Shake Hands with the Devil by Roméo Dallaire

July 28, 2011

Shake Hands with the Devil By: Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire

The Vancouver Sun, November 1, 2003

Shake Hands with the Devil

By: Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire

Maj. Brent Beardsley

Publisher: Random House Canada, 448 pages, $39.95

In July 2000, a man was found unconscious and drunk in a park in Hull, Que. People close to him feared he was suicidal. That man was Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian force commander of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Rwanda during the genocide of 1994, in which 800,000 civilians were slaughtered by their countrymen and -women in 100 days. The reality of the genocide entered the core of his being. The visceral memories, his sense of responsibility and guilt, and brain changes resulting from post-traumatic stress disorder threatened to undo him completely.

He is the author of Shake Hands with the Devil, one of the year’s, if not the decade’s, most important events in Canadian publishing. He is also a Canadian hero, embodying in his humanity, his pragmatism, his complete absence of racism and grandiosity and his passionate, dogged global civility many of our country’s most cherished values.

Shake Hands with the Devil is his detailed account of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) from its start in July 1993 to August 1994, when he was relieved of his command. The mission was to assist in the implementation of the Arusha Peace Agreement between the rebel forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and the government of Rwanda.

Dallaire starts with his robust, gung-ho enthusiasm for military life and his first UN command. His mission gets underway in the halls of the UN’s New York offices as he lobbies with Maj. Brent Beardsley (who receives a share of the writing credit) for the resources the job requires, only to be told that if they ask for more than is available, the mission will never get off the ground. In Rwanda, Dallaire has to assess the military situation and come up to speed on the subtleties of a political landscape in which nothing is as it seems. He meets the key players and draws up plans to provide security for Kigali, send out teams of unarmed military observers and, after the swearing-in of a transitional government, oversee the demobilization of the various armed factions and their integration into a new national force.

When the mission is approved, the job moves quickly to logistics—everything from securing real estate, arranging transport and integrating troops who possess hugely varying degrees of training and equipment and often have no common language, to ensuring that enough toilet paper, paper clips and light bulbs are requisitioned.

Dallaire then documents how his mission is gradually brought to its knees by lack of resources; by the limited rules of engagement of a Chapter 6 peacekeeping mission, which allow the use of weapons only in self-defence; by a post-Somalia chill, on the part of the United States, toward active engagement in Third World conflicts, and by the hidden influence of Hutu extremists in the interim government of Rwanda.

One of many key events Dallaire relates with the detail only someone who was present can deliver is the briefing UNAMIR received from an informant code-named Jean-Pierre before the genocide. Jean-Pierre explains that the Interahamwe (the youth wing of the ruling party) is organizing cells of civil-guard-style militias to get lists of Tutsis, in preparation for their extermination. Weapons are being distributed and a plan exists to draw Belgian peacekeepers to fire their weapons, upon which they’ll be ambushed and killed. This will cause Belgium to withdraw its peacekeeping troops, which will in turn bring about the collapse of UNAMIR.

Dallaire passes this vital information on to the UN Security Council.

From here on, the book reads like a Greek tragedy. “My failure to persuade New York to act on Jean-Pierre’s information still haunts me,” Dallaire writes. Ten Belgian soldiers were killed. 

Instead of moving to prevent a genocide everyone now knew was planned, when the killings started Dallaire’s forces were used to protect and evacuate expatriates. Belgium recalled its troops and UNAMIR was reduced to a token force of 500.

“I mark April 12 [six days after the killing started] as the day the world moved from disinterest in Rwanda to the abandonment of Rwandans to their fate,” Dallaire writes. “The swift evacuation of foreign nations was the signal for the génocidaires to move toward the apocalypse.”

With the genocide in full swing, Dallaire tried to arrange for the safe transport of some 30,000 Tutsi and Hutu moderates who had sought refuge with the UN to RPF-held territory. To ensure that the transport didn’t result in their slaughter en route, he undertook to meet the leaders of the Interahamwe.

“Arriving at the hotel, I took the bullets out of my pistol just in case the temptation to shoot them was too extreme,” he writes. While shaking hands, he noticed the arm and shirt of one of the leaders was speckled with dried blood.  

“On the way back to Force HQ, I felt I had shaken hands with the devil. We had actually exchanged pleasantries . . . My stomach was ripping me apart about whether I had done the right thing. I would only know when the first transfer happened.”

What makes Dallaire’s account so trustworthy and wrenching is that it isn’t a bit theoretical; he is never removed from the story. He struggles openly with his personal responsibility—putting his ego on the table, and his ignorance—and he questions the extent to which his passionate desire to succeed in his mission might have blinkered him. He refers, with tremendous pain, to the effect his absence had on his wife and children and to his return as a changed, deeply disturbed man.

The flip side of taking responsibility is holding accountable, and Dallaire doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind. He displays a marked lack of respect for the Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the UN, Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh, whose job was to conduct the political side of UNAMIR. He has nothing good to say about the extremely risk-averse Bangladeshi contingent of his troops. And, speaking of a White House press release claiming, among other things, that the U.S. had “taken a leading role in efforts to protect the Rwandan people,” he writes: “Clinton’s fibbing dumbfounded me.”

After weighing the culpability of the UN, the NGOs, the media, other African countries and ordinary citizens who didn’t pressure their governments to act, he concludes: “The missing piece of the puzzle was the political will from France and the United States to make the Arusha accords work.” Had that been in place, everything else would have been avoided.

Toward the end of his mission, with death threats against him from Hutu extremists still in circulation, Dallaire took to wandering out alone in search of an accidental death. For many reasons, it’s a good thing he didn’t succeed. 

Anne Collins at Random House is to be commended for her tenacity and faith in bringing this book to fruition. As a concrete reference point against which we can measure so much of what is happening today—from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the future of the UN, the AIDS plague in Africa and the crisis in the Congo—it is irreplaceable. 

This memoir emphasizes the need for an international criminal court “to eliminate from this earth the impunity with which the génocidaires were able to act and [to] re-emphasize the principle of justice for all, so that no one for even a moment will make the ethical and moral mistake of ranking some humans as more human than others.” 

In a world where there is little but pop music, sports crazes and McJobs to sustain the souls of young people, Dallaire gives us something to believe in. That he has done so with his eyes and heart wide open to the worst our species has to offer is a monumental achievement. Shake Hands with the Devil delivers this remarkable man and his story to us.

The late Toronto philosopher Emil Fackenheim said after the Holocaust that anyone who has never imagined him- or herself in a cattle car had failed as a human being. Roméo Dallaire shows us the next step. After the genocide in Rwanda, people who have never imagined themselves intervening have also failed as human beings.