Archive for category Rwandan genocide

Lives in the Balance


The descriptions are heart wrenching.   Young boys and girls taken from their homes, forced to become killers and/or sex slaves.   Boys having their skin scrapped so cocaine can be rubbed right into their blood stream before a battle, told that if they have faith they’ll be invincible.    Even when rescued, they often find themselves unable to fit into normal life. How can you kill, maim, and brutalize at age 13, feeling powerful and in control, and then suddenly blend into village life?

How can you go from having people cower in fear at the sight of you to begging for food or doing a menial job for people who you know you could terrorize and kill?

I admit, I had tears in my eyes much of Friday as I read about the heinous school shooting in Connecticut.   Having two children (ages 9 and 6) I imagined myself in the shoes of their parents.  I visualized what it would be like to have my six year old screaming as someone pointed a gun to his head and blew it away.   I let myself imagine those images in order to not let my mind abstract the suffering that this act brought about.

Children being led to safety Friday after the shooting

Children being led to safety Friday after the shooting

Yet, as debate turns to gun control, school security and other such “solutions,” I think about other children.   Dr. Mellisa Clawson and I co-teach a course on Children and War.   It includes child soldiers, families in war zones, the children of deployed American troops, and children growing up in gang ridden ghettos.

Back when my oldest son was three I got a book called Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire.  Dallaire was the Commander of UNAMIR, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda, from 1993 to 1994.   Pleading for support and more soldiers he watched the Rwandan genocide unfold as the Hutu majority tried to exterminate the Tutsi minority.   Instead of stopping the killing, the UN pulled thousands out of his mission leaving him with just 250 soldiers to protect groups of Tutsis who happened to get to a UN zone.

Not an easy read, but one of the important books of our time

Not an easy read, but one of the important books of our time

Dallaire’s ordeal itself is worth learning about – he went from suffering PTSD and attempting suicide to now being a true humanitarian fighting against the use of child soldiers.    But I still remember the day I got his book.    I had just brought the kids home from day care and the three year old wanted to play in the driveway.   His younger brother was still an infant asleep in the car seat.  So I took a chair and started reading while my son was playing.

In the introduction Dallaire describes a time when his convoy was stopped and he saw a three year old boy nibbling on a UN biscuit.  The boy looked lost.  Dallaire had warned his troops not to get emotionally connected to the children they saw – they couldn’t bring them all into the compound.  But he broke his own rule.  He followed the boy to a hut, where the child stepped over his dead father and went over and snuggled against his dead mom, still trying to eat the biscuit.

Dallaire lost his capacity to close off the pain.   He said he decided then and there to adopt the boy.  He picked him up and started carrying him back to his vehicle, but before he got there Tutsi boys came and demanded the boy.  “He has to be raised by his own people,” they curtly told Dallaire.  These boys were 12 or 13 and well armed.  They snatched the boy and disappeared.

I put the book down and looked at my son and imagined that happening to him.   I sat in the garage with tears running down my cheeks thinking about him in such a situation.   I vowed to inject the human side of world politics into my courses — we Americans get used to abstracting the violence and suffering into concepts and terms we can discuss with apparent intelligence but no feeling.    But if we lose the sentiment, we lose the humanity.

These things cross my mind in the wake of the shooting.   20 dead children is a tragedy, horrific and vile.  Yet these children aren’t more valuable than children being manipulated and brutalized in war zones or young girls being turned into sex slaves.

These things are on going.  Every day there are lives in the balance.   So I feel a bit put off by the Facebook posts of people sharing a “prayer chain,” listing the names of the children or getting into emotional debates about gun control.   I felt the national pain on Friday, I had tears just like the President did as I thought about it.   But what do we do next?

Thinking of his daughters, the President let his emotion show

Thinking of his daughters, the President let his emotion show

We spend a lot of money on weapons systems, corporate welfare, and ways to support huge financial institutions because they drive the economy.   With a fraction of that money and a fraction of the energy there could be a global focus on bringing stability to sub-Saharan Africa, creating conditions where communities there could be self-sustaining, and do immense good.

The same groups that hate any kind of gun control here don’t want the US to participate in the UN Small Arms Treaty being negotiated.   They claim it will circumvent the constitution.   They’re wrong – no treaty can do that, by law any treaty that violates the constitution is invalid.   What they don’t want anything that might suggest guns are bad.  Yet those flows of small arms into these war zones is one reason we have so many child soldiers and war lords operating in areas of anarchy.

As the Jackson Browne song notes, "there are lives in the balance."

As the Jackson Browne song notes, “there are lives in the balance.”

So yes, let’s debate gun control and domestic issues.   But I wish that we’d expand our vision a bit and think about children suffering violence and despair elsewhere, especially since our weapons and policies helped create conditions where these problems could fester.   Wouldn’t it be nice if the emotion people feel after a tragedy could yield long term action on a variety of fronts to protect children rather than either fading away after the media cycle or getting gobbled up by partisan fights over guns and schools?

Because tragedies like the Connecticut school shooting happen every day.   We just don’t notice them.


Dallaire: Hero of Rwanda

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.


Third world rage

Many people wonder why we should worry about what goes on in the third world, given all the problems they have. Some even suggest that we have so many problems here that we should “take care of ourselves” before helping others. I think the best answer to that comes from a quote by Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, whose book Shake Hands with the Devil details his efforts at working to stop the Rwandan genocide as commander of UNAMIR, the UN force in Rwanda during the genocide. When he pleaded for more support to either prevent or later end the slaughter, the UN – driven primarily by American and French concerns – cut UNAMIR to a few hundred people, and essentially let the slaughter continue.

Dallaire came back from that experience a broken man, suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, and drifting into alcoholism and prescription drugs, leading to his near death in 2001 when he was found passed out on a park bench. He felt the guilt of the civilized world for allowing this to happen, even though he was one of those who did everything he could to prevent it. He had watched, helplessly, as innocent people were massacred; in the West most people hardly noticed. Governments that knew, found excuses not to get involved. One American official told Dallaire that the Clinton Administration had determined that it would only be worth one American life to save 85,000 Rwandans.

Dallaire managed to recover, writing a book that detailed the genocide, and which I believe should be read by everyone: Shake Hands with the Devil. A documentary with the same name examines his return to Rwanda on the tenth anniversary of the genocide. Writing about his experience was a kind of therapy for Dallaire, who also reflected on what conditions in the third world do to young people growing up there. They produce rage.

His quote is from page 521 of his book:

“But many signs point to the fact that the youth of the Third World will no longer tolerate living in circumstances that give them no hope for the future. From the young boys I met in the demobilization camps in Sierra Leone to the suicide bombers of Palestine and Chechnya, to the young terrorists who fly planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we can no longer afford to ignore them. We have to take concrete steps to remove the causes of their rage, or we have to be prepared to suffer the consequences. The global village is deteriorating at a rapid pace, and in the children of the world the result is rage. It is the rage I saw in the eyes of the teenage Interahamwe militiamen in Rwanda, it is the rage sensed in the hearts of the children in Sierra Leone, it is the rage I felt in crowds of ordinary civilians in Rwanda, and it is the rage that resulted in September 11. Human beings who have no rights, no security, no future, no hope and no means to survive are a desperate group who will do desperate things to take what they believe they need and deserve.”

If we don’t do something to help improve conditions there, it will come back here to haunt us; September 11, 2001 was a stark example of what can happen. We shouldn’t be fooled into thinking its just religious fanatics; what drives all this is deeper. That makes all the more poignant the example of Sally Goodrich, UMF’s commencement speaker this year, and her work. She suffered the consequences of that rage when she lost her son on 9-11, and she is actively trying to work to bring hope to Afghanistan with her education program, doing what Dallaire would say are “concrete steps to remove the causes of their rage.”

If people both against and for the war or American foreign policy would focus a bit less on domestic political theater and more on what we can actually do to deal with these difficult issues, we may be surprised at how much can be accomplished. I doubt we can solve these problems; that work will take generations. But we may be able to avoid feeding the rage if we are active in trying to help create hope.

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