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Atrocity Exhibition

A Canadian general recounts his efforts to stop the Rwandan genocide—and then to remain sane.

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When Philip Gourevitch told the story of Roméo Dallaire and the United Nations in his book about the Rwandan genocide, it was all about a single fax: “Major General Dallaire sent an urgent fax”; “I read him Dallaire’s fax over the phone”; “Boutros-Ghali did eventually become aware of the fax.” The fax in question, sent three months before the killing began in earnest, contained a highly accurate forecast of the coming genocide. When retired Canadian Army Lieutenant General Dallaire, the former head of the emasculated U.N. peacekeeping force in Rwanda, tells the story in his gruff, puzzled memoir, it is slightly different. He calls his faxes “coded cables,” and feels that each one simply fell into an abyss: “Who really read this material in New York and what did they do with it?”

For the journalist Gourevitch, there was a paper trail, with a discoverable person at one end who must have read the fax and buried it; for the good soldier Dallaire, there was just the blank, uncaring wall of his superiors. These relations with New York form the late-night subplot of the book: During the day, Dallaire watched helplessly as thousands were slaughtered by machetes in the street—“hard work,” Dallaire notes dryly of the low-tech killing. And at night he frantically lobbied the U.N. for supplies and reinforcements: “I sent New York another report”; “My reports seemed to keep vanishing into the abyss of non-action in New York”; “Seeing as it was Friday [in New York], we would have to wait until at least Monday. How many thousands of Rwandans would die that weekend?”

There. That last note—the dramatic equation of Western leisure with the slaughter of innocents halfway across the globe—is what has made Dallaire the sort of person who maybe doesn’t get invited to as many parties as before. It also made him one of the strangest, most compelling figures in international political life. He has, quite publicly, lost his mind: Dallaire returned from Rwanda to the West like a character out of Conrad, obsessed with what he’d seen. He could not forget the 800,000 Rwandans murdered in 100 days, nor the ten Belgian soldiers under his command brutally killed and dismembered on the very first day of the genocide in order to—successfully, it turned out—scare the international community out of Rwanda. Toward the end of his assignment, he began to have fantasies of self-destruction—“I hoped I would hit a mine or run into an ambush and just end it all”—and returning to a well-lit, careless world did not help. Driving by a cleared forest with his family, Dallaire sees instead “the sides of the road littered with piles upon piles of Rwandan bodies drying in the sun.” He has told journalists he can’t enter the produce section of his local supermarket—it reminds him of the marketplaces of Rwanda.

Nor has he broken down only in the privacy of his dairy aisle and station wagon—his 1998 testimony before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was universally acknowledged as extremely powerful, and extremely distraught. In response to senior Canadian military directives to leave the genocide be, Dallaire announced that he would “never give up Rwanda.” In early 2000, he was drummed out of the Army, and two months later was found drunk, unconscious, and apparently suicidal on a park bench in Hull, Quebec.

Dallaire’s memoir does not add substantially to the documentary record of his life or the events in Rwanda in 1994 (both recently dramatized by the movie Hotel Rwanda, in which a Dallaire-like character is played by Nick Nolte), though he does differ from Gourevitch and Samantha Power in emphasizing current Rwandan president Paul Kagame’s culpability in the genocide—Kagame’s rebel army moved too deliberately, according to Dallaire. More significantly, the book reveals what happens when you spend 25 years telling a man about peace and human rights and the obligations of the international community, and he believes you. He becomes a dangerous man.

Dallaire’s guilelessness—evident on every page of this book, in a kind of dazed French-Canadian monotone—is in the end his best weapon. He is still surprised that no one sent help, still disappointed with the Americans, who repeatedly scuttled any U.N. notions about bolstering Dallaire’s small force. And he’s still furious with the Belgians, who pulled out in such cowardly fashion, and with the French, the only great power to send a real force to Rwanda, only to rescue their old friends the Hutu. Dallaire is clumsy in his soldierly way when he attempts to build drama by writing (many times) that he expects reinforcements to arrive at any moment. Yet he is also surprisingly compelling, because you sense that the abandonment of Rwanda remains a shock that he could not bear.

It is a strange fate for a soldier to become, in effect, a public psychiatric patient—Dallaire’s book jacket contains the unique description of him as “the highest-ranking military figure ever to suffer openly with post-traumatic stress disorder.” But this might be the fate of soldiering in a post-military world wherein the West “intervenes,” or doesn’t. As Conrad’s Lord Jim became, in his shame, a lowly “water-clerk” at various ports, so, too, must Dallaire become a sort of modern water-clerk, carrying his tale with him everywhere, turning himself into a media celebrity who speaks truth to power but also insistently bares his psychological wounds. We say: Poor Roméo Dallaire. What a cruel world. And meanwhile, over on First Avenue, a fax machine is ringing.

Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda
By Roméo Dallaire and Brent Beardsley.
Carroll & Graf. 584 Pages.


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