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Saturday, June 3rd, 2006
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Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda

by Romeo Dallaire

Where There's a Will, There's a Way

A review by Doug Brown

Most books about genocides are understandably about either the perpetrators or the victims. Readers are left to wonder what was happening elsewhere in the world, why no one tried to stop it. Shake Hands with the Devil is about the Rwandan genocide, but from the point of view of the force commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). There are many small acts of heroism in this book, but overall there are no good guys. Certainly not the Rwandese Government Forces (RGF), the Hutu army that led the genocide in concert with the Interahamwe (an extremist Hutu-power party). Not the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), the Tutsi-led rebel army that slowed their advance through Rwanda, allowing the RGF's genocide to continue in order to solidify their own power base. And not the United Nations, which comes off as immobilized by bureaucratic inertia, incapable of consensus, and thus incapable of action.

One factor which made the world slow to react was the question of genocide vs. war. Most genocides take place during wars, as morals regarding killing are already relaxed, and the victims can disappear into that cold bureaucratic number called "war dead." From outside, genocide can look a lot like civil war, with one side just doing a lot better than the other. Rwanda had been on the verge of civil war for some time, but by late 1993 an accord had been reached between the Tutsi-led RPF and the Hutu-led RGF. Most of the RPF's forces were just across the border, and had agreed not to invade Rwanda. UNAMIR was called in to make sure the accord was met. Dallaire, a Canadian artillery officer with no experience in diplomacy or politics, was chosen as force commander. He was excited about his first command, though his first response was, "Rwanda, that's in Africa isn't it?" He was supposed to be second in charge of the overall mission; a diplomat named Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh was to head the mission. Booh-Booh did not arrive until the mission was well underway, though, so Dallaire often found himself as the diplomatic go-between.

Most of his days were filled with a string of logistics nightmares. UN missions consist of forces from a variety of countries, some of which bring their own materiel, and others which show up unequipped. Some soldiers are well-trained, some arrive expecting to be trained. Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) drivers will arrive from one country, but the country that is supposed to provide the APCs won't unless they get paid cash up front. Everyone bickers about who is supposed to pay for what, who is supposed to provide what. In short, the United Nations are anything but. Countries will send troops, but then refuse to allow them to be deployed where someone might actually shoot at them. Dallaire spent more time trying to get the UN to agree than he did the warring Rwandan factions. The ghosts of Somalia hung heavy in the air, as it was only months earlier that the events made famous by Black Hawk Down had taken place. UN member nations didn't want to lose soldiers in other people's wars.

Then on January 10, 1994, Dallaire heard from an informant inside the Interahamwe that there were arms caches in Kigali (Rwanda's capital), and that a genocide was coming. Belgian UN soldiers would be targeted to spur the UN to withdraw, and then the Tutsis would be massacred. Dallaire finally had something real to accomplish. The next day he fired off a cable to UN headquarters with the information and a plan to seize the arms caches. He optimistically closed the cable, "Peux ce que veux. Allons-y" ("Where there's a will, there's a way. Let's go"). He then discovered there is one thing the UN can do quickly, and that is quash impetus towards motion. He was told to sit tight, not to seize the arms, not to do anything which might change the situation. Confounding things was the fact that the Rwandan extremists had a representative on the UN Security Council. Thus, any information Dallaire sent to New York was then sent right back to the extremists in Rwanda. Sure enough, the arms were quickly moved, and the chance was lost. The informant faded back into the Interahamwe, convinced the UN could do nothing to prevent the coming storm.

The storm broke on the night of April 6, with the shooting down of the Rwandan president's airplane as it approached Kigali airport. To this day, no one knows for sure who did it. Rwandan hate radio said the Belgian UN soldiers did it. The RGF said it was the RPF, and vice versa. What is known is that within hours of the plane going down, hell itself breathed contagion onto Rwanda. The RFP army leapt across the border and began advancing towards Kigali. Machete-carrying Interahamwe began systematically moving through neighborhoods with lists of Tutsis and Hutu moderates. Within days, anyone with the political power to stop the genocide was dead. True to the informant's word, ten Belgian UN soldiers were killed. Belgium shortly thereafter pulled out of UNAMIR. Instead of increasing UNAMIR's forces to deal with what was now a humanitarian crisis, it was greatly reduced to fewer than 500 people. Short on ammunition, food, gasoline, and even paper, UNAMIR were simply witnesses incapable of altering events. Everywhere they drove, they would see bodies. I won't quote any of these accounts; they're pretty wrenching.

At one point Dallaire received a call from an American staffer who was involved in planning exercises. He wanted to know how many dead, displaced, and refugees there were. He then told Dallaire that "his estimates indicated that it would take the deaths of 85,000 Rwandans to justify risking the life of one American soldier." Makes you proud to be an American, doesn't it.

In the end, Dallaire started losing perspective and getting short tempered. He went home almost a year after arriving in Rwanda, shattered and broken. The powers that be did everything they could to demonize him, portraying him as a loose cannon, and attempting to lay the blame for the failure of UNAMIR at his feet. After arriving back home, he was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the highest-ranking officer ever to suffer from it. He has since testified at the trials of some of the genocide perpetrators, men whose hands he had shaken. He feels genocides are caused by loss of hope in the future, brought about by "A heightened tribalism, the absence of human rights, economic collapses, brutal and corrupt military dictatorships, the AIDS pandemic, the effect of debt on nations, environmental degradation, overpopulation, poverty, hunger: the list goes on and on." Most of these are things the first world can do something about. He closes his book with the conclusion that "we are in desperate need of a transfusion of humanity." We need to view all life as equal, not some more equal than others. Peux ce que veux. Allons-y.


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