CBC Digital Archives

Roméo Dallaire: The ghosts of Rwanda

With more than 800,000 people slaughtered in 100 days the Rwandan genocide stands as one of the most horrific mass murders of the past century. In the middle of the horror was a Canadian peacekeeper whose efforts to avert the tragedy were thwarted by political apathy and incalculable evil. CBC Digital Archives looks back at this sad chapter in Africa's history and how Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire managed to survive to become Canada's most famous casualty of war.

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It's been six years since Rwanda but Roméo Dallaire remains haunted by the painful memories of his mission. Within months of returning home, Dallaire began displaying symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, culminating in a nervous breakdown and intense therapy. In this interview with CBC Radio's Michael Enright, an emotionally fragile Dallaire talks about his ongoing therapy, his suicide attempts, his faith in God and the weeks he spent "just crying, and yelling, and brooding." 
• This clip from June 11, 2000, finds an audibly worn Dallaire at one of his lowest points in his battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
• The interview with Michael Enright was taped less than two months after his early retirement from the Canadian Army in April for medical reasons. It was also shortly before he was found drunk and nearly comatose in a park in Hull, Que.

• With his 36-year military career having come to an end, Dallaire was telling people that he felt like school was finally out and he was enjoying a much-delayed summer vacation. But behind the scenes he was coping with an array of problems, from violent outbursts brought on by his memories of Rwanda, to several suicide attempts.
• In this interview he opens up about his troubles with PTSD, explaining how he lost his self-control and discipline after returning home.

• He describes obsessively eating junk food and working long hours without sleep.
• "You spend a lot of time just crying, and yelling, and brooding," he says of his syndrome. "It envelopes you."
• He also admits to attempting to suicide at least twice -- adding that the only thing that stopped him from being successful was his own "incompetence." In addition to his attempt to crash his car on a highway he has also admitted to drunkenly trying to slash his wrists with a razorblade.

• To hear Dallaire discuss the ongoing impact of PTSD on himself and his soldiers, listen to this additional clip.
• A heavily medicated Dallaire began the long process of psychiatric therapy in 1997, which helped him deal with the misunderstood condition of PTSD.
• "Shell shock" or "battle fatigue" was first diagnosed by British military doctors in 1914. Some thought it was brain damage caused by artillery shells bursting overhead; others thought it was simply cowardice.

• Today, the same condition is called post-traumatic stress disorder: when a witness or victim of something distressing is mentally or physically affected by their ordeal.
• To learn more about the effects of PTSD, watch this clip, "Veterans and post-traumatic stress."
• A week after this interview Dallaire, haunted by his failure in Rwanda, spiralled into a deep depression. On the night of June 20 he was found partially clothed, drunk and unconscious under a park bench in Hull, Que.

• A man who was walking through Jacques Cartier Park told a reporter that Dallaire was sitting on the bench for a while staring at the river. "You could see his eyes were glazed over, like he was somewhere else."
• Suffering from a reaction between his anti-depressants and the alcohol, Dallaire was rushed to a hospital where he nearly fell into a coma. The incident gained national headlines and generated a debate over PTSD.

• Dallaire said the event convinced him to start writing Shake Hands With The Devil, which marked the first step on his road to recovery.
• The bond between Enright and Dallaire stretches back to the early days of the Rwandan genocide, when the two would talk live on CBC Radio's As It Happens. Dallaire later joked that he made the show's producer read out the latest hockey scores before he would grant his interviews.

• In Shake Hands With The Devil Dallaire wrote "in our conversations, Enright became the voice of home to me."
Medium: Radio
Program: This Morning Sunday
Broadcast Date: June 11, 2000
Guest(s): Roméo Dallaire
Host: Michael Enright
Duration: 8:39

Last updated: July 6, 2012

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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