'My soul is still in Rwanda': 25 years after the genocide, Roméo Dallaire still grapples with guilt
Warning: This story contains descriptions of extreme violence and suicide
Retired Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire does not mince words when speaking about Bill Clinton, who was U.S. president during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
In an interview with The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright on the 25th anniversary of the genocide, Dallaire listened to a 1998 speech in which Clinton expressed regret for not acting sooner.
"We did not act quickly enough after the killing began," Clinton told genocide survivors in Kigali.
Dallaire rejects that assessment as downplaying just how thoroughly the U.S. ignored the crisis.
"Most of it is crap," he said.
"A month before the genocide, [Clinton] produced a presidential directive that stated that the United States will not engage in any humanitarian operation, unless it's in its self-interest," he said. "He had instructed his staff — and I've had the opportunity to meet with his subordinate staff — not to tell him what the hell was going on."
Dallaire was in charge of the UN peacekeeping mission during the genocide against the Tutsi minority. In 100 days, more than 800,000 Rwandans — most of them Tutsis and moderate Hutus — were slaughtered by the Rwandan military and Hutu militia.
In the months leading up to the genocide, Dallaire repeatedly warned the UN Security Council something catastrophic was brewing. But he said world leaders were too concerned with preventing peacekeeper casualties to let him act.
Dallaire returned to Canada devastated and angry, haunted by his inability to prevent the genocide or convince the international community to do more to stop it.
"I've been under 20 years, nearly, of therapy. They have tried, by every means possible, to take away my guilt," Dallaire said.
"Command is sort of like being a woman who's pregnant. You can't be pregnant during the week, and on weekends have a break … There is no, 'I did my best and I'm sorry.' You are held accountable for your command. There is nothing that can take that away, and should never be anything."
The Jan. 11 'genocide fax'
Dallaire was deployed to Rwanda with a small UN peacekeeping force in 1993. He was supposed to oversee a truce between the Hutus and the Tutsis, but his powers were tightly constricted by Chapter 6 of the UN Charter.
"You were supposed to be a facilitator, not a soldier, and the use of force was purely for self-protection," he said.
On Jan. 11, 1994, a commander told Dallaire militias were preparing to commit mass atrocities. He sent the UN Security Council in New York what is known as the "genocide fax," saying he was prepared to take action — even though it fell outside the mandate of Chapter 6.
I got the fastest response from New York that I ever got: 'You will not intervene. You will not put troops at risk.'- Retired Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire
"[The militias] would be able to kill a thousand Tutsis in 20 minutes, as they were planning. [We wanted] to try to go after the arms caches, and throw off the extremists from doing that," he said.
"After the 11th of January fax, I got the fastest response from New York that I ever got: 'You will not intervene. You will not put troops at risk.'"
Dallaire later learned that Clinton and the UN Security Council were reluctant to let him act because of what had happened in Somalia the year before.
In October 1993, an American special operations team launched a raid in Mogadishu, and two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down. Eighteen Americans, two UN peacekeepers and hundreds of Somali citizens were killed.
"There was a fear … that if I went in and did these things, that we'd end up in a firefight similar to Mogadishu, and I would take casualties," he said.
For two months, Dallaire kept asking the UN to let him take some limited actions to prevent violence.
"We were about to start doing them when the genocide started," he said.
Humiliation, mutilation and rape as acts of war
When the Rwandan president's airplane was shot down by a missile on the evening of April 6, 1994, Hutus blamed Tutsis. It was the spark that lit a bonfire.
Rwandan radio was full of calls to "destroy the cockroaches," meaning the Tutsis. Death squads roamed the streets. People were hacked to death by machete — a slow, brutal process.
"They realized that, 'Hey, why just try to kill them? It's such a hell of a lot of hard work, and there are so many of them.' So they would cut breasts off, Achilles heel, they'd hit them around the neck — enough for them to just not be able to move, to stay in the sun and bleed to death. They would do that even with children," Dallaire said.
"It wasn't just wanting to kill them. They wanted them to suffer."
The worst dimension, said Dallaire, was "the introduction of a weapon of conflict that is used extensively still, that is considered by [the] International Criminal Court as torture, as a crime against humanity, and that's rape."
Up to half a million women and children were raped, mutilated or murdered during the genocide.
Even once the genocide was underway, members of the UN Security Council continued to debate whether Dallaire had the mandate to act.
In 1994, Lt.-Gen. Dallaire spoke frequently with Michael Enright, who was the host of As It Happens at the time. In this interview, less than a month into the genocide, Dallaire said he and his troops were trying to remain optimistic more help was on the way.
He remembers speaking with UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali three weeks into the genocide, after more than 2,000 peacekeeping troops had already been withdrawn.
"He told me, 'Listen, the world cannot handle 450 peacekeepers being killed,'" said Dallaire.
"I had a responsibility to the lives of my soldiers. But I also had a responsibility to the people of Rwanda."
In mid-July 1994, the Tutsi guerrilla army finally prevailed. Hutus — both the guilty and innocents terrified of retribution — fled the country en masse.
In the aftermath, 40,000 people perished in cholera outbreaks in refugee camps.
Near the end of the conflict, Dallaire asked to be relieved of his command. He also began acting recklessly, hoping it might bring an end to his pain and guilt.
"Although I was ordered to have an escort, because of the death threats … I would escape from the headquarters and just go and drive," said Dallaire.
"I was always hoping that I'd end up in an ambush and I'd be killed."
After returning to Canada, Dallaire attempted suicide four times.
One night, after an emotionally gruelling therapy session, he bought a bottle of scotch, sat on a park bench and drank the whole thing. He spent hours crying and preparing to end his life.
"I ended up walking in the park. I just barely made a couple steps, apparently, then I stumbled. Then I kept screaming for people to come and kill me," he said.
"I begged my sister-in-law, all the way to the hospital, and during the night when I woke up a couple of times. I kept screaming at her to find a way to kill me."
He woke up "sick as a dog," but alive. He channelled his pain and frustration into work.
"I worked and worked and worked to try to kill myself at work, because I wasn't succeeding in doing it any other way," he said.
'A large part of my soul is still in Rwanda'
Dallaire threw himself into projects to prevent the recruitment of child soldiers, because he realized many of the atrocities he witnessed in Rwanda were perpetrated by children.
He is heartened by the growing human rights field, and believes NGOs are starting to have more influence on public opinion and policy.
"There is a generation out there, under 25 ... they don't need borders. They can understand the environment from a world sense, they can understand human rights from all sides," he said.
"I've become more and more convinced that one day we will resolve our frictions without having to use force and conflict … It might take a couple of centuries, but I'm certainly giving it a shot."
Dallaire said his desire to die finally ended a year and a half ago. But he believes he will never go back to being the person he was before the genocide.
"I still say a large part of my soul is still in Rwanda," he said.
Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview. Interview produced by Cate Cochran. Written by Pauline Holdsworth.
Where to get help
Canada Suicide Prevention Service
In French: Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)