Hero, Failure, or Casualty? A Peacekeeper’s Experience of Genocide

Hero, Failure, or Casualty? A Peacekeeper’s Experience of Genocide

Roméo Dallaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil and Keir Pearson and Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda

Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda
by Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Roméo Dallaire (with Maj. Brent Beardsley)
Random House Canada, 2003, 562 pp., $19.95Hotel Rwanda
Screenplay by Keir Pearson and Terry George; Directed by Terry George
United Artists, December 2004


In late April 1994, Roméo Dallaire, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), drove through a village outside the Rwandan capital, Kigali, stopping repeatedly to clear corpses from the road.

The putrid smell of decaying bodies in the huts along the route not only entered your nose and mouth but made you feel slimy and greasy. This was more than smell, this was an atmosphere you had to push your way through . . . .With no real protection and amongst a population that had epidemic levels of HIV/AIDS . . . our hands became more covered in dried blood, in pieces of flesh. It seemed that traces of this blood stayed on my hands for months.

As Dallaire describes vividly in Shake Hands with the Devil, this blood—accompanied by an overwhelming sense of helplessness and guilt and the terrifying memories of the genocide—will stay with him forever. Shake Hands with the Devil records the horror of the genocide, as the Tutsi minority was engulfed in violence. Dallaire fought against the indifference and proceduralism of his superiors at UN headquarters in New York (several of whom lobbied for the disbanding of UNAMIR soon after the violence escalated) to save as many civilians as he could from the genocide and ultimately to save himself from going under.

Wracked by visions of the killing of nearly one million Tutsi and Hutu moderates and the failure of his peacekeeping mission to stop the genocide, Dallaire left the mission early, one month after the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) defeated the Hutu-led government in July 1994 and halted the genocide. Upon return to his native Canada, Dallaire spiraled into despair and depression and was diagnosed with acute post-traumatic stress disorder. He twice attempted suicide, most recently in June 2000, when he was found half-conscious on a park bench in Hull, Quebec, after swallowing a cocktail of alcohol and anti-depressants. As Samantha Power writes in her 2002 book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, “It is both paradoxical and natural that the man who probably did the most to save Rwandans feels the worst.”

Numerous commentators have lionized Dallaire for his fight to keep his mission afloat against the genocidal and UN-imposed odds. In Steven Silver’s ...

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