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In 1993, General Roméo Dallaire headed a small UN peace-keeping mission in Rwanda. But within a year of his arrival, hell broke loose. After years of civil war, the Tutsis were promised positions of power within the Hutu-dominated government. But a shipment of weapons and ammunition was being distributed to Hutu militias. The names of suspected traitors – Hutu and Tutsi – were compiled. Tutsis had to register with the government and carry identification cards. This made it easier to single them out for slaughter.
Dallaire warned of a developing atrocity, but his pleas for additional troops were ignored. Instead, Dallaire’s forces were cut. As the violence escalated, expatriates evacuated the country. Over the course of 100 horrific days, approximately 800,000 people were killed by the Rwandan military and Hutu militia. Nearly three-quarters of the Tutsi population was exterminated.
“I was the commander, and hundreds of thousands of people died,” Dallaire said in the PBS Frontline documentary, Ghosts of Rwanda. “I can’t find any solace in statements like, ‘I did my best.’”
As the result of his harrowing experience in Rwanda, Dallaire suffered from PTSD, which manifested in alcohol abuse and bouts of suicidal depression. He openly discusses these struggles, and is a devoted human rights advocate, particularly on issues related to child soldiers, veteran’s affairs and the prevention of mass killings. A former Canadian senator, Dallaire is also a government and U.N. adviser, dedicated to promoting education, “intellectually-based military leadership” and intervention in cases of human rights abuses.
Our thoughts turned to Dallaire for World Humanitarian Day, honored on August 19.
In 2011, Dallaire provided his testimony to the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive. In it, he details a devastatingly under-resourced, under-prepared and under-informed peace-keeping assignment in Rwanda with a restrictive mandate that prohibited intervention in an increasingly volatile conflict. The mission was meant to be quick and simple: to serve as a neutral force for observing and reporting that both sides – the Hutu-dominated government and Tutsi-led rebels – abided by the rules of their peace agreement.
But intelligence reports, paid for out of Dallaire’s own pocket, informed him of momentum within the Hutu extremist movement. Riots, assassinations, and “small-scale massacres” targeted the Tutsi elite as attempts to assemble an interim government were stalled. The U.N. agreed to extend Dallaire’s mission by only six weeks, but if there was no resolution, he was told, they were pulling out.
Dallaire continues to wonder, “How come there was no effort to try to prevent this crisis from exploding? Why couldn’t we get priority of effort from the U.N.? Why couldn’t we get more political support?”
“We never got an answer to that,” he said.
While the U.N. focused on higher priority missions, such as in Yugoslavia and Kosovo, the killing in Rwanda became indiscriminate. Members of the general population were murdered by the tens of thousands at checkpoints where they were made to show their ID cards. Tutsis were attacked with machetes on the spot. Many of those performing the executions were children.
In reviewing the Geneva Convention, Dallaire had a brutal realization about what he was witnessing. But how could it be? “We’ve got nearly 45 years of education by the Jewish community throughout our societies, supported by our government, that the Holocaust happened. We’ve got a campaign of never again. It just simply can’t happen [again],” he recalled thinking. “I mean, it’s impossible to imagine.”
But the reality sunk in: “Holy sh-t,” he said. “This is a genocide.”
Dallaire managed to coordinate protection for over 30,000 potential victims but he was desperate for reinforcements. He pleaded for 5,000 troops to try to stop the militia from killing. After weeks of argument, the request was finally approved, but nobody wanted to come. At great risk, he flew in members of the media, desperate to shame the international community into action, but stories written about the conflict were drastically cut, if they made it into print at all.
“No one gave a damn what was happening in Rwanda,” he said. “It was just a side show.”
Dallaire’s testimony is nearly three hours long. The subject matter is grueling and Dallaire is both gruff and vulnerable discussing it. He gets clearly frustrated with the direction of conversation at one point. This is what makes the interview so compelling – Dallaire’s humanity.
At the end of his testimony, he releases an audible “Phew!” It must be exhausting to continuously remember and relive the frustration, devastation and the powerlessness of his time in Rwanda. But Dallaire has made this his life’s work. The message he delivers is thoughtful and deliberate, underscored with a quiet urgency. He writes and speaks and advises and engages so that we can learn from his experiences; so what happened in Rwanda will never happen to anyone, anywhere again.
Maybe it would have been easier for him to turn bitter and cynical, but instead Dallaire is hopeful about the future. One of his greatest sources of hope is the younger generation who is living in a world less and less constrained by borders. “Because to them, borders are a pain in the neck,” he explained.
Rather, as the result of technology like Skype which makes international communication easy, and the convenience of travel, these generations see themselves as global citizens. To them, the world is more intimate, and the impact of international events is more immediate.
“They grasp human rights,” Dallaire said, “because they can see, they can Skype every human being if they want to, and realize that [other people] are human beings too. They can recognize that yeah, human rights are for all the human beings.”
He calls this a revolution, and while it is just beginning, Dallaire predicts it will be a major factor in the future. Maybe there will be more empathy, and it won’t so easy to turn a blind eye to blatant human rights abuses.
Survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust (1939-1945), Armenian Genocide (1915-1923), Nanjing Massacre (1937), Rwandan Tutsi Genocide (1994), Guatemalan Genocide (1978-1996), Central African Republic Conflict (2012-Present), and Contemporary Antisemitism have shared their stories and experiences in a collection of 55,000 two-hour audio-visual interviews with USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History.
ProQuest is honored to partner with USC Shoah Foundation to offer the Visual History Archive in its entirety to a broader audience and to contribute archival-quality testimony transcripts.
Watch a video demonstration, and learn more.
Ghosts of Rwanda a special two-hour documentary to mark the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide -- a state-sponsored massacre in which some 800,000 Rwandans were methodically hunted down and murdered by Hutu extremists as the U.S. and international community refused to intervene, available from Alexander Street’s Academic Video Online.
Dallaire’s memoir of serving in Rwanda, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, and his reports on Rwanda to the U.N. Headquarters in New York are available in Alexander Street’s Human Rights Studies Online database.
Nzioka, B. (2012). The rwandan genocide: Eye witnesses to a human catastrophe (Order No. 1509311). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1012771227).
Lund, J. R. (2011). Why we were not there: American intervention policy and the failure to act in rwanda (Order No. 1494699). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (874973728).
Lake, J. C. S. (2002). The challenges of post-cold war peacekeeping (Order No. 3063142). Available from ProQuest Central; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global; Social Science Premium Collection. (251618839).
View Romeo Dallaire’s testimony in the Visual History Archive:
Dallaire, Romeo. Interview. Visual History Archive, USC Shoah Foundation, 2011, http://vha.usc.edu/viewingPage?testimonyID=54857&returnIndex=0. Accessed 16 August 2017.