Roméo Dallaire does not lack for perspective. The Canadian commander of the U.N. peacekeeping mission to Rwanda in 1994, Dallaire witnessed firsthand that country’s genocide. His pleas for help were ignored by Western nations, which were hesitant to get involved in another African entanglement so soon after the U.S. debacle in Somalia. Nearly 1 million Rwandans were slaughtered. Forever changed, Dallaire emerged as a spokesperson for genocide victims, traveling the world to speak candidly about how to prevent such atrocities. He also wrote a book about his experiences, Shake Hands with the Devil (2004), which inspired a documentary chronicling Dallaire’s first return to Rwanda a decade after the genocide. In this interview with the Bulletin, Dallaire shares his thoughts on coping with depression, how to define genocide, empowering Rwandan women, and more.
Does the West truly grasp the Rwanda genocide’s horrors?
The West is sensitive to the catastrophe, but the genocide’s tenth anniversary and the various films that came with it brought that about. Otherwise, it would’ve disappeared into the history books as a blip that didn’t affect us much. Everybody was horrified about the people who died [when reflecting on the tenth anniversary], but Darfur was happening at the same time, and more people were killed, injured, or refugeed there than in the [December 2004] tsunami. Yet, no one did anything. We’re still not clear on what horror is and what should have priority.
During the crisis in Rwanda, the U.N. response was cumbersome and bureaucratic. How can it react more swiftly?
The United Nations acts bureaucratically because when you don’t have any resources, you overmanage. It wasn’t that the United Nations suffocated on paperwork as much as the sovereign states did not give it the necessary assets to respond. That made the United Nations beg, borrow, and fiddle, making it far less effective than it could have been.
Did it surprise you that the U.S. media preferred covering the O.J. Simpson and Nancy Kerrigan sagas to the genocide?
[The American media] simplified what was happening in Rwanda. They called it tribalism. Then they said, “These guys always do this. It’s in their genes. So what’s new except for the gore?” O. J. Simpson was in our backyard. Although journalists were leaving Rwanda with very good stories, they were getting chopped to hell in Atlanta and New York.
Given the history of violence between Rwanda’s Hutus and Tutsis, can peace there ever be achieved?
A reconciliation is possible. It will happen primarily through the empowerment of women–they bring a completely different perspective to humanity–and educating children objectively. This means teaching civil liberties and the responsibility of citizenship without religious backing.
How did you repress your temptation to intervene with offensive military force in 1994?
It came from the very overt realization that if I commenced operations in any deliberate fashion, my force would literally be wiped out. We did not have the capabilities to defend ourselves against either side. I could only function in a defensive posture. Both sides had enough resilience that even if I eliminated the top dog, they would’ve been able to pursue their operations. That would’ve put all my people, particularly the 30,000 civilians under my protection, in harm’s way.
Do you ever become anesthetized to such atrocities?
Never. These visions come back visibly clear in slow motion. You live with it by trying to sense when something might affect you. If you know that you can’t be around barbecues because it brings back the smell of burning corpses, you don’t go to barbecues. Sometimes all you need is a sound or a smell to launch off into oblivion.
As someone who had to cope with severe depression following Rwanda, what would you suggest for soldiers returning from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder?
The only way to live with this stuff is professional therapy, which may or may not include medication, a bosom buddy who is prepared to listen to you for hours, and, ultimately, the realization that who you were before doesn’t exist any more.
Debate continues within the international community over what constitutes a “genocide” and how to define “terrorism.” Is too much emphasis placed on semantics?
We’re eliminating black-and-white tools we can use to take action by spending time interpreting conventions to the letter of the law instead of enforcing their spirit. There’s no such thing as freedom fighters. Anybody who kills innocent people in order to achieve an objective is a terrorist. Suicide bombers should not be accepted in any way, shape, or form.
How would you rate international peacekeeping efforts in Darfur?
When it started, absolutely zero. Diplomatic efforts were useless, as the Sudanese government made the Western world dance to its tune. As the African Union has moved in, we’re finding a new regional capability that must be reinforced. Now the United Nations must be prepared to take over the initial deployment of this regional capability, initiating a more permanent security requirement.