Ten years into my career as an aid worker, I have finally brought myself around to reading Romeo Dallaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil. For those not familiar with the book, General Dallaire was the Force Commander of the United Nations Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) between 1993 and 1994, during the time of the Rwandan genocide. Shake Hands is his memoir of the events that took place during his twelve months or so in that office.
I’ve had the book on my iPad Kindle app for over 2 years, and had it on my reading list for many more. I think I delayed reading it because I knew what the content matter was going to be and, quite frankly, you kind of have to steel yourself for that sort of thing. You know before you open the first page it’s going to be a harrowing read, especially because it covers true events.
I’m not overly sensitive to these things as a rule. Over the years I’ve had to deal with horrendous subject matter coming across my desk. Pretty much the first task I was given when I started out in this line of work, back in 2003, was to synthesise what was going on at the time in the Liberian civil war, and the stuff I waded through did a good job of setting me up to deal with almost any horror stories the aid world has pitched my way since. That said, it still takes a certain energy to sink yourself into an account that deals with such tragic material.
The events in Rwanda, as well as being one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century- a period that was not short on tragedies- also act as a milestone in the development of the humanitarian industry, and I think anybody in this line of work has a responsibility to understand intimately the dynamics and processes at work during that time, how the history unfolded, and the complicity of the international community in what happened. A few years ago I read Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow we will be Killed with our Families, a book that is in some ways even more harrowing than Shake Hands, although in other ways, less-so. At any rate, in my opinion both Gourevitch and Dallaire should be required reading for anybody working in the humanitarian sector. Or, for that matter, in international relations and foreign policy.
I recap the events of 1994 briefly because they are so devastating in their impact that it is inexcusable that there be any chance they might be relegated to some dusty shelf of historical anecdotes and forgotten. They must be retold so that our children, and theirs, know what transpired. I was a teenager at the time of the genocide, nearly twenty years ago now, and living in Geneva, and I suspect had more exposure to the events at the time than many people my age. Those very much younger than myself may not remember them at all. Regardless, I believe it is our responsibility to remember the victims and what happened to them, just as it is our responsibility to carry the memory of those who have died fighting just wars.
The backdrop to the genocide is complex and deep-seated. Rwanda- a tiny country in the heart of the African continent- has a population divided between two key ethnic groups- a minority Tutsi and a majority Hutu. The Tutsi did at various points over the last couple of hundred years hold a disrepresentational amount of wealth and political influence, in part exacerbated by the Belgian colonial system. A sequence of ethnic slaughters had occured over many decades, with atrocities committed by both groups. By 1993, a large contingent of Tutsis were living as refugees in Tanzania and a rebel Tutsi army was carrying out offensive operations in the north of the country against the mainly Hutu government forces (and populace). Rwanda had a government dominated by increasingly extremist Hutu elements, and the international community was attempting to broker a naive peace agreement between the belligerents.
On the night of April 6 1994, the plane transporting Rwanda’s Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down, killing all on board. Those responsible for the shooting down of the airplane have never been identified, however it is generally (though not universally) accepted that the assassination was carried out by Hutu extremists, who immediately blamed the Tutsis and used the killing as an excuse to launch what was to become the Rwandan genocide.
The genocide itself had been planned for months, if not years, with weapons stockpiled, militias organized, victims identified and a campaign of hate propaganda disseminated. It was no spontaneous chaos.
Over the next three months, while the international community failed to intervene, far-right Hutu death squads carried out a systematic and well-rehearsed annihilation of Tutsis and moderate Hutus across the country. An estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered, roughly 8-10,000 per day, most killed with machetes and farm implements. Rape and torture were systemic. The killing was only really brought to an end as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the Tutsi rebel group led by Paul Kagame (now Rwanda’s President), took control of the country and drove the genocidaires, together with nearly two million Hutu refugees, into Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). There, the violence continues nearly 20 years later.
As part of the Arusha peace negotiations, UNAMIR was given a Chapter VI (peace-keeping) mandate to monitor a cease-fire between the RPF and the Rwandan Government Forces (RGF) from late 1993 onwards. Dallaire, a Canadian, had command of this mission, and was present during the six month lead-up to the genocide, and was also on the ground throughout the height of the genocide itself and the accompanying civil war.
The United Nations has been widely condemned for its inaction in stopping the genocide from occuring, given that it had both intelligence that plans were underway, and peacekeeping troops on the ground who, at times, stood by and watched while civilians were hacked to death in front of them. Gen. Dallaire, as UNAMIR’s Force Commander, is unavoidably tainted by this failure, and although the book only touches intermittently on the subject, consequently suffered years of psychological illness as a result of the situation he found himself in- as did many of the troops under his command.
Shake Hands is an interesting, at times awkward book structurally, because it is several things at one time. It is, at its most superficial level, a memoir of the twelve months or so that Dallaire spent in Rwanda. At another level, it is Dallaire’s own attempts to purge his demons- to put down in writing and convince himself, if nobody else, that he did all he could. And on another, it is a methodical, almost clinical account of every step, every decision, every administrative process that prevented the international community from stopping a genocide that people clearly knew was in the works before it even began.
The book is written entirely from Dallaire’s perspective and as such focuses almost exclusively on his own experiences and reactions. It hangs in an odd space of being both banal and horrifying. In the space of a single paragraph, the prose jumps from describing some bureaucratic tedium of logistics or process, to a vivid description of bloated bodies jamming a stream, or the hacking to death of a group of children.
The narrative is subjective but reads fairly. There are those he singles out for damnation- particularly the leaders of specific world powers who failed to intervene, some of the poorly-equipped and -disciplined UNAMIR military forces, and the apparently inept UN Special Representative in Rwanda. Others he praises, particularly those he served with, but others too. Whether critical or applauding, his judgement is consistently based on the merits of their actions and contributions.
There are moments when the book reads like a list of defences, as though Dallaire is trying to demonstrate at every point that his hands were tied. His approach is methodical and reflective of his military background. As far as his position is concerned, he has crossed every t, dotted every i. He does not shirk blame either but acknowledges that he has failed- one could even say that he is unduly harsh on himself- and reading between the lines, it is easy to see that behind his careful description is a soul that is tortured by a guilt it will never, ever escape.
In many ways this is the second tragedy of the book- not to compare in any way to the horror of the genocide itself. Dallaire was put in an inexcusably impossible position, and essentially hung out to dry. Dallaire’s account- and history more generally- makes it clear that the powers that could have intervened quickly to stop the killing- the US, France, Britain, and to a lesser extent Belgium and other nations- allowed the bureaucracy of the international system to tie itself in knots and found excuses not to engage. Dallaire and UNAMIR were left with negligible resources, a nearly powerless mandate, and virtually no ability to seriously defend themselves- let alone intervene against multiple hostile militant forces to protect civilians. The argument is quite clear: had Dallaire gone on the offensive with the scant troops available to him, it would have been literal suicide. Tens of thousands of people were undoubtedly saved from death by the actions that UNAMIR, under Dallaire’s initiative, did take, but the overall inaction and the weakness of the force meant that hundreds of thousands that might have been saved perished. Dallaire, caught in the middle of both the war and the criminal negligence of the international community, has to live with that knowledge for the rest of his life.
It’s often said that the biggest threat to the emotional and mental wellbeing of aid workers is not the difficult scenes they witness on the ground, but the ineptitude of colleagues and the breakdown of organizational systems and political will to actually create a solution. Reading Shake Hands, the overwhelming sense is remarkably similar. The accounts of the violence visited on innocent Rwandans makes for horrible reading (though to be honest I found Gourevitch to be far more confronting from that perspective, as his journalistic style and his choice of stories made the accounts far more personal, less clinical). However what makes you come away from the book feeling sullied, angry, and deeply affected is just how simple it might have been to save 800,000 Rwandan lives, and how a broken and self-serving international system completely failed to kick into action.
There was nothing ‘new’ per se in Shake Hands that I didn’t already know. I’ve read enough accounts, visited enough analysis on Rwanda, and spent enough time in the humanitarian and international systems to understand how Rwanda was utterly failed. None the less, being taken through these failures step by step, and watching them add up- not just one error, not just ten, but a conspiracy of failures that sprawl from one end of the narrative to the other- is heartbreaking.
I came away from Shake Hands with a melancholic but intense respect for Romeo Dallaire. Like the tragic hero of an ancient epic, his story is deeply flawed. None the less, his humanity, the impossibility of his situation, and his heroic efforts to resolve it within the limits of his capacity come through.
The read is a heavy one, both in terms of the subject matter and in terms of the methodical way that Dallaire lays out the bureaucratic impediments put before him and how he worked to move the system forward. It leaves you with an anger at the decision-makers who stood by and allowed the genocide to occur. Not just the genocidaires themselves, but powerful people- Francois Mitterand, Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, even the likes of Kofi Annan (then in charge of the Department of Peace Keeping Operations and who has recently released a book on the subject of the challenges of humanitarian interventions) and Boutros-Boutros Ghali (then UN Secretary General)- leaving you wondering why some of these men and women aren’t also standing before a tribunal to give account of their actions and their complicity in genocide.
Shake Hands isn’t fun, but it is an important narrative and I would seriously endorse it to anybody involved in this line of work. We all have a responsibility to understand tragedies like this. It is where history finds its highest value as a discipline- trying to ensure that we (as individuals, even if larger institutions around us fail) do not become guilty of repeating past mistakes, but work to avoid and solve them. And to take the time to unpack the sorts of complexities that a case like Rwanda presents means we’re more likely to take that time to understand the current events of our time that equally can’t be summarized by a tweet or a headline- Somalia, South Sudan, Libya, Syria, Israel/Palestine, Sri Lanka, Darfur, DRC, the LRA and Myanmar to name just a few.
Sorry for the heavy post. As you can see, the book left me needing to do a little written debrief. And in its defence, going through some tough things in my own life just at the moment, it really helped me get some perspective on what really matters.
Read Shake Hands with the Devil. But maybe keep a glass of your favourite scotch handy to wind down afterwards.
NB: A note on the photo used with this review. I have never traveled to Rwanda myself- much as I would like to- but friend and fellow photographer Nick Ralph was there not long ago and snapped this gorgeous shot of a young boy with a scythe, with building rain clouds behind. I love the shot- it’s the sort of image I really like in photography, and the child, the red soil, the dark skies and the lush green backdrop are very evocative of the Rwanda that Dallaire describes in his narrative. Additionally, I like the image because, despite the sombre tones of both shot and article, it shows that 18 years on, Rwanda has taken a road towards recovery- albeit one that is incomplete and still fraught. I want to thank Nick for giving me permission to use this shot. Do check out his 500px site, where hopefully he’ll start putting more fab shots like this one up. Incidentally, Nick tells me this shot is in fact a stitch of four vertical frames. Nicely worked sir.