was one that the UN apparently did not comprehend. Ever since the Belgians had brought down ugly European racism in the early 20th century to declare ethnic superiority of the Tutsis and to give them elite positions, the hatred of the Hutus for the Tutsis grew. The Tutsis were only 15% of the population, but were given education, power and perks by the Belgians. From the time even before Rwandan independence in 1962 to the genocide there were angry repressions of Tutsis, and massacres on both sides. The Tutsi RPF formed in neighboring Uganda to serve as a base of operations for Tutsis. Their demand was power sharing. Hutu moderates were willing to give them that, but Hutu extremists thought that the Tutsis should have no part of power in Rwanda, having been puppets of the Belgian colonizers and being a small minority in the country. To prevent this power sharing from happening, they decided to try to kill off all the 1.2 million Tutsis in Rwanda.
Dallaire’s UN force watches helplessly as horror comes to the country. From April 6th to mid-July, in 100 days, over 800,000 Rwandans are killed, a pace of death that surpasses even that of the Holocaust or Stalin’s death camps. The killings are done more often than not by young boys, about 15 or so, and everyone is targeted from the elderly to young children. They are killed with guns and machetes, as bodies lie in streets, rivers and throughout the city, creating a stench that Dallaire’s UN forces had to constantly burn bodies and fight the urge to vomit. Dallaire pleads with the UN, feeling neglected as they lack food, medical supplies and basic equipment for even their small force. He’s convinced that, given how one UN soldier can often hold off dozens of Interhamwe, who are poorly trained and often teens, a UN show of force of even just 5000 soldiers could have stopped the killing. Instead, the world looked the other way.
Dallaire and his forces live through hell, targets themselves, enduring a torture made worse by the inaction of the rest of the world. After all, these were tribal blacks in Africa, killing each other, no big deal. But the problems in Bosnia, well, those were white Europeans! Racism? It has to be, how else could it be so easy to ignore such atrocities. As Nick Nolte, playing a composite character based in part on Dallaire, says in Hotel Rwanda, “We think you’re dirt…the superpowers, the West…you’re not even a nigger, you’re an African.” He says the word “African” as if it were the foulest thing on the planet. Of course Dallaire, and the Nolte character, are criticizing the world for abandoning Africa — our racism and disregard for the humanity of people who are “different” is on proud display.
Dallaire returns, forgotten (no one wants to think about Rwanda), suffers post-traumatic stress disorder, takes heavy medication, and once is found near death from anti-depressants and alcohol on a park bench in Quebec. He finally writes his book and now appears to be recovering, though he’ll never be the same as he was before he went through that hell.
But as we discuss the book and the event, it occurs to me that Dallaire is a true hero. Unlike most of the world, he refuses to give in to the temptation to see the Rwandans as unnecessary. He refuses to give up the mission. He refuses to mourn the dead peace keepers (ten Belgians) more than the hundreds of thousands of Rwandans. He never stops seeing the Rwandans as human, never gives up trying to find a way to save the country, and then blames himself for the fact that the mission failed, that he couldn’t shame the world into doing more. In one of humanity’s most shameful and brutal hours, he maintains a sense of decency, principle and humanism, and tells the story in brutal, heart shaking, and anger inducing candor. His story means that when President Clinton says “we just didn’t get what was happening,” or Belgian politicians attack Dallaire for “not rescuring the Belgian peace keepers,” we don’t fall prey to those kind of simple attacks, we can know the real story.
Heros are those individuals who do something great, sacrificing themselves for others. Dallaire sacrificed the rest of his life, having to endure psychological and emotional scars that are with him forever, in order to be able to tell an honest story about humanity at its worst — and in the form of Dallaire and his compatriots, also at its best. He shows the contradictions and banality of world politics, with diplomats and leaders putting abstractions and power games over humanity, and then finding excuses to dismiss their errors. He exposes the hypocrisy of principles that say “never again” after the Holocaust, but then take no action, depsite having stark and honest reports from a UN commander on the scene. It also shows the evil that colonialism created, sparking failed corrupt states, ethnic violence and a destroyed political and economic culture across Africa. While some in the West arrogantly dismiss such folk as primitives, priding themselves on our superiority, it’s clear here we’re refusing to take responsibility for the fruits of our actions.
Dallaire shows students from the start that world events are not abstract things that leaders do or just involve countries interacting. It’s about humanity. It’s about children, killing, gang rapes, poverty, and massive amounts of money being spent for great powers to pursue their own particular interests, while not spending even a tiny bit for those places deemed unimportant. His description of Rwanda is an indictment of the international system and the values of the West. His actions and effort to help is a redemption of those same values, an example of what it means to put principle first.
In political science “social forces” are often given precedence over individuals. Abstract theories and cool detachment are valued over empathy and sentiment. Dallaire’s book is also an indictment of that social science, showing that heroism is real, and theory and analysis without emotion and empathy is worse than cold, it is deadly.