A Canadian heads the world’s most dangerous peacekeeping mission
EYE OF THE STORM
A Canadian heads the world’s most dangerous peacekeeping mission
The tide of bloated corpses continued last week, travelling northward along Rwanda’s inland rivers into majestic Lake Victoria, across the Ugandan border.
Along the shores of the continent’s largest lake, shocked villagers fished the dead—men, women and children killed in one of the most appalling ethnic slaughters in African history—out of the water, dragging them off to mass graves. Since Rwanda’s tribal conflict erupted in early April,
relief workers say as many as 40,000 corpses have floated into Lake Victoria, the only source of drinking water for thousands of Ugandans. “We had bodies that came tied, bound with ropes,” said aid worker Fred Luz ze. “Some were bayoneted in the chest and stomachs.” And medical workers warned that further catastrophes lie ahead. Said one Ugandan doctor: “An epidemic such as cholera is in the making.”
But even the horrific scenes in Uganda paled in comparison with the ongoing carnage in Rwanda, where seven weeks of intense fighting have left between 200,000 and half a million dead. More than two million others are now homeless refugees. Touched off by the death of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a member of the country’s majority Hutu tribe, in a mysterious plane crash on April 6, the explosion of ethnic hatred shattered a fragile peace accord signed last August to end three years of civil war. At first, the principal aggressors were members of Hutu gangs, who sought revenge for the president’s death by dragging minority Tutsis from their homes and butchering them in the streets. Since then, rebels of the Tutsi-led Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) have fought back ferociously, taking control of about 60
per cent of the country. And in the eye of the storm is Canadian Maj.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire, 47, a distinguished career officer with a reputation for remaining cool under fire.
Dallaire, a 30-year army veteran who grew up in Quebec City and the east end of Montreal, commands a 455-member contingent of United Nations peacekeepers, including 10 other Canadian officers, in what is unquestionably the world’s most dangerous UN mission. His rudimentary Kigali headquarters—there is
no running water and a simple mattress beside his desk suffices for a bed—has repeatedly been caught in the cross fire. After five mortar rounds exploded near his compound last week, sending military and civilian staff scrambling for cover, Dallaire was characteristically unshaken. “I expected a little bit of
shooting here and there,” he said after the shelling, which appeared to be deliberate. “But this is different. Someone is trying to make a point.” Adding to the tensions, a local radio station that functions as a propaganda arm of Hutu extremists has accused the Canadian general of siding with the Tutsi rebels, a charge that he and UN officials vehemently deny.
In fact, since the bloodshed began, Dallaire has gone out of his way to demonstrate his neutrality, shuttling between the two sides in a desperate attempt to end the butch-
ery. And last week, he briefed UN envoy Iqbal Riza, who travelled from New York City to Rwanda to try to broker a permanent ceasefire. After a hastily arranged series of meetings, Riza managed to secure a pledge from rebel leaders and government forces to commence ceasefire talks. But given the failure of previous attempts to reach an agreement, the likelihood of success remained in serious doubt.
Dallaire’s peacekeeping mission—originally 2,500 strong—was authorized by the UN Security Council last October in support of the short-lived peace accord. With the outbreak of renewed hostilities, however, the Security Council voted in late April to scale the mission back, leaving the Canadian commander dangerously short of manpower. Amid the anarchy, and despite repeated attacks on UN convoys, Dallaire and his men have tried—but often failed—to ensure that humanitarian assistance is delivered to the needy.
So far, efforts to strengthen Dallaire’s tiny force have been unsuccessful. In mid-May, the UN Security Council, appalled by the scale of violence in Rwanda, authorized the deployment of 5,500 additional troops. But as of last week, the United Nations had received firm commitments from only three countries—Ghana, Ethiopia and Senegal— which combined have pledged 2,400 peacekeepers. An obviously frustrated UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said that he had written to 30 other heads of state and had “begged them to send troops.” He also appealed to U.S. President Bill Clinton for more support to help ease the humanitarian crisis. The UN chief said it was “scandalous” that so few governments were willing to intervene in Rwanda’s “genocide.” (Canada has said only that it would “consider taking part” in an expanded mission.) “It is a failure not only for the United Nations,” BoutrosGhali declared. “It is a failure for the international community. And all of us are responsible for this failure.”
Until reinforcements arrive, Dallaire must make the best of an almost impossible situation. But those who know him well say that the outgoing but unflappable Canadian general is the man for the job. “He will react to the most unnerving situations in a very calm way,” says Capt. Lester LeBlanc, a former student at the Collège militaire royal in Saint-Jean, Que., which Dallaire headed from 1989 until 1991. LeBlanc later served for a year as aide-de-camp to Dallaire after he became commandant of the 5e Brigade mécanisée du Canada at Valcartier, Que.—a position he held until he was posted to Africa last year. “Even when it is a worst-case scenario, when things are going amok,” says LeBlanc, “he’s capable of increasing confidence in people just by his manner.” Dallaire’s wife of 18 years, Elizabeth, the mother of the couple’s three young children, told Maclean’s that her husband “is not the type to hide under his desk” when confronted with danger. She added: “He’s not going to quit until the whole thing is over.”
Far from being over, however, the fighting intensified greatly last week. In a barrage of heavy shelling, the RPF rebels surrounded the capital, Kigali, leaving an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 people cut off from the outside world and perilously short of food and water. The rebel advance sent militiamen, government soldiers and tens of thousands of civilians, many of them Hutus, fleeing south from Kigali for fear of reprisal. A human column formed along almost the entire 40-krn road leading from Kigali to Gitarama in the south—where the Hutu government is now based—as terrified Hutus rushed to escape the rebel onslaught.
But despite the overwhelming obstacles, Dallaire has enjoyed some successes. At week’s end, in one of the biggest breakthroughs yet for the frustrated peacekeepers, two UN convoys of four trucks each braved mortar fire to rescue 240 men, women and children, mostly Tutsis, trapped in a hotel in government-held central Kigali, and ferried them safely to rebelheld territory. Another 240 refugees, mostly Hutus, were transported from a stadium in rebel-held east Kigali to a government stronghold south of the city. Previous attempts to evacuate civilians had failed as militiamen at-
tacked UN convoys and refugees. But this time it was different. “After weeks of trying, we finally succeeded,” said a satisfied Dallaire, who credited Ghanian peacekeepers with successfully pulling off the mission. “This is the first step in a long walk to safety for all civilians who want to get out” But as the Canadian general and his tiny group of men know full well, every step forward in Rwanda is usually matched by several steps back.
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