July 2005

Rebecca Graber

nonfiction

Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire

Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire is a national hero in Canada. Since the August 2004 publication of Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, the Montrealer's reserved expression, his eyes swathed in shadows, has been peering out from bookshelves across the country. Nearly a year later, Shake Hands with the Devil still tops the nonfiction paperback list at Toronto's The Globe and Mail.

Dallaire was the Force Commander, or military head, of the United Nations Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), established in 1993 to facilitate the peace process following the Arusha Accords. This fragile peace disintegrated into genocide in 1994, when between 800,000 and one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by their neighbours, as instructed and encouraged by central and local governments and a powerful radio media.

Dallaire is careful to describe the political background to the conflict; decades of minority Tutsi power ended when Rwanda achieved independence in 1962 and a majority Hutu-dominated government was installed. A large expatriate Tutsi population settled in Uganda, Burundi, and Zaire, and would later prove vital in driving the genocide forward. In 1972 President Juvénal Habyarimana, a moderate Hutu, assumed power and held it until his still unresolved assassination in April 1994. The military conflict was largely between the Rwandese Government Forces (RGF) and the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), with the extremist-Hutu Interahamwe youth militias playing a deadly supporting role.

Although Dallaire was an accomplished and skillful military man, Rwanda was his first experience at peacekeeping. He would later chastise the hubris of himself and others who believed that a rookie could lead one of the most complex peacekeeping operations in modern history. Dallaire was not only faced with a dramatically underfunded and understaffed military operation, but often supplemented the routinely absent and usually incompetent political head of UNAMIR.

As he navigated the political intriguing of Rwandan, European, UN, and American actors, Dallaire commanded daring rescue missions and peace enforcement projects which saved an untold number of Rwandan lives, even as so many perished. With his few but dedicated troops, notably contingents from Ghana and Tunisia, UNAMIR secured delivery of humanitarian supplies, established and protected refugee camps, rescued Rwandans and expatriates trapped in the melee, and monitored ceasefires and borders, to list but a few tasks. Troops risked their lives as they were threatened over Rwandan radio, suffered malnutrition and disease, and snapped from repeated exposure to the gruesome minutiae of life in 1994 Rwanda.

While Shake Hands tells the story of an embattled and underfunded UNAMIR, it is fundamentally an attempt to understand, not why the genocide occurred (as Dallaire notes, there have been many detailed explorations of that question), but how the world allowed it to occur. And as the book makes clear, the world did undoubtedly allow the genocide to happen.

As Dallaire chronicles in a narrative voice that varies between the dispassion of a man shocked by the unfolding of events and the overwhelmed frustration of one who has reached his breaking point, UNAMIR was consistently undermined and obstructed. Nations, including the United States, promised troops and equipment that never arrived or was not up to task. Political alliances blinded world powers to the extent of the violence. Administrators scrounged for pencils and everyone ate the diarrhoea-inducing expired rations. Rampant miscommunication had deadly consequences. The mission was given a mandate that prevented it from protecting those who most needed protection; troops watched helplessly as children were dismembered before their parents with a slow and calculated brutality. And even as Dallaire appointed a media liaison in hopes that the media could bear the force that the international community seemed reluctant to commit, the slaughter of an entire people competed for coverage against Tonya Harding's knee-bashing escapades.

Dallaire's regret for all he tried yet could not do is palpable throughout. It is this sentiment that makes Shake Hands with the Devil an essential read. For here is a sophisticated analysis of a disintegration into violence, told without prejudice and with damning clarity. Dallaire makes abundantly clear that the decision to commit such brutal acts is a choice; discerning how and why these choices come to be made is essential to both honor the victims, and prevent such acts from occurring again.

Yet more potently, here is a story eloquently told by one who bore witness, who considered it of the utmost moral imperative to be there even as the world failed humanity and turned its back.

Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire
Carroll & Graf
ISBN: 0786715103
584 pages