Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda

by Roméo Dallaire

Between April and August 1994, while the international community looked on, 800,000 people were systematically murdered in a small African country. In Shake Hands with the Devil, Canadian Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire, the former Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), bears witness to this appalling tragedy. The book is, he says, a “public account of my actions, my decisions and my failings.”

Seven months into the mission to monitor a peace agreement, extremists from the Hutu majority incited a systematic annihilation of the Tutsi ethnic group. The book recounts, day by day, Dallaire’s heartbreaking efforts to stop the killing, only to be frustrated by homicidal frenzy and international indifference.

In the months leading up to the genocide, despite mounting evidence of an imminent mass murder, UNAMIR was undermined by the UN itself. The mission’s authority was repeatedly curtailed by pedantic readings of its mandate, and major donors were reluctant to allocate resources to what was thought a low-priority mission. When the killing started, UNAMIR was critically short of ammunition, transport, medical supplies, food and water, and even reliable troops. Underequipped to monitor a peace agreement, it was utterly out of its depth to handle a country-wide genocide.

Dallaire, who at any moment could have withdrawn the mission, refused to abandon the country. The general and his peacekeepers, surrounded by the murder of thousands of people each day, managed to establish several tenuous sanctuaries in the city of Kigali. These UN safe areas, intermittently fired upon, saved the lives of an estimated 25,000 people.

The book reveals that the passionate, emotional, honourable humanist with a Cold War rulebook collided with the steely calculus of an evil beyond rules – active evil on the part of the génocidaires, passive evil on the part of a world armed with best intentions and an agenda. He was as professionally and personally unprepared for a genocide as someone prepared for a peacekeeping mission could be. For the sake of his soul, Dallaire should not have gone to Rwanda. For the sake of the 25,000 people saved by a mission so poorly equipped that leadership and stamina had to substitute for matériel, it is difficult to imagine anyone doing more.

Nevertheless, the questions must be asked. Given the same circumstances, could someone else have dissuaded the shadowy cabal of génocidaires, galvanized the UN and its major players into decisive action, and saved more Rwandans? To be sure, the book is not an overt apologia – Dallaire accepts complete responsibility for his decisions and actions. Indeed, he points out his errors.

Most importantly, Shake Hands with the Devil is primary source material. As Dallaire says, the book “may be a crucial missing link for those attempting to understand the tragedy both intellectually and in their hearts.” There are more thorough histories of the genocide, and more detailed histories of UNAMIR. But a history per se was not Dallaire’s intention. The book is an affidavit for an indictment – an indictment of the murderers, the hamstrung, bureaucratized UN, and the self-absorbed developed world.

The book begins with 34 pages of the life of the Montreal-born Dallaire. This personal touch seems out of place in a chronicle of horror until one realizes that it establishes Dallaire’s credentials as one of us. We are reminded that the horror would have been just as horrible to us, and this offers us the capacity to begin to understand why Dallaire made the decisions he did, and what happened to him when he returned.

Once back in Canada, Dallaire succumbed to post-traumatic stress disorder, ending up unconscious on a park bench. His disorder collapsed the distance between a remote, too easily dismissed “over there” and an insulated “here.” If Shake Hands with the Devil serves as an introduction to the Rwandan genocide, even for those interested only voyeuristically in what happened to a Canadian general, it has surpassed its original intent.

For all this, Roméo Dallaire emerges as our post-Cold War hero. He taps into a sad universal appeal of a man, whose humanity is both his strength and weakness, and who was sacrificed for our general edification. He has been dragged on stage, reluctantly, as the tragic hero for our troubled times. He will not be our last. At the very least, Dallaire’s tale is useful to prepare us for more of the same. As the wars of our era have become messier and more complex, so too have our heroes.