The Helpless General

By Reviewed Madeleine K. Albright


The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda

By Romeo Dallaire

My deepest regret, during my years in government, was that the United States did not do more, earlier, to halt the genocide that engulfed Rwanda 11 years ago this spring. In Shake Hands with the Devil, Lt. Gen. Rom6o Dallaire, who served as United Nations mission commander during the tragedy, describes close-up the events U.S. officials including myself as U.N. ambassador - could only track through the distorting lens of distance and other crises. God knows how much difference it might have made, but I wish now that Dallaire had been able to dial me direct.

As a French Canadian, Gen. Dallaire had some familiarity with ethnic discrimination before going to Rwanda, but nothing could have prepared him for the bottomless well of hate he found in that beleaguered land. Although the Rwanda massacres have been analyzed in print before, and are now the subject of a gripping motion picture, Dallaire's first-person account is essential to complete the history and, one feels, vital to the author's need to bear public witness.

The Central African country of Rwanda is beautiful, small, land-locked and divided. The ethnic Tutsi minority, favored during colonial times, had been pushed from positions of power by majority Hutu elements after the country gained independence from Belgium in 1962. While in exile, Tutsis and some dissident Hutus forged a rebel movement, the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF). Violence between the RPF and the government erupted periodically but was quieted by a cease-fire and peace agreement signed in August 1993. Dallaire was chosen to lead the international force that would monitor compliance with the agreement.

All international peacekeeping missions face problems; what Dallaire confronted was the perfect storm. The end of the Cold War had generated a rise in the number of U.N. peacekeepers from 18,000 to almost 80,000 by the end of 1993- far more than the tiny U.N. headquarters staff could supervise or adequately manage and supply. More than a dozen missions - including four others in Africa - were already underway. Not even Dallaire's own Canada could free up troops for Rwanda. He was forced to rely primarily on Bangladeshis, whom he describes as almost useless, and Belgians, the distrusted agents of Rwanda's former colonial power. As the U.N. military representative, Dallaire needed help from the secretary general's political representative, Cameroon's Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh, but was frustrated to find him preoccupied with furnishing his palatial living quarters in Kigali and unwilling to be disturbed during his daily two-hour lunches or on weekends.

Further, Dallaire's mandate was designed at precisely the same time that a joint U.S.-U.N. mission in Somalia was ending in disaster-with Black Hawk helicopters down, American soldiers killed and bodies dragged by howling mobs through the streets of the capital. The lesson the Security Council drew from that confrontation was never again to take sides in a civil war. As a result, the Rwanda operation was ordered to remain strictly neutral. That meant that its success would depend entirely on the willingness of local parties to cooperate in fulfilling their obligations. As Dallaire found within weeks of his arrival, that was a fantasy.

Well-armed Hutu militants were planning a war of annihilation. And in April 1994, using as a pretext the crash of a plane carrying the Hutu president, they struck. An estimated 800,000 Rwandans perished in the soul-sickening bloodshed that followed.

In Shake Hands With the Devil, Dallaire describes with anguish and anger how his prescient warnings were ignored and how he was forced to cope with the unfolding catastrophe assisted only by a small staff and - after the Belgians and Bangladeshis pulled out several hundred courageous but under-equipped troops from Tunisia and Ghana. Along the way, he provides well-drawn portraits of Rwandan leaders, including the suave and confident rebel Gen. Paul Kagame (now the country's president) and the hard-line Hutu Col. Theoneste Bagosora (described as "either the coldest fish in Africa... or the ghost of Machiavelli executing a subversive plan").

Throughout this harrowing narrative, Dallaire strives desperately to arrange cease-fires, clear the way for humanitarian assistance and protect terrified civilians. Denied significant help by the outside world, he is nevertheless besieged with pleas to find and rescue particular people with important friends. Subsisting primarily on expired German military rations, he pushes himself to the edge of sanity, ignores death threats and miraculously maintains his moral bearings while so many others are abandoning theirs. This is true even as he is forced to explain his mission to three smirking leaders of the genocide, noticing as he shakes hands (hence the book's title) that the skin of one is flaked with dried blood.

Dallaire's long list of villains begins with the perpetrators of the genocide, but extends as well to the RPF leaders who showed more interest in winning the war - which they ultimately did - - than in finding the fastest way to stop the killing. Dallaire also selectively lambastes U.N. officials but concludes correctly that the United Nations is only as capable as its leading members enable It to be. The author faults the Belgians and French particularly, for their neocolonial attitudes, and the United States for failing to lead.

As I write in my own memoir, much that was clear to Dallaire was far less clear to policymakers in Washington and New York who were at the opposite end of the telescope, separated by layers of bureaucracy and trying to do the right thing in a dozen different areas at once. The bottom line, however, is both undeniable and indefensible. The major powers were willing to intervene in Rwanda to save their own citizens, but not in a timely way to save Rwandan lives.

In Dallaire's final chapter, he links the forces of desperation and poverty that he saw at work in Rwanda to the rage evidenced in the Sept. 11 terror attacks against the United States. He concludes: "No matter how Idealistic the aim sounds, this new century must become the Century of Humanity, when we as human beings rise above race, creed, colour, religion and national self-interest and put the good of humanity above the good of our own tribe."

This heartfelt plea provides a counterpoint to an earlier incident. Shortly before going to Rwanda, Dallaire attended the funeral of a Canadian soldier killed while on a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.' The soldier's father asked Dallaire to explain to him why his son had died. Dallaire said he had no answer; it did not occur to him then to talk about the good of humanity. Rwanda transformed him. He is, like most of us, a creature of his own experiences. The problem for the world, and for Dallaire's hopes, is that for all its horror, Rwanda's tragedy did not transform the world's will or capacity to carry out humanitarian interventions.

As this book briefly recounts, the Rwandan genocide contributed to a subsequent war in the Democratic Republic of Congo that led to the deaths of more than 3 million people- roughly four times as many as were killed in Rwanda. In Sudan's Darfur region, .80,000 people died this past year In what the State Department refers to as genocidal violence. In these cases, as in Rwanda, the international community responded, but slowly, tentatively and with insufficient clout.

Over time, the world has become reasonably good at delivering food, water and medicine to places that don't have them, but only if people with guns are not standing in the way. We have not yet developed an effective and reliable system for preventing and stopping genocide. For that to happen, citizens everywhere must push their leaders to become serious about establishing and implementing that goal. It is not enough to wait for disaster and then cry "Do something"; it is unrealistic to expect the U.S. military to answer every call; it is useless to rely on troops that are undisciplined, outnumbered, ill-equipped or under-trained: and it is naive to think that simply calling something "genocide" will automatically trigger effective action to 'halt violence. Preventing and stopping genocides and lesser outbreaks of mass killing will require sustained leadership, significant contingency investments, global and regional planning, military and police training, fresh thinking about the sanctity of sovereignty and a consensus - which does not now exist - that the world has a collective responsibility to prevent people from slaughtering each other.

Grounds for pessimism include the world's understandable preoccupation with other problems from Iraq and the Middle East to the disasters of HIV/AIDS and the Asian tsunami. One reason for hope is that more and more conservative American politicians are joining liberal internationalists in asserting a moral duty to lead on global issues. This creates an opportunity; for all parts of the U.S. political spectrum to come together. If the American right, left and center can agree to work with international partners to prevent future genocides, that alone would carry us further than we have ever been. And if anyone doubts the worthiness of the goal, I invite them to read Romeo Dallaire's profoundly sad and moving book.

Madeleine Albright was secretary of state from 1997-2000 and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 1993-97. She is the author of "Madam Secretary: A Memoir."