As It Happens

Roméo Dallaire on his memoir Waiting For First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD

Roméo Dallaire not only witnessed the horrors of the genocide in Rwanda up close. He - a Canadian lieutenant-general there representing the United Nations— could do nothing to stop it.
Retired Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire announcing his retirement from the Senate in Ottawa in 2014. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

This story was originally published on Oct. 27, 2016.

Roméo Dallaire didn't just witness the horrors of the genocide in Rwanda up close. He was there as a Canadian lieutenant-general representing the United Nations — and he could do nothing to stop it.

That was 22 years ago. And he is still mentally wounded.

I smell the cordite and the blood and the dung. I feel the warmth and I feel the fear.- Roméo Dallaire on his flashbacks to the Rwandan genocide

The genocide saw 800,000 people killed in 100 days, in the most brutal ways possible. Here is Dallaire speaking to As It Happens at the very start of the massacre:

General Dallaire spoke almost weekly to As It Happens during the 100 days of slaughter in Rwanda that left 800,000 people dead.

Since then, former lieutenant-general Dallaire has devoted much of his life to telling the story of the slaughter, in the hope that it would not happen again. And now, he's telling the story of the impact the genocide had on him personally.

His 2016 memoir is called Waiting For First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD

Dallaire joined As It Happens host Carol Off in studio to talk about it. Here is an edited excerpt of their conversation:

Carol Off: You have told the story of what you saw hundreds of times, if not more. What I've learned in this extraordinary book is what was going on in your head during all that time. Can you describe for us the sounds and the images that play in your head from that time, over and over again, since 1994?

Romeo Dallaire: The sounds they come out, often, unexpectedly, when I'm watching just normal news from Syria or somewhere and they're talking about refugees or a bombing. I don't see it as images. I hear them there. I go back and I hear the people in the compound in the King Faisal Hospital area where over 100 were killed by bombs and splattered all over the place and the screaming and the yelling. I smell the smell of the cordite and the blood and the dung. I feel the warmth and I feel the fear.

General Romeo Dallaire inspects the Ceremonial Guard in 1998. He says he hopes his memoir about PTSD will help Canadians understand the moral injuries soldiers can suffer. (Reuters)

CO: And are you right back in Rwanda?

RD: You literally relive it. There are some mornings I wake up and for a few seconds I'm actually back in my office, actually hearing the sounds of the fighting going on. It's real. Absolutely, completely real. And the best you can do is try to control that. The nights are the worst times because there's nothing to stop anything from invading you.

I was often hoping that I'd have a stroke or something that would turn me into a vegetable and I wouldn't have to hurt anymore.- Roméo Dallaire

CO: And what is the replay? What is happening?

RD: A scene will reappear. Once, in Sierra Leone, crossing the street, there was a vendor with a machete chopping up a coconut and I went nuts and was trying to kill him because it had launched me into a five, six-minute teleprompter of the whole slaughter of Rwanda and I was seeing it and I couldn't control my body from going after this guy and people did ultimately stop me. So there are triggers that open up these drawers of events and then you relive them. They don't dull. This stuff does not dull. It stays vivid and powerful ... You can push yourself to the extremes of suicide. And it hurts.

Alphonsine Mukamfizi miraculously survived three attempts on her life and had to fake death in order to survive the genocide. The rest of her 11 family members were all killed. (Noor Khamis/Reuters)

CO: I was meeting you with you during these times and interviewing you and, when I now read this memoir and understand what was going on in your head, I don't know how you did it. The man I spoke with was, yes, troubled, yes, going through a great deal, but you were doing so much work. You were accomplishing things. The phrase you heard, as you say in the book, "You're back in the real world now," it seemed that you were. But you weren't. That's what I find so shocking about this book.

RD: All I was doing was camouflage. I was really just trying to kill myself by working because I had been unsuccessful other ways. It was the safest place to be. By just honourably driving myself into the ground, often hoping that I'd have a stroke or something that would turn me into a vegetable and I wouldn't have to hurt anymore.

Pictures of killed people donated by survivors of the Rwandan genocide are installed on a wall inside the Gisozi memorial in Kigali April 5, 2004. (Radu Sigheti/Reuters)

CO: What I've learned from reading this is that you were incredibly lonely. Why didn't you tell people that? 

If you're able to find something, particularly if it's helping other human beings, that, I think, is something that helps.- Romeo Dallaire

RD: The injury does it. It's one of the facets of this terrible injury. You don't seek people. On the contrary, you try to avoid them. It was not self-protection, but protecting others. If you started to talk about it, people would turn off or they'd ask a stupid question or they'd be so emotionally wrought that you feel terrible that you've created that. And that was the dominant element with my family. They had seen some of it. In particular, when I crashed in '98 for six months. They saw this person who would sit alone just crying. They didn't need that. They were safer. Although my son about a year or so ago said, "Dad, maybe it would have been better if we had been with you." And that really caught me by surprise.

Former anti-Balaka child soldiers wait to be released in Bambari, Central African Republic, May 14, 2015. General Dallaire says his work with child soldiers give him hope. (Emmanuel Braun/Reuters)

CO: In this book you wrote, "Rwanda will never end and I will never be free. I know there is no remedy for what I saw, what I did and did not do, during those three months in hell." It's clear in this book that you are not going to be able to heal. Is there any way that you can find hope?

RD: If you're able to find something, particularly if it's helping other human beings, that, I think, is something that helps you come out of it. That's why I've committed all my money from the books and my effort in helping [child soldiers]. I was in South Sudan and UNICEF had called us in because they couldn't move on the military side who were all recruiting child soldiers by the thousands. So we arranged that we go and meet just one of the 11 major rebel leaders. And after not quite two hours of discussion, I was able to get the last 300 kids that he had under his command and hand them over to UNICEF. So that's the hope. That I actually might be saving kids.

CO: There is light in Waiting For First Light.

RD: Well, remember, first light means there's going to be more after it.

Where to get help

Canada Suicide Prevention Service

Toll-free 1-833-456-4566

Text: 45645


In French: Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553) 

Kids Help Phone: 

Phone: 1-800-668-6868

Text: TALK to 686868 (English) or TEXTO to 686868 (French)

Live Chat counselling at 

Post-Secondary Student Helpline:

Phone: 1-866-925-5454 

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre

If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. Here are some warning signs:

  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Purposelessness.
  • Anxiety.
  • Feeling trapped.
  • Hopelessness and helplessness.
  • Withdrawal.
  • Anger.
  • Recklessness.
  • Mood changes.

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Romeo Dallaire.





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