Lieutenant-General Roméo Alain Dallaire was the Canadian who was in command of the United Nations peacekeeping forces in Rwanda at the time of the genocide in Rwanda. His life was irrevocably changed by the events he witnessed there. He has become a powerful and effective critic of the international community that turned its backs on a nation in turmoil, and a living example of how even life-long military men can experience crippling post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing horrific brutality.
He was born in 1946 in Holland, where his father, Staff-Sergeant Roméo Louis Dallaire, was stationed and married a Dutch nurse, Catherine Vermaesen. The Dallaires settled in Montréal, where young Roméo grew up. Dallaire junior followed in his father's footsteps, beginning his military career as a cadet, then enrolling in the Royal Military College of Canada. It was only when he applied for a passport in 1972 that he learned that because he had been born abroad he was not considered a Canadian citizen; he subsequently applied for, and received, Canadian citizenship.
Dallaire started his long and distinguished military career as an artillery officer, holding a variety of command, staff and training appointments in Canada and abroad as he worked his way up the ranks. In 1993, he was given a command that seemed to him at the time a gift: head of the multination United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). Jumping at the command he had been working for his whole life, he left behind a wife and three children and flew to Rwanda. He later said that arriving in the capital, Kigali, for the first time was like landing in heaven. But heaven would soon turn to hell.
The situation in the country was volatile, and in spite of the recently signed Arush Accords, the long-simmering ethnic conflict between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority threatened to break into a full boil at any moment. Dallaire's mandate was to oversee the implementation of the peace accords and ensure that no arms or troops entered the country across the border from Uganda. But arms were coming from other sources as well: the army, loyal to Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana, received a large shipment of arms from France that the UN did not allow Dallaire to seize. Dallaire was also concerned that the army had been forcing everyone to register with the government by presenting identity cards, which identified them as Hutu or Tutsi; and that rebel Hutus, with the tacit support of the president, were spreading malicious propoganda about the Tutsis on national media. Dallaire phoned, faxed, and telegraphed UN headquarters many times, pleading for reinforcements and a mandate to move preemptively, and was denied.
In April 1994 Habyarimana's plane was shot down. Hutu extremists, backed by the army and government, took advantage of the lapse in power to begin attacking and killing Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Dallaire immediately sent ten of his best trained and equipped men, Belgian soldiers, to protect the new prime minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, but they were intercepted by the vicious Hutu milita, Interhamwe. Driving past a military compound in the chaotic capital city that day, Dallaire saw the bodies of two Belgian soldiers. He also saw a few still alive, but did not risk his whole mission for these few men - especially not when the streets were already littered with bodies of dead Africans. Later he would say that he could not give a white life more value a black one. But others disagreed with his decision. Belgium retaliated for the loss of the ten by withdrawing its forces. Dallaire stood on the tarmac in tears of rage as he watched his most experienced contingent abandon the country.
Dallaire renewed his pleas to the UN for logistical suport and reinforcements; he felt that 4000 well-equipped soldiers could still avert a massacre. But the UN Security Council turned him down, bolstered by the refusal of Bill Clinton to supply any material aid for Rwanda. Clinton, the consummate politician, was worried about a public backlash, especially after the disastrous failure of the operation Mogadishu, Somalia, the previous year. Instead of the reinforcements Dallaire so desperately needed, he found UNAMIR reduced to a few hundred men.
Dallaire struggled with his pitiful resources to keep a few key areas protected, and is directly credited with having saved 20,000 lives. Yet all around him a horrific killing spree saw 800,000 to more than a million people killed in less than 100 days. In an effort to move public opinion abroad in favour of intervention, Dallaire gave frank press interviews by phone. Finally, the UN agreed to send a force of more than 5000, and when these reinforcements were joined by Tutsi rebel forces led by Paul Kagame (now president of Rwanda), the killing finally ended.
Though he received many honours for his service in Rwanda, Dallaire saw the whole thing as a colossal personal failure, and blamed himself for it all. Back home he sank into a suicidal depression. He reached his nadir in 2000, when he was discharged from military service as unable to serve because of post-traumatic stress disorder. Two months later he was found unconscious under a park bench, his life in danger from a mix of anti-depressants and alcohol. But he pulled himself back from that brink. He began to write about his ordeal, and three years later published Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, for which he received a Governor General's award. In 2004 documentary of the same title follows his return to Rwanda, and it's chilling and unforgettable to see him describe the bodies he can still vividly see piled on the roads, the smells and sounds of death he cannot forget.
Nick Nolte's character in Hotel Rwanda was loosely based on Dallaire; I haven't seen it, but I understand it is a cynical portrayal. Dallaire was not consulted by anyone involved in the movie.
Dallaire is a riveting public speaker and a compelling man, a hero who can only see his own flaws. He has been awarded the Order of Canada and Legion of Merit (from the US), and was the inaugural recipient of the Aegis Award on Genocide Prevention from the United Kingdom. He has received honourary doctorates from
Sherbrooke University, University of Western Ontario, the Royal Military College of Canada, McMaster University, University of Cape Breton, York University and Queen's University. He is now a senator and works to improve understanding of the traumatic effects of war on children and soldiers.