Maclean’s Excerpt

BEARING WITNESS

A decade later, the genocide in Rwanda still haunts the Canadian general who led the UN forces there

October 27 2003
Maclean’s Excerpt

BEARING WITNESS

A decade later, the genocide in Rwanda still haunts the Canadian general who led the UN forces there

October 27 2003

BEARING WITNESS

Maclean’s Excerpt

A decade later, the genocide in Rwanda still haunts the Canadian general who led the UN forces there

A YEAR AFTER HE ARRIVED IN RWANDA as the confident commander of a UN peacekeeping force in 1993, Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire flew home to Canada, broken and suicidal. On his watch, 800,000 Rwandans had been murdered in only 100 days while Dallaire— thwarted at every turn by his political masters—had been powerless to help. In Shake Hands with the Devil (Random House), Dallaire, 57, and retired from the military, offers what he calls “a cri de coeur for the slaughtered thousands.” It’s an unflinching eyewitness account of a monstrous genocide—and the complete failure of the international community to stop it. Excerpts:

With Maj. Brent Beardsley, my military assistant and the only Canadian soldier under my command, on April 9 were Marek Pazik and Stefan Stec. They were both Polish military observers who had briefly been billeted in the Gikondo Parish Church, known as the Polish Mission because it was run by priests from Poland. Pazik and Stefan had not lasted long under the austere regime at the mission, but two of their fellow Polish officers had stayed on. That morning, a faint radio call had come from the men at the mission begging for help. The batteries on the radio were dying and all Brent could make out was that there had been killings at the church.

Not knowing what to expect, Brent, Pazik and Stec armed themselves and, hatches down, set off to Gikondo in the armoured personnel carrier with a Bangladeshi officer and three men. At the church they confronted a scene of unbelievable horror—the first such scene UNAMIR (the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda) witnessed—evidence of the genocide, though we didn’t yet know to call it that. In the aisles and on the pews were the bodies of hundreds of men, women and children. At least 15 of them were still alive but in a terrible state. The priests were applying first aid to the survivors. A baby cried as it tried to feed on the breast of its dead mother, a sight Brent has never forgotten. Pazik found the two Polish observers, who were in a state of grief and shock, hardly able to relate what had happened. The night before, they said, government troops had cordoned off the area, and then the gendarmerie had gone door to door checking identity cards. All Tutsi men, women and children were rounded up and moved to the church. Their screams had alerted the priests and the Poles, who had come running. They were seized at the church doors and slammed up against the wall with rifle barrels at their throats. They were forced to watch at gunpoint as the gendarmes collected the adults’ identity cards and burned them. Then the gendarmes welcomed in a large number of civilian militiamen with machetes and handed over the victims to their killers.

Methodically and with much bravado and laughter, the militia moved from bench to bench, hacking with machetes. Some people died immediately, while others with terrible wounds begged for their lives or the lives of their children. No one was spared. A pregnant woman was disembowelled

and her fetus severed. Women suffered horrible mutilation. Men were struck on the head and died immediately or lingered in agony. Children begged for their lives and received the same treatment as their parents. Genitalia were a favourite target, the victims left to bleed to death. There was no mercy, no hesitation and no compassion. The priests and the Polish observers, guns at their throats, tears in their eyes, and the screams of the dying in their ears, pleaded with the gendarmes for the victims. The gendarmes’ reply was to use the rifle barrels to lift the priests’ and officers’ heads so that they could better witness the horror.

Killing with machetes is hard work, and sometime in the night the murderers became fatigued with their gruesome task and left the church, probably headed for some sleep before they moved on to the next location. The priests and the military observers did what they could for the few survivors, who moaned or crawled from underneath the corpses that had sheltered them. Since the wounded were too many to take in the APC, the priests stayed behind with them, until a rescue mission could be mounted.

Early the next morning, the priests called on the radio and reported that the militia had returned during the night. Our APC had been spotted at the church, and the killers had returned to destroy the evidence of the massacre. They had killed the wounded and removed and burned the bodies. The decision to leave the priests and the victims had had disastrous consequences, but such are the decisions that soldiers make in war. Some days you make decisions and people live, other days people die.

That evening I called New York and described the situation. They had my reports in hand: along with political assassinations and indiscriminate killings, we now had an example of systematic ethnic killing in the Polish Mission massacre, and 20,000 Rwandans under our supposed protection. By now there were 500 French para-commandos working out of the airport, and a thousand Belgian paras staging in Nairobi. To that I could add the 250 U.S. Marines in Bujumbura. A force of that size, welltrained and well-equipped, could possibly bring an end to the killings. But such an option wasn’t even being considered.

April 11, the fifth day of slaughter. The Security Council and the office of the secretary-general were obviously at a loss as to what to do. I continued to receive demands to supply them with more information before they would take any concrete action. What more could I possibly tell them that I hadn’t already described in horrific detail? The odour of death in the hot sun; the flies, maggots, rats and dogs that swarmed to feast on the dead. At times it seemed the smell had entered the pores of my skin. My Christian beliefs had been the moral framework that had guided me throughout my adult life. Where was God in all this horror? Where was God in the world’s response?

Two thousand Rwandans lost their lives that day as a direct result of the Belgian withdrawal. They had taken refuge after April 7 at the Belgian camp set up at the Dom Bosco School, joined by a few expatriates. That morning, French troops had evacuated the foreigners, and after they left, the Belgian company commander, Capt. Lemaire, called Lt.-Col. Dewez, his CO, to request permission for his company to consolidate at the airport. He didn’t mention the 2,000 Rwandans his troops were protecting at the school. When Dewez approved the move and the troops pulled out, the militia moved in, killing almost all of the Rwandans.

Despite our verbal and written reports of the worsening scenario, and episodes such as this, reinforcement wasn’t being discussed in New York. Maurice Baril, then a major general in charge of the military wing of the UN’s peacekeeping department and later Canada’s chief of defence staff, had made it clear to me on several occasions that no one was interested in Rwanda. And now, because of the escalating risks, they were even less interested. There was a void of leadership in New York. We had sent a deluge of paper and received nothing in return; no supplies, no reinforcement, no decisions.

By mid-April the hospital had no water and very little food, with nothing to cook it in and next to no wood to heat it. As I walked among the sick they were begging on their knees, pulling at my clothes, holding their babies up to me. I had nothing to ease their plight. I was guided by a few of the leaders to the site where a large mortar bomb had exploded the day before. There were traces of flesh, brain and blood in the immediate area. Dozens of shredded bodies had been moved and buried. There were over 100 people still alive who had horrific gashes from the shrapnel. There had been a panic to get inside the hospital itself, and children had been trampled to death. Death was all around them, and now death had started to invade from the sky. I wanted to scream, to vomit, to hit something, to break free of my body, to end this terrible scene. Instead I struggled to compose myself, knowing composure was critical with so many despairing eyes upon me.

MUCH LATER, back in Canada, I was taking a vacation with my wife and children, driving down a narrow road on the way to the beach. Road workers had cut a lot of trees down on either side of the road and piled the branches up to be picked up later. The cut trees had turned brown, and the sawn ends of the trunks, white and of a fair size, were stacked facing the road. Without being able to stop myself, I described to my wife in great detail a trip I had made in the rebel zone, where the route had taken me through the middle of a village. The sides of the road were littered with piles upon piles of Rwandan bodies drying in the sun, white bones jutting out. I was so sorry that my children had no choice but to listen to me. When we got to the beach, my kids swam and Beth read a book while I sat for more than two hours reliving the events reawakened in my mind. What terrible vulnerability we have all had to live with since Rwanda.

As I write these words I am listening to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which strikes me as the purest expression in music of the suffering, mutilation, rape, and murder of 800,000 Rwandans, with the help of the member nations of the only supposedly impartial world body. Ultimately, led by the United States, France and the United Kingdom, this world body aided and abetted genocide in Rwanda. No amount of its cash and aid will ever wash its hands clean of Rwandan blood. I?]

Copyright 2003 Roméo A. Dallaire. Reprinted by permission of Random House Canada.