The Rwandan genocide retold
SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL
BY ROMÉO DALLAIRE. RANDOM HOUSE CANADA,
2003. 562 PAGES.
L t. General Roméo Dallaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil took me twenty sittings to read. It left me shaken, reeling, aghast, tormented. It is a book
of astonishing power, a narrative account of the genocide, and the period leading up to the genocide, unsparing in its exposure of the madness that gripped the tiny country of Rwanda.
It is, all in all, a shocking read. Rwanda was either betrayed or abandoned by every possible actor: the United Nations Secretariat, the United Nations Security Council, the French, the Americans, the Belgians, the Organization of African Unity. It was as if some premeditated conspiracy was at work to show the world that, having crammed the Armenian genocide into the first part of the Twentieth Century, and the Holocaust into the middle, it now needed Rwanda as the finale.
On April 11, 1994, five days into the genocide, Roméo Dallaire, Canadian Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (unamir), his entire emotional equilibrium in tatters, asks himself the ultimate question, “Where was God in all this horror? Where was God in the world’s response?”
The answer, alas, was that God was nowhere to be found.
In a hundred days, between April 6, 1994, and the end of June, 1994, 800,000 people were slaughtered in the full view of the world, and the world raised not a finger. The carnage was carefully planned and executed by extremists of the majority Hutu ethnic group, against the minority Tutsi ethnic group, with a large number of Hutu moderates thrown in for good measure.
A Spartan rendering of the context would read as follows: For many months before the genocide, a plethora of political parties, some representing Hutu, some representing Tutsi, some representing both, some moderate, one or two dementedly extreme, pretended to overcome internecine differences and implement what was called “The Arusha Peace Agreement.” Also in the months prior to the genocide, increasingly hysterical public rhetoric, complemented by mysterious murderous attacks, targeted various leaders of the Tutsi population and some Hutu moderates. Throughout this same period, forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, led by Major General Paul Kagame, a Tutsi—soon to become president of Rwanda—were pressing south from the Uganda border, having taken refuge there for many years, as the then-existing Hutu regime engaged in pogroms sufficient to drive thousands of Tutsi into exile. Thus it was that, throughout the genocide, a civil war was raging. Both the war and the genocide started, officially, on April 6, 1994, when the president of Rwanda’s plane was shot down as it approached the airport in Kigali, the capital. The president of Burundi was also on board. To this day, no one knows who was responsible for the assassinations.
Within one-half hour of the plane crash, the apocalypse had begun. The question that haunts every page of Dallaire’s book is whether the genocide could have been prevented. His own answer is unequivocal: It absolutely could have been prevented. When you finally put the book down, it is impossible to draw any other conclusion.
Perhaps the most memorable missed opportunity occurred on January 11, 1994. Dallaire received word, indisputably reliable word, that there were weapons caches hidden around Kigali to be used by extremist civilian militias (gangs of well-armed thugs known as the Interahamwe) as soon as the signal was given to attack the Tutsi population. In previous months, lists of Tutsi names and addresses had been carefully assembled, and placed in the hands of various crazed militia and military commanders. Dallaire decided to raid and confiscate the arms caches, and wrote to New York, not so much to seek permission as to inform them of his plans.