Ian Garrick Mason

Book Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle -- January 23, 2005

Shake Hands With the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda

Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire
Carroll & Graf, 562pp, $16.95

by Ian Garrick Mason

At 3 a.m. March 13, 1964, Catherine "Kitty" Genovese was raped and stabbed to death near her apartment building in Queens, N.Y. Thirty-eight people watched or heard the crime and did nothing to stop it, though the assault went on for 35 minutes. The tragedy quickly became infamous, serving as a morality tale about urban apathy and indifference.

Exactly 30 years later, it happened again -- but this time on a far vaster scale. As the world looked on, extremist Hutu militias in Rwanda slaughtered 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The genocide occurred over 100 days and was witnessed by the personnel of the U.N. mission there -- a mission that, despite the pleas of the force commander, Gen. Roméo Dallaire, was neither reinforced nor allowed to intervene to stop the killing. Shake Hands With the Devil is Dallaire's personal account of this catastrophe.

The mission began as an attempt to bring permanent peace to Rwanda by monitoring the implementation of an agreement between the Hutu-led government and the Tutsi rebels of Paul Kagame's Rwandese Patriotic Front. Good progress was made in the first three months, but as the swearing-in of the all-party transitional government was postponed repeatedly amid disputes over the assignment of key posts, Dallaire began to note warning signs in the background. The extremist wings of the main Hutu parties were becoming belligerent, and rock music radio station RTLM was winding up its listeners with "racist hype," systematically referring to Tutsis as Inyenzi ("cockroaches"). Most alarmingly, a highly placed informant told Dallaire's team that a Hutu youth militia, the Interahamwe, was being trained by ex-army officers and that its members had been instructed to compile lists of Tutsis living in their villages and neighborhoods.

The informant also said that the army had begun transferring weapons to the Interahamwe. Dallaire sent a now-famous cable to the United Nations' Department of Peacekeeping Operations informing them of his intent to raid one of the weapons caches as a "deterrent" operation, but New York instructed him to cancel the raid. The specter of the recent Somalia debacle still hovered over the department and over the United Nations' member nations.

"At the time there was simply no appetite for any operation that might lead to 'friendly' casualties," Dallaire writes. "The whole atmosphere within the DPKO and surrounding it was risk-averse." So Rwanda was left to bear the risk alone.

Tension mounted, violent incidents "piling up like dry kindling waiting for a match." On April 6, 1994, the president of Rwanda was killed in a plane crash, and the extremists swung into action. As the Presidential Guard went on a rampage in Kigali, Interahamwe militia members went from house to house, brutally murdering moderate Hutu politicians and their families. Fighting soon broke out between the RPF and the Rwandan army, and within days the country had returned to full-scale civil war.

As the war progressed, it soon became clear that the informant had been right: The militias were exterminating Tutsis. Dallaire describes how two of his military observers were forced at gunpoint to witness the massacre of hundreds of Tutsi men, women and children in a local church: "The gendarmes collected the adults' identity cards and burned them. Then the gendarmes welcomed in a large number of civilian militiamen. ... Methodically and with much bravado and laughter, the militia moved from bench to bench, hacking with machetes. ... No one was spared." The militia returned the next night to kill the wounded and burn the bodies.

As he went about his work trying to hold the country together and to save whom he could, Dallaire was confronted with similar scenes, day after day, week after week: stacks of bodies by the sides of the roads, blood oozing from corpse-carrying dump trucks, the skeletal remains of women who had been raped with broken bottles or knives. They are scenes he cannot escape; even after nine years, "the sounds, smells and colours come flooding back in digital clarity. It's as if someone has sliced into my brain and grafted this horror called Rwanda frame by blood-soaked frame directly on my cortex."

What Dallaire saw, we see; it is one of the things that make this such an important and powerful book. But it is also a limitation, for Dallaire could not see everything. He could not see the negotiations held by his political counterpart, Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh, the special representative of the secretary general -- because the SRSG kept him unforgivably out of the loop. He could not see the intelligence gathered on Rwanda by the big powers, because they refused to share it with the U.N. mission. He could not see the deliberations of the Security Council because he, unlike the extremist Rwandan government, didn't have a seat on it. For almost the entire mission, Dallaire was left guessing by both the belligerents in Rwanda and the great powers outside of it.

None of that was Dallaire's fault. But as a result of it, his general's-eye-view of the war and genocide cannot explain how to prevent the next such disaster. The neighbors who watched Kitty Genovese die had a cost-free alternative -- they simply had to call the police. But in the ungoverned world of international affairs, there are no police. Dallaire's call for a "revitalized and reformed" United Nations will not alter the basic reluctance of member nations -- which, after all, will continue to be run by governments elected to serve the interests of their own citizenry -- to risk the lives of their troops for altruistic reasons.

Even if it did, each humanitarian intervention would still run the risk of triggering a war that might turn out to be more lethal than the violence it is meant to quell. As the estimated 100,000 civilians killed so far in the invasion and occupation of Iraq have demonstrated, it is too easy for initially limited interventions to turn into long-duration wars if the enemy refuses to follow the script.

Such complexity, though, is no excuse for indifference. Like a crime-scene report, Dallaire's tale is both horrifying and necessary -- and though it cannot provide the answers we need, it does cause us to care about finding those answers. And that's the right start.

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