Genocide in Rwanda happened to all of us

Published March 1, 2004

I have long wanted to meet Lt.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire. Our paths briefly crossed in October of 1993. I was standing in front of the Mille Collines Hotel in Kigali, Rwanda, where he had just arrived as head of the United Nations peacekeeping mission there. He approached the hotel briskly, revealing the sense of determination related to his mission for which he was ultimately to become famous. Over the ensuing 10 years, I have wanted to hear his take on what happened in Rwanda since that sun-drenched afternoon in Kigali. Only reports of his fragile condition prevented me from contacting him. With the publication of his book, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, I now have his story.

I was then (and still am) the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund’s staff person with responsibility for PWRDF’s program in the Great Lakes region of Africa, including Rwanda. In 1993, I was in Kigali with Janet Dench, who is now chair of the PWRDF board of directors. We were on a partnership visit to the Episcopal Church in Burundi, Rwanda ‘s neighbour. As we were en route, a group of soldiers seized Burundi ‘s first ever democratically-elected president and murdered him. The borders to the country were closed as the killing of President Melchior Ndadaye gave rise to a slew of ethnic killings and reprisal killings. We made our way to Rwanda instead.

Stopping in a quickly-growing refugee camp in a local school, hundreds of people surrounded us, their faces showing the shock of their experience. Just one man spoke up ? he asked that we tell the world what was happening in their country.

No such petition was needed in Rwanda in 1994. After the plane carrying Rwanda ‘s President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down on April 6, killing him and Ndadaye’s replacement, President Cyprien Ntaryamira, the international media conveyed what unfolded. Over the 100 days that followed, Rwanda experienced a horrific bloodbath that ultimately surpassed what had happened in Burundi.

During those days, many Canadians turned the channel, finding the images too horrific to watch. I watched newscasts, seeking the faces of partners I worked with. I knew some would be targeted in the genocidal frenzy because they were Tutsis. Many nights I tried to telephone my friend Rev. Alphonse Karuhije. A Tutsi and then-dean of the cathedral (and one of the few people I knew with a home phone), he co-ordinated the development work in the diocese of Kigali. When I eventually got a lead as to where Alphonse was hiding, I contacted the Department of Foreign Affairs; they, in turn, I heard, contacted Lt.-Gen. Dallaire’s troops who went to look for him. It was too late.

Despite the frenzy of media attention that Rwanda provoked in 1994, the press has fallen eerily silent about efforts to render justice for what happened ? except when Romeo Dallaire speaks. One would think that the media would consider the international criminal tribunal sitting in Arusha, Tanzania, to be high drama, even if its wheels turn so slowly that it has taken a decade for those accused of being the genocide’s chief organizers to come to trial. We must wonder, why does the name Bagosora not merit the same public sanction as Milosovic or Eichmann?

However the media chooses to present the story, I am deeply grateful that Lt.-Gen. Dallaire can muster their attention. Otherwise, what mind would the world pay to the question of justice in Rwanda ? And how can one explain their failure to follow the story closely, a failure which mirrors the UN’s failure to intervene in the country? I have heard Lt.-Gen. Dallaire describe the lack of engagement of the global community in Africa ‘s crises as racist. He tells us that the loss of millions of lives in Africa, the genocide of 800,000 people in Rwanda, is ignored because they are lives of people whose skin happens to be black. He challenges us all to question this, to condemn it.

And now, in Shake Hands with the Devil, he has told his story of the genocide as he lived it and grew to understand it, the story the media have not covered. It is a detailed account of how the genocide developed, of who the key players were and what they did, and of how the international community failed abominably to stop them and prevent it.

He has told this story in a style that is strikingly clear and succinct, that is exceptionally readable, and that is full of integrity. It is an extremely detailed account of his mission from start to finish.

It is, perhaps, Lt.-Gen. Dallaire’s tremendous sincerity that invites the media to focus on him. Much more than a simple accounting of a mission to Rwanda, this is his own story. A husband, a father, a career officer, he reveals a man who found himself at the head of a UN mission in an African country few cared about, in the aftermath of a disastrous international foray into Somalia. We discover a man determined to see his mission in Rwanda succeed, and for the success to be on his own terms.

But we also see that his mission to Rwanda could not have succeeded. His force was too small with too little equipment. The situation in the country was too complex and too little understood. The key players at the UN were too uninterested or too compromised by their own involvement with the Rwandan government. The international community, with the necessary means to intervene, felt the former Yugoslavia more deserving of their efforts than a little country in Central Africa.

And so, 10 years after the genocide in Rwanda, we have this gift from Lt.-Gen. Dallaire. Some have told me they could not bear to read it, to revisit the horror portrayed on televisions in 1994. I would urge them to reconsider. It is important to receive his gift, to read this book.

I say this because, rather than seeking to attribute blame, Lt.-Gen. Dallaire has sought to help us understand how we ? that is he himself, the Rwandans, the UN, and the international community ? failed to prevent the genocide, in the hope that we might move a step closer to preventing any repetition of this failure in future.

I say it, as well, because Romeo Dallaire reminds us that the failure in Rwanda was humanity’s failure. And as the 10th anniversary of the genocide approaches, there is the risk that we will fail again as some, seeking to evade their responsibility, will maintain that what happened in Rwanda was not genocide. Lt.-Gen. Dallaire takes our fingers and places them in Rwanda’s wounds, so that we might know beyond any doubt what did happen, and so we might remember that the Rwanda genocide didn’t just happen to Rwandans ? it happened to all of us ? and it is thus incumbent on us all to prevent it.


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