Saturday, June 09, 2007

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

If you've ever wondered what it would be like to work inside a weak, rigid, and highly political bureaucracy, this book will convey more than you ever wanted to know. Canadian Lt. General Romeo Dallaire was given the mission of commanding the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda in 1993. Good, loyal, efficient soldier that he was, he tried to make the ill-assorted, under-equipped collection of troops assigned to him by member states into a buffer between Rwandan factions. Operating under orders not to intervene, it was his curse to witness the Rwandan genocide. During four months in 1994, some 800,000 Rwandans -- members of the Tutsi group and Hutus who would not join the killing -- were cut to pieces by other Rwandans who identified as Hutus. Fifteen soldiers under Dallaire's command were massacred as a warning to the U.N. force not to become involved.

The true hell of this story is that Dallaire had warning of the impending slaughter and could not act to prevent it.

[An informer] was horrified that he was being drawn into a plan to create a series of highly efficient death squads that, when turned loose on the population, could kill a thousand Tutsis in [the capital] Kigali within twenty minutes of receiving the order. ...the army had recently transferred four large shipments of AK-47s, ammunition and grenades to the [genocidal] militia. ...I made the decision to go after the weapons caches. ... [U.N. headquarters in New York] ordered me to suspend the operation immediately. ...The [Rwandan] extremists had taken their cue from the grim farces of Bosnia and Somalia. They knew that Western nations do not have the stomach or the will to sustain casualties in peace support operations. When confronted with casualties ... they will run, regardless of the consequences to the abandoned population.

And so, Dallaire took no preventive action and watched the carnage helplessly, unable to save more than a handful of potential victims.

Months later, France did send an expedition to protect some of its past clients and the Rwandan faction that still rules the country today seized the capital. But even then, Dallaire was able to predict that the losing Rwandans pushed into the Congo would keep the region in chaos as long as they were not disarmed. Their raids and the responses of neighboring states set off the conflict in the eastern Congo that has killed some 3.8 million people in the years since. The world's major powers still prefer to look away from this human catastrophe.

Not surprisingly, after wading through bodies and having to conduct sham negotiations with murderers, Dallaire went home to Canada and broke down. The general attempted suicide, was discharged from the Canadian army with PTSD, and gradually recovered some grip with the help of medication and therapy. This book is his exhaustive chronicle of Rwanda's unimaginable horror.

Unfortunately, in his concern not to leave anything out, Dallaire buries the reader in military acronyms and rather colorless detail. He doesn't describe; rather he records in what reads as if it were a monotone, as if still reporting to his bureaucratic superiors. I would recommend this Mother Jones interview with the General if you are interested in Dallaire's unique insights into what happens when atrocities take place outside the rich world's sphere of interest. In that interview he is both thoughtful and blunt. What about a situation such as Bosnia and Kosovo, where the United States and others intervene. Why was that viewed differently than Rwanda or Darfur?

RD: It is the residual of the colonial era which has influenced us all. Yugoslavia is white. Yugoslavia is in Europe. Yugoslavia is close to home. We know them, and their security there is a concern. So it is dominated by self-interest and the fact that they’re “like us.” It was also seen as a far more sophisticated exercise because we’re talking about educated people who come from great nations of the past. They’re not simply black Africans who we trivialize by saying that they’re going at each other because they’ve always done it under tribalism. So it is an overt expression of “some people count, and some people don’t count.” We’ll go where they count, even if there isn’t an overt gain, but we won’t go where people don’t count.

His present work involves trying to understand how international pressure can be mobilized effectively to overcome great power unwillingness to intervene to protect people in countries where they have no vital interests.

Part two discussing this book is here.


Kay Dennison said...

Another country on the list. I'm feeling that humanity, like Elvis, has left the planet. There isn't any here in the U.S. except for Paris Hilton -- the poor baby! sigh

sfmike said...

You sure have been plowing through a lighthearted reading list lately. It may be time for some light comic relief, such as the collection of Ronald Reagan letters (just kidding). Thanks for the report.

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