Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Book Review: Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Roméo Dallaire

For the last six weeks or so I have been working through Roméo Dallaire's account of the Rwandan genocide and civil war. I was a very young child at the time of the genocide, so I do not myself have any memories of the event. Even if I was capable of it I wonder if word of the massacres entered my world. One of the key problems was that the world largely ignored what was happening in the small African country in the Great Lakes region. Did my parents hear on the radio or on the nightly news what was happening on the other side of the world? I do not know when I first learned about Rwanda. I assume it was at school, tied to my learning around the Holocaust and other genocides. Most of my preconceived notions likely (to my embarrassment) to the film Hotel Rwanda and the book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. Reading this book I came to understand that I knew virtually nothing.

I assume that most people assume the Rwandan genocide was a simple inter-ethnic conflict between Hutus and Tutsis. This is a dramatic oversimplification. Rwanda was a Belgian colony. The Belgians elevated one group, the Tutsis, over the Hutus. In the 1950s the Hutu majority pushed for greater political power. Civil unrest broke out, the Tutsi were pushed out of power. Reprisals occurred and the hundreds of thousands of Tutsis fled the country. This led to the formation of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in the 1980s. The RPF was a combination of Tutsi and Hutus who opposed the government in Kigali. The situation gets complicated here. In short, the RPF was on the verge of victory. The French backed the government forces, the Belgians were suspected of backing the RPF. The President of Tanzania helped to negotiate a truce and working agreement between the forces which came to be known as the Arusha Accord. The United Nations peacekeeping force was part of the agreement, which is how UNAMIR and Dallaire ended up in Rwanda.

The book opens with Dallaire's personal biography. It explores how a French-Canadian navigated the politics of the Canadian Army. Dallaire comes off as a capable, dedicated, and a problem-solver. In many ways he seemed like an ideal candidate to lead the UN mission. Dallaire entered Rwanda optimistic, naive and enthusiastic, by his own admission. The UN force was undermined from the very beginning. They had insufficient manpower, insufficient resources, and insufficient support from the local elite or the UN Security Council. Reading the early chapters a is a struggle between optimism and dread. As a reader you know where this is building to, but Dallaire lays out numerous scenarios that could have reconciled the factions and averted genocide. The existing government, moderate parties, extremist Hutus, and the RPF could not come to an agreement and establish a coalition interim government. Racist Hutu rhetoric stepped up dramatically during the period of political gridlock.

Dallaire does little to point fingers are particular people or factions. When he does it is more an acknowledge of how failures or stubbornness precluded a peaceful resolution. Growing tensions exploded with the assassination of President Habyarimana of the established government. It seems likely that Habyarimana was killed by hardliners of his own party. His assassination was depicted as a Tutsi plot. Racist Hutu militias (Interahamwe) began targeting and executing moderate politicians. From there the genocide spiraled.

My exceedingly brief description covers about the first third of the book. Dallaire does an excellent job laying out the political and military situation in Rwanda. Though he sometimes slips into excessive acronyms there is a glossary at the back for terms and important figures. The book drips with the tortured life of a man who had to stand by helplessly and oversee the worst genocide of the post-Cold War period. Dallaire shines a gruesome light on the horror of what happened. It does not feel exploitative, but a simple summary of a fraction of the trauma he experienced.

We are still experiencing the fallout of the Rwandan genocide. When western powers did intervene they bungled it and only exacerbated elements of the crisis. Dallaire sees blood on the hands of the United States and France in particular. Shake Hands with the Devil tells a much fuller story than is likely popularly known. This was a troubling and highly informative read. Since I began reading it I have found myself rethinking our attitudes about peacekeeping, Africa and conflict. This book should be mandatory reading for Canadian policymakers, and those interesting in peacekeeping operations.

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