How a UN chief was broken by horror of Rwanda

General Romeo Dallaire is a haunted man. After 100 days in hell, including a meeting with “the devil”, he has been reduced to a suicidal, pill-popping civilian. The last time he was a witness in court in the small safari town of Arusha he was in uniform and in tears.

This time he has found his composure in a pinstriped suit, behind bulletproof glass and guarded by Canadian commandos.
The three-star general’s appearance before the United Nations criminal tribunal in Arusha has been a long time in the making.

It was 10 years ago that Dallaire last met the most senior of the four officers in the dock—a short stocky man in dark glasses. Then, says Dallaire, Theoneste Bagosora—allegedly the chief architect of the Rwandan genocide—promised to kill him the next time he saw him.

Bagosora had previously set up a meeting between Dallaire and “the devil” in the form of Robert Kajuga, president of the Interahamwe, the movement widely held to be the main killers of the genocide. Kajuga’s white shirt had been spattered with dried blood.

“There were small flecks on his right arm as we shook hands,” Dallaire recalled. “I felt that I had shaken hands with the devil.”

Shake Hands with the Devil is the title of Dallaire’s recent book telling of his experiences as military head of the UN Assistance Mission (Unamir) in Rwanda. It is a reminder that as the 10th anniversary of the slaughter approaches, the genocide remains unfinished business for the world.

“Unfinished, because a decade has gone by without a proper investigation into what happened, without even a formal board of inquiry into the causes of the air crash which killed two heads of state and which is popularly credited with starting the awful slaughter,” he writes.

Dallaire graphically describes the murder of 800 000 people and the mental breakdown of the rising star in the Canadian defence force, who later made several suicide attempts as he battled to come to terms with what he had seen.

“We saw many faces of death during the genocide, from the innocence of babies to the bewilderment of the elderly, from the defiance of fighters, to the resigned stares of nuns,” he observes. “For many years after I came home I banished the memories of those faces from my mind, but they have come back, all too clearly.”

Four years ago Dallaire was found unconscious under a park bench in Canada. In hospital it was found that the alcohol with which he was consoling himself had not mixed well with drugs he was taking for depression.

His depression was understandable, but it is questionable whether what he had seen in Rwanda was the only cause of his breakdown. There were also the 10 Belgian soldiers.

Dallaire had problems with the Belgians under his command: they drank on patrol, trashed hotels, ignored orders from black officers, roughed up local politicians and on one occasion “buzzed” the Rwandan Parliament in a plane. Dallaire accuses some of cowardice for abandoning a convoy.

Immediately after the air crash that killed Rwanda’s Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana, Dallaire attempted to persuade the prime minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, a “moderate” Hutu, to broadcast on government radio station to calm the population. Instead she was killed, along with her bodyguard of Belgian soldiers.

In one extraordinary section of the book Dallaire describes how he was being driven into the main military camp in the capital, Kigali, when “I got a glimpse of what looked like two Belgian soldiers lying on the ground at the far end of the compound”.

He told his driver to stop, but the man ignored him, and Dallaire did nothing until hours later when he asked where the 10 Belgian bodyguards were. Told they were in the camp hospital, he insisted on going there and was shown to the mortuary.

“At first, I saw what seemed to be sacks of potatoes to the right of the morgue door. It slowly resolved in my vision into a heap of mangled and bloodied white flesh in tattered Belgian para-commando uniforms,” he wrote.

“Commanders spend their careers preparing for the moment when they will have to choose between lose-lose propositions in the use of their troops,” he observes.

“Regardless of the decision they make, some of their men will die. My decision took sons from their parents, husbands from their wives, fathers from their children. I knew the cost of my decision.”

Dallaire believed the killings were part of a plot to force Belgian withdrawal and precipitate carnage. The “plot” had been described to him months previously by a secret informant codenamed Jean Pierre.

But he could not decide whether Jean Pierre was the senior figure in the government forces Dallaire believed him to be, or or no more than a lowly driver, fired for petty theft, as has been claimed. Was Habyarimana’s plane brought down by a missile, as suspected, and was that part of a plot? Was it all genocide?

The genocide question goes to the heart of Rwanda’s tragedy. Many have claimed to answer it, some pointing to lists of names used to hunt down victims, the distribution of machetes, the reference to Tutsis on government radio as “cockroaches” to be exterminated. The lists existed, but the selection of victims seems have been based more on hysteria.

Defence lawyers staged a strike at the end of Dallaire’s evidence, bringing the Bagosora trial to a standstill. They complained their clients were being tried for a crime that has never been proved to have taken place.—Guardian Unlimited Â