The Man Who Shook Hands with the Devil

Typically we tell stories of historical figures that succeed either by overcoming obstacles or through luck. But rarely do we recognize figures that faced impossible odds and failed.

We are all faced with no-win situations and they prove to be very valuable for us as a learning experience. We have all failed before. Telling stories about people who have failed makes them more identifiable with us, and examining how people who fail helps us with our struggles. Also, people who live through these situations can warn us not to go down this road again.

The historical event I am going to tell you is about a man who faced an impossible situation. He encountered the worst of humanity and saw what evil we are capable of committing. But even more disturbing is he endured this fight alone when good people do nothing – evil triumphs.

In January 1994, Romeo Dallaire was named the UN Commander of a peacekeeping in Rwanda. The mission was a classical peacekeeping mission where they would be remaining neutral and not picking sides.

The conflict was between two sides, the Hutus and Tutsis. Hutu extremists were starting to enflame the situation by spreading hate through the radio waves. They were referring to Tutu’s as cockroaches- the same language Gaddafi used against his own people. He had 2500 troops and many of them were from developed nations and not sufficiently trained. He started describing the deteriorating situation to his superiors in New York but due to international inaction he wasn’t able to get any help.

After dead American soldiers were dragged through the streets of Somalia during Black Hawk Down there was no appetite for any sacrifice. The US is one of the 5 permanent members on the UN Security Council and has a veto on any measure it doesn’t support. Another permanent member, France wasn’t interested in ending this conflict because they were selling weapons to the rebels.

In April, Dallaire discovered a huge cache of weapons that Hutu extremists had in their possession. He might have been able to use his military force to seize the weapons under the goal of his mission to protect of civilians. He asked UN HQ for permission to seize the weapons and save the country from civil war. Dallaire did not have permission to proactively act to stop the Rwanda Genocide.

On April 6th, all hell broke out, the Rwanda President’s plane was shot down, and Ten Belgium peacekeepers and their Prime Minister were killed. Belgium had the largest western contingent of soldiers in the mission and they decided to withdrawal from the war zone after they lost troops. Over the next 100 days, the Rwanda genocide occurred and would claim the lives of 800, 000 Rwandan’s which was 20% of the population.

Everyone was making choices at this time solely out of fear. The US and France sent troops to Rwanda to evacuate their nationals and Dallaire said he had access to these troops just for a short period of time he could have stabilized the conflict.

There was almost no international coverage of the conflict.  Dallaire wanted to get the message out to world of what he was witnessing in Rwanda. This was 1994, social media didn’t exist and he couldn’t send images of what was happening back home on his cell phone camera because it wasn’t invented yet. The only way he had to ask for help was through the telephone. One of the bigger media organizations he could reach was CBC radio. It’s not too often when a General in a war zone is trying to get radio and saying the extremists have,"gone on a rampage" of "killing, destroying, massacring [and] mutilating."

Dallaire was confronted by a child soldier who was pondering if should kill the General. The only reason why Dallaire survived that incident was he something more powerful in his pocket that a gun- a chocolate bar.

He had a meeting with an American military planner. He was going over statistics of the estimated dead and informed Dallaire they have done calculations that 10 American soldiers lives would be equivalent to 800, 000 Rwandans. One American is equal to 80, 000 Rwandans.

Dallaire had 2500 troops at the beginning and due to withdrawals was reduced 454 soliders.  454 soldiers is all the UN members could offer after they all signed pledges they will act if there is a genocide. The Hollywood movie Hotel Rwanda depicted a renamed Dallaire in a bar drinking while the country was in turmoil. Dallaire didn’t drink throughout the entire conflict. Dallaire was at the main UN refugee camp, the nation’s soccer stadium and other large buildings were used to protect civilians with a miniscule UN peacekeeper force. Sometimes all that was needed to protect 200 civilians hiding in a church was an unarmed UN peacekeeper refusing entry at the door to the rebels. These efforts saved the lives of 32, 000 civilians.

In July after 100 days of genocide and 800, 000 dead the world community finally sent a full international force to end the conflict. Dallaire was sent back home where the demons of Rwanda haunted him. Six years later his personal symptoms of PTSD would become public when he was found intoxicated in a Ottawa park. During this time he suffering with alcoholism and was suicidal. He was still haunted from that one event.

Dallaire still hadn’t been able to escape his Rwanda experience. If Dallaire would not be able to recover from this depression he would not have been able to tell us what he saw. He wouldn’t have been able to testify before Rwanda genocide inquiries and human rights committees around the world. If he didn’t recover, he wouldn’t have been able to write his book, do interviews, and spearhead the filming of a Canadian movie on the genocide. Dallaire found a way to conqueror his demons, achieved all I mentioned, and more.

"Your mind with time, in fact, doesn't erase things that are traumas. It makes them clearer."

Dallaire’s speeches are some of the most moving you will ever hear. Starting off, Dallaire asks us a basic question, “Are all humans human, or are some more human than others?” For over 200 years, nations have written into law that all people are equal, and after the Holocaust, the world said never again- but 50 years later history repeated itself.

How did this happen? Do we think people of different ethnic backgrounds are less human than us? Or are we so worried about our national self-interests that we will allow 800, 000 people to be massacred because that nation doesn’t have oil. The nation state is eroding. Trade and ideas are borderless. If people are being massacred, we must intervene, and not make up excuses that we can’t because of national sovereignty or it’s not in our self-interest.

Human beings who have no rights, no security, no future, no Hope and no no means to survive are a desperate group who will do deperate things to take what they believe they need and deserve.

A priest asked Dallaire if his Christian faith was shaken because of what he witnessed in Rwanda.

“I know there is a God because in Rwanda I shook hands with the devil.  I have seen him, I have smelled him and I have touched him.”

Romeo Dalliare met with the mastermind of the Rwanda genocide, Théoneste Bagosora, in an attempt to negotiate with him. Dallaire described later when he shook his hand, and said he didn’t feel a human presence. He and the people with him felt cold and Dallaire felt he shook hands with the devil. But throughout this event that would shape his life, Dallaire felt their must be a counter-balance to evil, and looked at the positive side to find solutions.

An American aid worker, met briefly with Bagosora, and had a different experience than Dallaire when he shook his hand. Bagosora was aware the aid worker’s organization, and when he was told that the orphans they were looking after were in danger; Bagosora said they would not be harmed. Even the mastermind of the genocide was capable to committing a good deed.

“This new century must become the Century of Humanity, when we as human beings rise above race, creed, colour, religion, and national self-interest and put the good of humanity above the good of our own tribe.” Romeo Dallaire

We are not there yet, but next time a General calls us from a war-torn nation pleading for him we must answer the phone. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

Related Links:


Romeo Dallaire


Collaborative vs Divisive Politics


Martin Luther King Jr.



Updated: January 8, 2012

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