INDEPTH: ROMEO DALLAIRE|
CBC News Online | Oct. 24, 2003 Updated March 9, 2005
The ordinary demands of life are now a comfort to retired general Romeo Dallaire.
His children, Catherine and Guy, look for chances to spend time with their father, such as the annual Quebec ritual of assembling the winter garage. They missed a lot during his years as a soldier and again during his painful recovery. When nothing gave comfort. When his heart and mind were thousands of kilometres away in another land.
Dallaire's searing memory of his time in that other land is now a book. Shake Hands With the Devil The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda.
He describes the machete-wielding government-sponsored forces who went on a killing spree in 1994 and murdered 800,000 people in 100 days. It's a damning indictment of world leaders and UN bureaucrats who failed to stop the genocide. Even to write the story was painful.
"I actually think it's having relived that year in Rwanda and the four months of the genocide through writing the book. I mean, I actually had to relive it. You can't write it unless you relive it," Dallaire says.
After Rwanda, Dallaire blamed himself for everything. He sank deep into despair. He attempted suicide. Three years ago he sat on a park bench in Ottawa and drank from a bottle of alcohol. He's forbidden to drink because of the drugs he takes for depression. The mixture almost put him into a coma. Police had to take him to hospital.
It was a low point in his life. But soon after, he began to write the book and to give shape to the events that haunt him. He feels the park bench is behind him now.
Dallaire has confronted the demons, some of whom were real-life ones.
"They were devils. And I couldn't see them as human," he says. "Just as I know there was a presence of a superior being on a couple of occasions, present as a physical vibrating sense to help me through very, very difficult moments. That same reality came through with those people. I was not discussing with humans. They had erased themselves."
Which created in itself an ethical dilemma, do you negotiate with the devil? Or do you just take out your pistol and shoot him between the eyes.
"I describe at one point in the book where I walked in and for a second or whatever, long enough to be conscious of it, I wasn't sure if my hand would go take my pistol out or would move to shake their hand. It was that strong," Dallaire says.
In one passage from the book, Dallaire describes a visit to a village he had hoped had not been wiped out by the genocidaire.
In the book, Dallaire describes the scene on a hill, where even the peace had been murdered.
"It's interesting, at times, when you say there's no finger-pointing. There's no help to point fingers and to lay blame..." he says.
So, who does he blame?
"I blame the American leadership, which includes the Pentagon, in projecting itself as the world policeman one day and a recluse the next," Dallaire says.
"In fact, vulgarly stating in the General Assembly three weeks before the Rwandan genocide and civil war started, I mean, president Clinton saying in the General Assembly that through his Proposition 25 that Americans would go only if it was in their self-interest."
Dallaire's main line of communication with the world was through the department of Peacekeeping Operations at the UN in New York City. Before the war began, Dallaire asked for leave to take pre-emptive action against those he suspected of plotting the genocide. New York told him to back off.
"I think 'let down' is a bit of a soft statement," he says. He feels betrayed. "Undermined. Poorly assessed. Putting into question my skills in the field as a commander, realizing what I was doing and the full consequence of my actions.
"Well, that came through from different sources but it was very much like I wasn't fully grasping the depth of risk to my people. And we had taken some high risks previously in moving the rebel battalion into Kigali and a number of things like that. But it seemed to me I was being assessed as not having thought out my plan appropriately, recognizing that these soldiers are not mine."
As the death toll mounted, General Dallaire submitted a detailed plan for a Rapid Reaction Force. He needed 5,000 soldiers to dismantle the killing machine of the genocidaire and to stop the Hutu power movement. The UN Security Council rejected the plan. The United States even refused to acknowledge the genocide to avoid any legal obligations to help.
On the first night of the war, Rwandan government forces were murdering Tutsi and Hutu moderate politicians. Dallaire dispatched one unit of 10 Belgian peacekeepers to secure the home of Rwanda's prime minister. The Belgians were by far the most experienced of his soldiers. But they were ambushed, taken prisoner and later tortured, mutilated and murdered.
The whole battalion was pulled out of Rwanda while Belgian politicians and the Belgian public blamed Dallaire for failing to take care of his soldiers first, Rwandans second. Dallaire has always lamented those 10 deaths. But in his book he says it was, overall, the Belgians who let him down.
"I think it will give them enough food for debate. Whether they will say that I as commander did not accomplish my duty particularly to those 10, that it will very much depend on where their hearts and their brains meet. But they will not be happy with what I write.
"There's no happiness there. It's blunt and it's nasty…because at the same time they were my best. They had the potential to be so much more. They helped a lot, you know, other contingents... what they could make available. But they could have been far more than what they were. They could have been a leading atmosphere amongst the troops and the contingents. And then, ultimately, being undisciplined, haughty, unnecessarily aggressive, bordering on racism and even at times undermining the advancement of the progress."
"I failed, yes. The mission failed. They died by the thousands, hundreds of thousands. That's why it's [the book] subtitled the Failure of Humanity.
It was overridden by the hatred and the racism and the fear and all the incredible horrific ways that human beings can destroy other human beings."
After Rwanda, Dallaire was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In December of 1999, when he was 53, Dallaire was told he was not responding to treatment. The Canadian Forces medical staff reported that he was trying to kill himself through work. The chief of defence staff told Dallaire he had to forget Rwanda or forget the army. Dallaire was medically dismissed.
Dallaire says, "The medical report said, it was just a very short phrase and it said General Dallaire cannot command troops in any operation, or cannot command troops in operations any more. My whole life had been commanding troops. And that's when I fully realized the impact of what Rwanda had done to me… I literally was not able to do what my whole career had taught me to do."
Dallaire's military family is in his past. His own family is front and centre.
The children and his wife Elizabeth have worked to put the pieces back together over the past nine years.
Dallaire is at Harvard on a fellowship - at the prestigious Carr Center - where he is studying and writing about conflict resolution. He also works with the Canadian government on war-affected children.
He is filled with a new idealism.