It was one of the fastest, most efficient, most evident genocides of modern history. And it could have been avoided. But the United States and France were content to sit back and watch as Hutu extremists slaughtered 800,000 Rwandans in ethnic pogroms in 1994. Roméo Dallaire, then a brigadier general in the Canadian Forces, was the commander of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Rwanda and witnessed first-hand the "unfolding apocalypse," as he calls it in his stunning book Shake Hands with the Devil
. The gruesome experience and his futile attempts to convince the international community to intervene left him with emotional scars that still haven't healed. He tried to commit suicide, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, got a medical release from the military, and has had extensive therapy.
The slaughter could have been quite easily prevented, Dallaire writes in his memoir, if the United Nations and western countries had sent in a small number of soldiers and resources at a crucial point when Hutu extremists were still plotting the killings and training death squads. But at critical moments, U.S. and French officials dismissed Dallaire's pleadings for action, even though they had solid intelligence about what was happening on the ground. A U.S. military staffer explained to Dallaire that it would take the deaths of 85,000 Rwandans to justify risking the life of one American soldier. Meanwhile, France had long-standing links with elite Rwandan army units closely tied to the Hutu death squads and refused to acknowledge Dallaire's warnings until it was too late.
As painful as it was for Dallaire to write this book, the final result is gripping, expertly crafted, and soul bearing. It gives a taut, riveting hour-by-hour account of the international and human drama he witnessed and the "unimaginable evil [that] had turned Rwanda's gentle green valleys and mist-capped hills into a stinking nightmare of rotting corpses." Dallaire traveled back through his blood-soaked memories, he says, in order to retrieve his soul, and has since thrown himself into giving talks about his experiences. He recounts that after one talk a Canadian military padre asked him how he could still believe in God. "I know there is a God," he replied, "because in Rwanda I shook hands with the devil." --Alex Roslin
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From Publishers Weekly
As former head of the late 1993 U.N. peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, Canadian general Dallaire's initial proposal called for 5,000 soldiers to permit orderly elections and the return of the refugees. Nothing like this number was supplied, and the result was an outright attempt at genocide against the Tutsis that nearly succeeded, with 800,000 dead over three months. The failure of the U.N.'s wealthier members to act as the tragedy unfolded obliged the author to leave military service to recover from PTSD (as well as the near breakdown of his family). While much of the account is a thickly described I-went-here, I went-there, I-met-X, I-said-this, one learns much more about the author's emotional states when making decisions than in a conventional military history, making this an important document of service—one that has been awarded Canada's Governor General's Award. And his descriptions of Rwanda's unraveling are disturbing, to say the least ("I then noticed large piles of blue-black bodies heaped on the creek banks"). Dallaire's argument that Rwanda-like situations are fires that can be put out with a small force if caught early enough will certainly draw debate, but the book documents in horrifying detail what happens when no
serious effort is made.
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