Register Monday | April 22 | 2019

A Good Man in Hell

A former UN commander in Rwanda speaks out

An interview with retired Canadian general Roméo Dallaire about the Rwandan genocide, hosted by Ted Koppel. On the evening of April 6, 1994, a surface-to-air missile shot down the plane carrying Rwanda’s president as it was landing in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. Over the next hundred days, as many as eight hundred thousand people were murdered by the Rwandan military and Hutu militias. In the middle was General Roméo Dallaire, head of a small UN peacekeeping force. Dallaire’s requests to the UN for more forces to stop the slaughter were rejected; in fact, his force was reduced until late in the conflict.

This interview took place June 12, 2002, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. The full text is available from the museum at www.ushmm.org/conscience/events/dallaire/dallaire.php.


Ted Koppel:
I’d like you just to take a minute or so to talk about [your role during the October Crisis]. There was a time when some of the French-Canadian separatists--

Roméo Dallaire: Yes. 

TK: Tell [the audience] the story you told me. 

RD: In 1970 the separatist movement of the French-Canadian minority in Canada had a very active group that was throwing bombs and the like, disrupting the general population, mostly in the province of Quebec. They all of a sudden started to take politicians . . . as hostages . . . So Canada implemented what is called a “war measures act.” A war measures act is essentially the government and the army taking over and many rights are put to the side in response to a state of war. 

Now, I am a French-Canadian, and the 250 years of debate on a French minority and its ability to continue to advance--as a culture married to a massive amount of English Canadian--has been a point of contention and one that we worried about and discussed. And so there I was as a platoon commander defending the parliament buildings in Quebec with about forty soldiers, all French Canadians, with orders that we are to open fire should any action be taken by a crowd that could not be stopped by other means or any suspicious individual was attempting to approach the buildings or the complex of the parliament.

Now, you’d say, “Well, that’s fine, that’s his duty. He is representing the government and that’s his job.” However, what happens when those people [in the crowd] could be your in-laws or your sister? Do you in fact still hold the same position--I will shoot my sister in the defence of this nation? Because many of our families were split on that problem, and so every day I had to make very sure that I would, yes, open fire or order my soldiers to open fire . . .  

TK: I’ve asked you to go along on this little diversion and I think we can now assume that that’s de facto evidence . . . [that] you were a tough soldier . . .

. . .

Take us now to 1994 . . .

 . . .

RD: At that time if you remember, we’ve got Bosnia and the whole Balkans exploding with massive demands for troops; we’ve got Somalia still operating, but slowing down; Cambodia; Mozambique was cranking up; Angola was there; Liberia. There were sixteen operational missions going on around the world with a lot of troops committed from a lot of nations to those missions.

And so when this mission came forward it was made clear to me that, one, it had to be done on the cheap and, two, people were peacekeeping’d out, they’d just had enough. The keenness to go into central Africa even on a Chapter VI [*section of the UN charter dealing with peace settlements] success story was simply not there.

Instead of having the full effective force that I wanted, I ended up with a force of 2,600 of which 350 were military observers--that is, they don’t carry any weapons--and then your normal staff structures and so on.

TK: So [under UN Chapter VI directives] you don’t have armed helicopters at your disposal, you don’t have any warplanes, you don’t have any tanks, you don’t have any armoured personnel carriers, you don’t have any artillery? 

RD: No. 

TK: Small arms [are all you have, because] you’re there as peacekeepers, the presumption being that peace has already been established?

RD: Oh, yes . . .

TK: . . . Just remind us very quickly, and I mean in about a minute or so, what had happened in Somalia, because what happened in Somalia really affected, I think, this notion of peacekeeping in Africa, perhaps more than what had happened in other places.

RD: Yes, the Somalia event which is now portrayed in Black Hawk Down--which I have not seen and refuse to go see, as it’s totally out of context of what the scenario was and the complete story. The loss of those Rangers . . . [in October 1993] created for the United States a phobia . . . President Clinton did a massive revirement and by March produced a document called Presidential Proposition 25--which essentially said that here are a whole bunch of criteria and if these criteria are not met we’re not going in to help anybody--and turned to the General Assembly and said, “It’s time that the UN starts saying no to these demands of humanitarian and security-related catastrophes.”

Well, on the sixth of April the war started. Within twenty-four hours I had ten soldiers of mine dead and already thousands of Rwandans were being slaughtered. For weeks upon weeks Rwandans continued to be slaughtered by the tens of thousands each day and no one was taking the risk of sending soldiers inside Rwanda to assist in stopping the slaughter behind the fighting forces.

TK: General Dallaire, I just want to take you back in time a little bit to a question I asked you a few minutes ago. You said you knew that there was going to be mass killing. 

RD: Oh, yes, that’s true.

TK: How did you know?

RD: Well, again, we didn’t have an intelligence network. In a Chapter VI [mission] you depend on both sides to tell you the truth, to indicate violations that you investigate. We had received information, that we corroborated a bit, that the extremists had built a militia and armed it to the extent that within hours it could exterminate over four thousand Tutsis inside the city of Kigali.

In following up on that we discovered arm caches and as a result of that there was a great risk of scuttling the whole operation, because in the information we received there was an overt indication that this would be the start of the final solution, which meant the elimination of the Tutsi ethnicity. 

So I sent to New York requesting to take offensive operations immediately, within thirty-six hours to go to the places where we knew there were weapons and start rounding up those weapons and anyone who was closely related one way or another. Now, I was refused [permission] to do that because . . . with UN forces the nations still hold a hook on them. [They] felt that we were going to be suckered in and that they’d have another Somalia catastrophe. In fact we had received separately information that one of the aims of the extremists was to kill five to ten Belgian soldiers because, one, they’re white, two, the Western world will react, and by doing that they would eliminate the most effective force in my mission, and then the whole force would crumble and then they could simply carry on with nobody there.

The UN fundamentally said, “You will not conduct any offensive operations; you will talk to the people.” And so we discussed it with the extremists, telling them we knew what was going on, telling them that that’s against the agreement and they were undermining the whole peace process.

TK: . . . Did you try to bluff in any way? In other words, you certainly didn’t tell them, “Listen, there’s nothing I can do if you decide not to cooperate with me”?

RD: No, but they knew full well the restrictions in my mandate. 

TK: How did they know?

RD: Because they’re part of the process, because the mandate is discussed in the Security Council and the belligerents are also involved in seeing the potential mandate. And by one unusual quirk: that the extremist government had an ambassador sitting on the Security Council. Even during the genocide they didn’t throw this guy out. So the extremists knew more of the will and not will of the international community in intervening than I did, because he was feeding it directly from the Security Council to those forces.

TK: . . . Did it ever occur to you to walk into UN headquarters and say, “Listen, you SOBs, if you don’t do something I’m going to quit and I’m not going to quit quietly?”

RD: . . . You have no food, water, fuel, medical supplies or defensive stores, because none of the contracts have been signed six months into the mission by the UN staff. Countries had not provided troops with equipment, so you’ve got Bangladeshi troops coming in with not even a pot to be able to cook their food. All these twenty-six different countries coming in with all this mishmash at that time and what I just described on the security and political side. For me to have quit would have meant that I was abandoning my troops in the middle of this morass, in the middle of this unstable situation. And my quitting would have [had] no effect in the scheme of things in New York.

TK: We are now between these two extremes in the emotional life of General Dallaire. You’re at a point where you pretty much know what’s going to happen. Maybe you don’t know that eight hundred thousand people are going to be killed?

RD: We were ready for massacres and killings on the scale [of] Burundi . . . three hundred thousand Burundi refugees in the south of Rwanda plus about fifty thousand bodies floating in the rivers and so on, all over the place.

So yes, we knew it was going to explode. The forces had been maneuvering, the [Rwandan Patriotic Front] and the government forces. There had been altercations. All the signs [indicated] that we were coming to a head, that it would explode. Whether it would explode into a genocide--first of all, that term didn’t exist in our lexicon. “Ethnic cleansing” did. I mean, we were full of ethnic cleansing from Bosnia and other places. Genocide wasn’t in the lexicon and the scale, although large--I mean, in the fifty thousands or the hundred thousands--was a scale that we were anticipating, but not a scale of nationwide destruction.

TK: . . . So why, after it’s all over, do we find General Dallaire sitting on a park bench drunk in Canada? What was it you thought you could have done or should have done that would have made a difference?

RD: We could have interfered. We could have wrested the initiative from the extremists. We could have pushed it to an area that maybe we could have influenced countries that had capabilities to come in and do things.

TK: Which countries? The United States?

RD: The Western powers.

TK: The United States?

RD: The ones I hold accountable for not understanding and not rising above self-interest to a level of humanity where every human counts and we’re all the same are the British, the French and the Americans. Self-interest, political posturing and image dominated their decision processes in regard to Rwanda.

TK: Nations don’t have friends, nations have interests. Charles de Gaulle said that years ago, correct?

RD: . . . That’s interesting because although my naïveté felt that maybe there might be a human touch in there, I came to realize that in fact self-interest dominated. I mean, casualties overruled. I had one person come in to my headquarters during the genocide asking about statistics on how many people were killed last week and how many yesterday and how many do you expect to be killed today and how many weeks of this killing you think is going to go on. And my staff officers brought him to me and I said, “Why these statistics?” 

He said, “Oh, you know, my country is assessing whether it will come in and the government believes that the people, the public opinion, could handle for every soldier killed or injured an equivalent of eighty-five thousand dead Rwandans.”

Are all humans human or some more human than others? And so yes, coming back in may [have been] a possibility because two days after the start of the war and the original decapitation of the moderates and the Tutsi leadership (literal decapitation; and you don’t just kill the individual because the individual who breaks through has an enormous responsibility for the whole extended family, including in-laws, so you wipe out the whole family also), two days after that, French aircraft started to land in Kigali. I had forty-five minutes’ notice that they were coming in. Belgian aircraft landed the next day. Italians landed four days later, and there were three hundred US forces in Bujumbura and there was a ship of Marines off of Dar es Salaam, about eight hundred to a thousand [of them]. 

They came in to evacuate the white men and the odd Rwandan who was politically well suited to what they want. As an example, the French evacuated the bulk of the president’s family, who were not necessarily the nicest people on earth. And so all the expatriates within five days picked up what they had, left the Rwandans who had served them for years, decades, who raised their kids, left them behind to be slaughtered and went back to Brussels and Paris and all these other places.

TK: . . . If those eight hundred Marines had come in, could they have stopped it? Would that have been a sufficient force?

RD: My first request for reinforcements was a battalion, one battalion--

Ted Koppel: How many men is that?

RD: About eight hundred--to come in and secure Kigali. I felt that I could secure Kigali, in the sense of stopping the killing, not the war. I didn’t care about the warring factions . . . My concern at that point was the slaughter going on behind the lines. And I felt that if I could get a battalion in, with the mandate to stop with the use of force much of the killings that were going on behind the line by the militias and so on, that we might have been able to prevent [the killing] spreading throughout the country . . .

Kigali, a bit of the northeast and the northwest were the first places of the killing. It took weeks for the killings to start in the south of the country where the moderates were. My second request within a day was to get about five thousand troops--four battalions--to be able to wrest the whole country and prevent it from spreading. So it was a two-phased operation and I believed that with the mandate and those forces . . . the two armies could continue fighting each other but we would be able to stabilize the killing . . .

I did get a mandate in May . . . with the promise of reinforcements . . .

TK: Did you ever get those troops?

RD: I left on the nineteenth of August and out of the five thousand troops [promised], about fifteen hundred were on the ground . . . The Pentagon kept telling the UN that my [operational] concept didn’t work because they wanted to create the same scenario as we did for the Kurds--that is, you create a safe zone in the country where they all go and they’re safe there and they’re under protection of the US or the UN aircraft and helicopters and troops. My concept was, you create safe sites around monasteries or whatever other infrastructure so that the people would be safe in those sites and we could react to whatever attack happened. 

The safe site was needed because people would not be able to make it to the safe zone. The safe zone would have been in the south, as they required, not in the north where the extremists were . . . People were being slaughtered at every roadblock--[they] were a hundred metres apart--and they were slaughtered by ID cards introduced by the Belgians. You had to have an ID card and on it was written either Hutu or Tutsi. If you were a Tutsi they took you aside and slaughtered you right there. Ditches were full of bodies wriggling of all ages as these drunken guys kept it up and so if you didn’t have a card it was a fifty-fifty chance.

Now, going through one of these roadblocks would be something, but if you’ve got to go through ten of these roadblocks the chances of being picked up at one of them was very high. The whole scenario of the slaughter and the intervention was to eliminate all these roadblocks and permit people to go to these sites which were close to where they were that we would protect. And ultimately we would then take offensive actions to stop and break down the barriers and let the armies fight.

TK: . . . What role did the media play before and during the genocide? . . .

 

RD: As I said before, Rwanda was on nobody’s radar, so apart from the BBC and the Radio France International and maybe the Belgians, you had very little media coverage. They would come in for specific events, like when I opened my headquarters. They would come in when we thought we had an agreement to bring in the transitional government, and they would pour in from Nairobi and so on and do the story and then leave.

 

So before the war it was a sideshow, if I could even call it that. When the war started everybody wanted to be there and so I had a couple of hundred journalists sitting in Nairobi hoping to get on the Canadian Hercules to come into Rwanda. And I would only let in about thirty to forty at a time for three days. I would feed them, protect them, move them around, ensure they got the story, and I used to use my troops to go through the lines at the risk of their lives to get those stories out.

And so the media were getting the story. The stuff was coming out. It wasn’t being published. There was a study done of ABC, CBS and NBC during the three months of the genocide. Tonya Harding and her escapade with her colleague and the kneecapping and all that got more airtime than the genocide in Rwanda.

Now, is that because there was no interest because of previous gory sights, that people just didn’t want to see that, that people simply changed the channel when it’s so terrible and so don’t listen to the news? Or let me push you to an extreme and say the Americans didn’t want to get involved, so let’s not make a big thing of it. À vous to choose.

TK: But I think that you have to introduce the element of racism, the fact that it was happening in Africa, the fact that the people who were dying were black Africans and not Europeans. And you made the point before that there was a lot going on in Bosnia at that time, there was a lot going on throughout the Balkans. There were distractions, in other words?

RD: Well, these people didn’t count. Remember, they just didn’t count. The Balkans, there’s a history of people who lived there who immigrated to this country and my country. They were allies during the Second World War. They were Europeans, although not maybe the most developed country in Europe, but they were still Europeans and as such they were close to home and it had to be rectified, and so, yes, the Western world launched itself, pouring up to at one point over sixty thousand troops--let alone the billions of money--into the Balkans.

I couldn’t get two thousand troops. I couldn’t keep 450. There were more people killed, injured, internally displaced and refugeed in less than one hundred days in Rwanda than in the whole of the Yugoslavian campaign, and there are still thousands of troops and billions of dollars going into the Balkans. What’s going into Rwanda? What’s gone into Rwanda?

I couldn’t get $200 million out of the UN. I never got a budget out of the UN or the donating countries to keep my mission in the field. I was bumming money from Somalia and Mozambique. Within three months of the end of the war, on the periphery there were about 2.5 million refugees from Rwanda, within twenty kilometres of the border mostly. There was over $3 billion of aid that was pouring in. Nothing inside, where I had 1.5 million people displaced who were dying of cholera and everything else. But on the periphery everybody was there, cameras were there, there was overaid there--$3 billion dollars in aid. I couldn’t get $200 million to bring a decent force in.

Now, first of all that is not good business planning. It’s stupid. Secondly, where in the hell is all that aid money going? What is the principle behind it? Stay out and then Pontius Pilate your way with billions of dollars of aid . . . , as President Clinton did when he went through Rwanda--I believe in 1998, if I’m not mistaken--landed at the airport, kept the engines of Air Force One running, spent a couple hours in the airport terminal, said he was sorry, said he didn’t know.

Said he didn’t know. I saw the electronic aircraft of NATO. I spent my life in NATO flying up there and all they use was Motorolas and not highly sophisticated crypto. Saying he didn’t know, saying he was sorry, and then flying to South Africa and spending four days there. Racism, the fundamental belief that exists that all people are not equal, is going to slaughter millions for years to come.

Sixty-nine nations said, “Kofi Annan, you call us and we’ll provide troops.” And they were pouring them into the Balkans and so on. Within the first few days of the Rwandan war and genocide, Kofi Annan went to all sixty-nine countries. Not one of them provided one soldier. 

TK: General Dallaire, this will be the last question and it brings us back to where you and I began a little over an hour ago. . . . Many people have forgiven or not held you responsible for this tragedy. Does this knowledge bring you any peace, any comfort? Do you allow yourself the flexibility of being human? . . . 

RD: I think the only thing that permits me to respond that there might be a semblance of serenity that is coming is the fact that I take nine pills a day--and apart from that you just can’t Pontius Pilate eight hundred thousand people, nearly three hundred thousand children, child soldiers killing parents. 

You just can’t walk through all that blood and all that gore and all that sound. You can’t just walk by a woman who has just given birth beside the road in the pouring rain with thousands of people walking by her and she picks up her child and she tries to arrange herself, stands up, takes three steps, falls down and dies. Who takes care of the kid? Everybody is under terrible duress. You can’t walk away from that.

You can’t just say, “Well, it was eight years ago or nine years ago and you did what you could.” Did I do everything I could? Did I have all the tools? Did I or should I, like you said, have walked up to Kofi Annan or Boutros-Ghali and thrown my commission in front of him and said, “To hell with you. Nobody’s coming so I’m going”? Should I have commenced opening fire? The first morning it was made very clear to me that, if I opened fire, I would become the third [army fighting in Rwanda] . . . and then it’s open season.

But with the force I had there was no way that I could open fire and guarantee the security of my force. I didn’t have enough ammunition to be able to hold out in a firefight for more than half an hour. . . . Nations . . . sent the troops without the ammunition, and the bartering between the UN and those nations was, “Who is going to pay [for] the ammunition?” And in the middle of the war we had none.

No, there is no conceivable way of actually being able to walk away from the immensity of what it is. You can’t imagine the smell, the sounds of dogs eating humans throughout the night howling by the hundreds, of seeing children living amongst the corpses of their families because there’s nowhere else to go and there’s no orphanage and nobody could pick them up at the time, of watching women who are being moved to safety and all of a sudden a sniper just shoots her head off, and say that you can come back from that.

And imagine the moral dilemmas we had, of all those people calling that morning, screaming at the end of the phone for me to send troops to get them and hearing the people smashing down the door and shooting them at the end of the phone. Or deciding which I could go and rescue and which I couldn’t go rescue.

Or the moral dilemma of the soldier who all of a sudden sees a crowd encouraging a girl of fourteen or fifteen with a machete and a child on her back to kill another girl of fourteen or fifteen with a child on her back. What do my soldiers do? . . . Hundreds of people egging on this girl . . . Do my soldiers open fire into the crowd, killing God knows how many and injuring, to go save that girl? Does the corporal--who is nineteen, twenty, twenty-one . . . --take a sniper and order him to shoot the girl with the machete, probably killing her child? Does the corporal simply walk away with his guys? What’s the answer? What is the answer?

[For] what will you be held accountable morally, and what . . . technically? If he had opened fire he would have gone directly against the [UN] mandate and God knows what the reaction would be. He didn’t open fire. He negotiated and negotiated, and as he’s negotiating this girl was being chopped up and her child was chopped up and the crowd roared and it was finished.

That corporal of twenty-one came back home, and back home we had Nightline and we had hockey and we had everything else. The country is not at war. There’s no war. Rwanda didn’t affect our security. [Canadian soldiers] went there because there was a belief that there were humans who needed help and found themselves totally incapable of providing that help--and they come back with this new generation of injury called post-traumatic stress syndrome that in fact affects the brain, because those moral dilemmas not being solved remain. 

And that’s what we lived. Imagine what the Rwandans lived. I sent a section, two vehicles, to a house where we suspected there were people there that needed to be pulled out. They didn’t find them so they came back, and the next day I said, “Go check just in case.” The next day they went and the whole family was slaughtered on the floor. They didn’t find them [the first time] because the family wasn’t sure whether they were UN or simply people dressed up and using the UN, so they hid in the ceiling. The militia saw the troops go into that house and so they tore the place apart and slaughtered them.

Sometimes you wonder whether going to help them was putting them in danger. This is not four or five people on a block. This is thousands upon thousands, upon weeks and weeks and weeks, and the Western world sat there and watched one of their own. Like, in my country, there was a big [brouhaha] about some person who was being mistreated by our judicial system, and people were up in arms against the Canadian judicial system. One person was being abused, his human rights. On the same newscast there were pictures of thousands being slaughtered, of tens of thousands walking with nothing, of kids dying of thirst. My soldiers wouldn’t eat or drink anymore because they couldn’t. There were so many people dying around them of thirst and no food. I started to take too many casualties. And the people back home on one side of their brain are up at arms about the Canadian who is being mistreated and on the other side of the brain see that and change the station.

You’ve got to start wondering about the depth of your belief in the moral values, the ethical values and your belief in humanity. All humans are human. There are no humans more human than others. That’s it.