Unheeded cries of a haunted, helpless witness

Shake Hands with the Devil

November 11, 2005

Margaret Anstee joins a peacekeeping veteran in railing against the international community's failure to learn from recent history

The massacre perpetrated in Rwanda in 1994 has spawned many books, but none quite like this. Shake Hands with the Devil makes gruesome reading, and is essential fare for anyone genuinely interested in understanding the peacekeeping failures of the United Nations and the international community in the 1990s, not only in Rwanda but also in dealing with many other conflicts. Every page is stained with blood in a heart-rending narrative recounted in the passionate, authentic voice of the man thrust into the epicentre of the storm.

In June 1993, Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire was catapulted as force commander into the UN Observer Mission in Uganda and Rwanda (Unomur), then a classic peacekeeping operation under Chapter 6 of the UN Charter, to ensure the fulfilment of the Arusha Peace Agreement. Unomur was undermandated and underresourced even for this limited mission. These deficiencies were repeated in its successors, the two UN Assistance Missions for Rwanda (Unamir), but with infinitely more dire consequences, for the genocide was in full swing after the downing of a plane carrying Juvenal Habyarimana, the Rwandan President, on April 6, 1994, and the brutal murder of Agathe Uwilingiyimana, the Prime Minister, and her UN Belgian guards.

Security Council Resolution 918 of May 17, 1994, created Unamir II, belatedly authorising the rapid deployment of 5,500 Blue Helmets. But it was a watered-down version of what Dallaire's on-the-spot assessment argued were the measures needed to stop the killing. Dallaire maintains that, had that commitment been honoured, he could have stopped the madness.

Worse still, the genocide could have been prevented altogether had the UN headquarters in New York heeded his warning, five months before, on January 10, that the massacre of Tutsis was being plotted, based on secret information from an insider in the Interahamwe, the hardline Hutu movement.

Instead the head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) at that time, Kofi Annan, ordered Dallaire to suspend his planned raids on the arms caches of the plotters, advising that Unamir's mandate did not allow deterrent operations. Later, the UN headquarters constantly reminded Dallaire that the rules of engagement did not allow Unamir to fire unless fired on, which hamstrung the mission's capability to save civilians under attack.

The Rwanda mission was doomed by a number of factors. After the debacle in Somalia, where Pakistani Blue Berets and US Rangers were killed, the Security Council, the troop-contributing countries and the DPKO had retreated into a risk-averse policy. Moreover, neither Rwanda nor Africa held any strategic interest for the big powers. All attention and resources were focused on the massive UN operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In contrast, Dallaire and his men - and a few women - were far from risk averse. They lived in appalling conditions, often short of food and water and frequently fired upon. Every day they had to witness horrific scenes of man's inhumanity to man, which they were powerless to avert: bodies hacked to pieces with machetes; the stinking corpses of women who had been savagely raped; children who seemed alive but were in fact seething with maggots; a whole village crammed into a church for refuge then burnt alive; lorries piled high with dismembered bodies, the blood oozing from the sides.

Under Dallaire's courageous leadership, Unamir far exceeded its mandate, intervening in many dangerous situations, braving ambushes and threats, and saving many lives, with Dallaire gritting his teeth to "shake hands with the devil", in his surreal negotiations with the instigators of the massacre. But Unamir's resources were too limited to make a major impact.

Dallaire's lapidary prose eloquently conveys his frustration and anguish at the mission's inability to save more lives, and his indignation that the only foreign troops to arrive swiftly on the scene came merely to rescue their own citizens, while the French Operation Turquoise, authorised for humanitarian relief by the Security Council, caused more problems than it solved.

The genocide ended when the Rwandan Patriotic Front drove the Rwandan Government Forces out of Kigali on July 19, 1994, but the exodus to the Congo and the regional war that followed claimed millions more lives.

Broken in health, Dallaire left Rwanda on August 20. He has been haunted by his experience ever since.

I empathise fully with Dallaire, for parallels abound with my own experience as Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in Angola: the inadequate mandate and resources (the Rwandan mission was to be "small, cheap, short and sweet", while I was told the Security Council wanted "a small and manageable operation"); inordinate delays in providing those resources; long silences from headquarters, rebukes and rejection, or severe curtailment of operational plans as "unrealistic"; and, most deadly of all, the indifference of major powers driven by their own political agendas.

Dallaire's 5,500 armed Blue Helmets never arrived in time. The Angola mission, Unavem II, was allowed only 350 unarmed observers. In May 1993, I was refused a contingent of 1,000 Blue Helmets that I needed to clinch a new ceasefire and peace agreement because all available resources were destined for Bosnia, where 44,000 UN troops were deployed.

That was the moment that I gave up and, like Dallaire, I have been beset by guilt at not having been able to have done more. Like him I was driven to write a book, Orphan of the Cold War , both as an exorcism and to leave a record of what had occurred.

In Rwanda, 800,000 people were killed in just three weeks, while the world stood by. The Angolan tragedy was just as great, if less dramatic. Because of the refusal of the international community to provide the means to stop the renewed war, at least half a million people perished in a conflict that lasted until 2002.

Rwanda became a cause cel bre, but it was not an exception. In the ensuing decade, steps have been taken to reinforce the peacekeeping capacity of the UN Secretariat.

Inquiries have been held, reports published and major statesmen, reflecting the revulsion of their citizens, have proclaimed that never again should such a tragedy be allowed to happen.

But as Dallaire emphasises in his concluding chapter, whether that commitment will be honoured depends on the extent to which member states subordinate their national self-interest (often mistakenly defined in an increasingly globalised world) to the concerns of common humanity. Never again? To judge by recent events - among them the timorous handling of the Darfur crisis, which the US has described as genocide, a term it refused to accept in Rwanda - the omens are not promising.

Dame Margaret Anstee was formerly Under-Secretary-General, UN, and Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Angola, 1992-93.

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

Author - Romeo Dallaire
Publisher - Arrow
Pages - 562
Price - £8.99
ISBN - 0 09 947893 5

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