Roméo Dallaire's Shake Hands With the Devil

The oily stench of death had penetrated everything in Rwanda’s capital of Kigali. It festered among the machete-hacked torsos, heads, and arms in death trap houses, and exploded onto the cramped streets, mixing with the fresh rot of the recently dead who have been stacked like cords of wood against the walls bordering the roadways. It clung to the men who sat with Force Commander Roméo Dallaire inside their armoured UN vehicle. Outside, Rwandan men banged and shook the vehicle whenever it was forced to stop at the Interahamwe roadblocks.

Dallaire was the Canadian Commander of UNAMIR, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, an initiative that was put in place to mediate the Arusha peace accords between rebel forces and government troops in Rwanda. He waded through Kigali to meet with the Hutu-led and government-backed leaders of a militia called the Interahamwe, or “those who attack together.” Their goal was to eliminate all of the Tutsi population by rape, genital mutilation, and murder. The Tutsis were called Inyenzi - the cockroaches. 

The vehicle passed the final roadblock and entered the compound of the Hotel des Diplomates, granting them a temporary reprieve from the suffocation of the streets. Dallaire had dealt with frustrating meetings before, but this was different. Dallaire was about to meet with the three men who are largely responsible for the maimed, bloated corpses filling up the rivers, streets, and houses throughout the country. What if he went against everything the UNAMIR mission stood for and killed these men? Wouldn’t it be justified? Would it help?

Dallaire contemplated, then unsheathed the pistol from his side and gently removed the clip, leaving it behind. Then, he entered to shake the hands of the Interahamwe. After the meeting was done he recalled: “I felt that I had shaken hands with the devil.”

What could turn these young men into butchers, slaughtering over 800,000 of their own countrymen, and what could make a UN Peacekeeping Commander need to self-consciously prevent himself from splattering the brains of three unarmed men across the walls of a negotiation room?

The answer is complex, but the basic causes of what initiated the Rwandan genocide have their roots in the European colonization of the area, beginning in 1885 with the Germans, and then the Belgians in 1916. The Belgian led government  increased tribal tension between the two main ethnic groups in the area, the Tutsi and the Hutu. They created a system of classification to better distinguish the ethnic groups, who, although Tutsis are generally taller and lighter skinned, share much of the same genetic makeup. The Belgians separated the Tutsi, who were traditionally cattle farmers, and the Hutu, traditionally agricultural farmers, not by race, but by social status. A main indicator of wealth was the number of cattle one had, obviously giving an unfair advantage to the natural Tutsi – however, a rich Hutu could become Tutsi simply by buying a large herd of cattle, and a Tutsi could fall into the Hutu caste if they lost their wealth. The Tutsi were a minority to the larger population of Hutu and Twa, another tribe in the area, yet the Belgian classification gave them disproportionate political power, status, and preferential treatment from the Belgians.

In the 1960’s, and with the Belgians gone, Hutu revolutionaries overthrew the Tutsi monarchy, and the new republic persecuted the Tutsis; over 150,000 fled to Uganda and other neighbouring countries. It was these displaced Tutsis that returned to Rwanda in 1990 as a well-trained and disciplined army. They were called the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), and led by a brilliant general Paul Kagame, “the Napoleon of Africa.”

The mainly Hutu-led Rwandese Governmental Forces (RGF) were no match for the RPF, giving ground steadily until 1994. While they Hutu cause did not have the military superiority, the print and radio propaganda campaign was horribly efficient. Radio Rwanda and Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) spewed forth anti-Tutsi hate messages and spread fear throughout the large Hutu population.

The spark that finally ignited these tensions occurred on April 6, 1994, when the plane of the Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down near Kigali airport. As the plane fell, so did the peace talks that UNAMIR had hoped would succeed; Hutu extremists blamed the RPF and the killings began that night, as the militias, civilians, and even RGF troops were propelled by the lies of their government and the hate speech radio. They joined forces to exterminate all Tutsi and Hutu moderates.

While Dallaire does attempt to explain some of the motivations and history behind what happened, his book, Shake Hands With the Devil, is primarily an eyewitness account of what happened in Rwanda, and several of his chilling recollections give full scope of the horror.

Trying to find new routes out of Kigali in early June led Dallaire through several small villages, often too small to be noted on the military maps. One village lay on an exit road used by refugees as they fled Kigali. The Interahamwe had erected a barrier to stop the Tutsis, and hundreds of bodies were strewn around the village. Dallaire exited the vehicle to survey the site, and suddenly glimpsed the movement of a child amongst the bodies.

“Just as I glimpsed the body of a child, it moved. I wasn’t sure if it was my imagination . . . but I wanted to help. I leaned down to pick the child up, and suddenly I was holding a little body that was both tingling and mushy in my hands. In a second I realized that the movement was not the child, but the action of maggots. I was frozen, not wanting to fling the child away from me, but not wanting to hold it for a second longer.”

The UN peacekeeping forces witnessed these atrocities silently. Despite detailed and continuous reports from Dallaire and his staff describing the events in Rwanda, the UN refused or simply sidestepped Daillaire’s requests for more troops, supplies, or permission to actively protect citizens by changing their Rules of Engagement (ROE). Their current ROE did not permit them to use force for humanitarian rescue. They could protect those at risk behind their lines, and return fire to defend themselves, but they could not fire on machete wielding militia to save the civilians being carved to death in front of them.

This failure of the UN and the apathy of nations is the most important message of Dallaire's book – a book which was awarded the Governor General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 2004. Wealthy nations such as the US provided fifty non-operational trucks, refused to equip the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) battalions, and kept troops out of Rwanda until the genocide was over. Though the US claimed they took “a leading role in efforts to protect the Rwandan people and ensure humanitarian assistance,” this was later rejected by Clinton himself, who admitted in 1998, that it was his greatest failure, and that he “blew it.”

The stench of these peoples’ deaths have faded from him long ago, but it is obviously still inside Dallaire, a permanent filth that haunts him terribly to this day. Shake Hands With the Devil is an attempt at cleansing this internal guilt. He  has revealed how the UN and the US failed Rwanda in the hopes that we will not lose our humanity on such a large scale again.

//Mac Fairbairn

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