Sunday, June 10, 2007

When the world's indifference was culpable

Part two. Part one outlined Dallaire's narrative. Here I share particularly lucid and horrible details.

When I posted on Lt. General Romeo Dallaire's account of commanding the U.N. mission in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, I thought I was done with the subject. But looking the book over, I cannot resist sharing some of the more vivid descriptive bits (while sticking with my recommendation above that folks read the Mother Jones interview unless you really need the full minutia of horror.

Nonetheless -- here's Dallaire reporting the order he received from U.N. Security Council ten days after appealing for a change in his orders and more forces to intervene as the slaughter proceeded all around his troops:

The resolution's phrases were pure UN-ese: '...having considered regret ...shocked ...appalled ...deeply concerned ...stressing ...expressing deep concern ...condemns ...strongly condemns ...demands ...decides ...reiterates ...reaffirms ...calls upon ...invites ...decides to remain actively seized of the moment.'

So there he was, adrift with a tiny force that had been ordered not to act, but somehow keep itself alive, amid unimaginable carnage. What did he see and how did he cope?

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. ... Early on I seemed to develop a screen between me and the sights and sounds to allow me to stay focused on the work to be done. ...But if you looked you could see the evidence, even in the whitened skeletons. The legs bent and apart. A broken bottle, a rough branch, even a knife between them. ...There was always a lot of blood. Some male corpses had their genitals cut off, but many women and young girls had their breasts chopped off and their genitals crudely cut apart. They died in a position of total vulnerability....

When he finally left for home, he tried to make sense of what his force had done. They had made repeated forays into haunted streets, gathering up a few survivors, always in danger themselves.

It took every ounce of our effort, resources and courage to produce tiny results, yet all around us hundreds of thousands of human beings were being ripped apart and millions were running for their lives. Sometimes we did more harm than good. After each and every mission, failed or "successful," I had to wonder whether it was ethical for me to keep my men at such a level of operational intensity and risk. After I got home from Rwanda, and the years slowly revealed to me the extent of the cynical maneuvering by France, Belgium, the United States and [the Rwandan factions] I couldn't help but feel that we were a sort of diversion, even sacrificial lambs, that permitted statesmen to say that the world was doing something to stop the killing. In fact, we were nothing more than camouflage.

I have no idea what experiencing such a level of disillusionment would be like; most of us don't. And meanwhile, the dead are still dead and the intoxication of killing spread to the rest of Central Africa, still largely ignored by countries with enough wealth and power to stop it.

In a forward to the U.S. edition to this book, Samantha Powers discusses why the person who probably did more than anyone else from the outside world to save those he could, seems to be the one who carries the most awful burden of guilt. She realized:

the man who would try to do the most would inevitably be the man least capable of making excuses for himself, his men, his country or his planet. The only way risky action is ever taken on behalf of mere principle is when feeling -- a hugely discredited quality in military and political life -- overpowers self-interest. ... Dallaire is a man who felt and who continues to feel.

He is also a man of character, someone who came to this horrible experience with a habit of acting with courage and integrity. Practice helps.

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