‘It happened on a street in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone,' Canadian retired general Roméo Dallaire says. ‘I wanted to cross the road when my eye fell on a market stall on the other side of the street. Behind it was a man holding a machete. He took a coconut and cleaved it open with the machete. I saw the white meat inside, coconut milk dripping on the ground.’
‘That image dragged me back to Rwanda. I was there in 1994 as commanding officer of the UN peacekeeping mission and saw how hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally murdered by Hutu militias. The victims were often slashed with machetes. I saw chopped off body parts, piles of corpses, dying people screaming in puddles of blood.
‘When I saw that man with the knife, I lost all control. He had to die. I was convinced he was killing people. I ran at him and would have surely killed him if no one had intervened. Luckily, I wasn’t alone and my team managed to hold me back. They restrained on the ground for fifteen minutes before they eventually managed to calm me down.’
Roméo Daillaire is Cleveringa professor at Leiden University this year, the special position to commemorate the famous law professor who held a protest speech against the German occupation.
Dallaire has Dutch roots and was born in the village of Denekamp as the son of a Canadian officer and a Dutch nurse. When he was six months old, the family moved to Canada.
‘I live about 120 kilometers downstream from Quebec City, in a two hundred year old house. But that’s new compared to Leiden of course,’ he says over a Zoom meeting. He takes his laptop and points the camera at the window. ‘As you can see I have a view of the St. Lawrence river. Not too bad,’ he says from his home in Canada.
He very calmly and measuredly tells of the misery he witnessed. When the genocide in Rwanda took place, most countries decided to call back their UN-troops. The general chose instead to remain with a small unit in what he describes as ‘hell’.
‘We eventually managed to save 32,000 people, but 800,000 were slaughtered. God know how many more died in the aftermath of the conflict.’
Rwandans were left to fend for themselves. ‘They did not receive any support. The world was only concerned with Yugoslavia falling apart. The Americans were too afraid to meddle in the affair. And when they hold back, it is difficult to convince other countries.’
But the UN-troops that were stationed in Rwanda could only do so much. ‘We had no tools to intervene, no mandate to adequately protect civilians. I was so angry that in Canada I was the commanding officer of a 5000 strong mechanized brigade. If I had had them at my disposal, the genocide would not have happened. If have carried that sense of guilt with me for the past 25 years.’
That powerlessness will haunt him for the rest life. ‘The general that came back from Rwanda is not the same general who went there. I still take nine pills each day and follow therapy to try to learn to live with the destruction the mission caused. I have a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that is so severe, I have tried to commit suicide four different times.’
Seeing the widespread destruction of human life in Rwanda was bad enough in and of itself, Dallaire explains. ‘On top of that comes an ethical wound. What happened there is so completely outside of our normal moral frame of reference. It was inconceivable. Our minds broke there. Everything I had learned about life was tossed aside in Rwanda.’
The general was furious when the French and Belgians sent troop to Rwanda, only for them to evacuate compatriots. ‘Transport happened at night that was safer. In those convoys were only white people, their bags filled with gold and ivory. They took their dogs with them, but left the Rwandans that had worked for them for decades and had raised their children. They were left to be slaughtered. Not all people are people, apparently. It felt like I was being stabbed in the back.’
The remaining UN-troops had to defended themselves against the militias. ‘They were mostly comprised of child soldiers. The only thing we could do was treat them as “normal” soldiers. Our troops were shooting kids: fourteen or fifteen year old boys. We had no other choice because we were being ambushed and had to defend ourselves.’
This too traumatized the soldiers. “Imagine: first you have to shoot children, then you go home and hug your own children. You cannot reconcile those things. It destroys you, physically and mentally.’
For veterans, war is never over, Dallaire explains. ‘People though we would be alright. Bullshit. When I wake up I can see the demons, clear as day. I can hear them, smell them, feel them. The war lives on in our heads and bodies.’
Dallaire took to his work. ‘The genocide was not allowed to be forgotten. No way I was going to let it die. He wrote the book Shake Hands with the Devil about his time Rwanda
In 2004, he returned to the country the visit was featured in a documentary. ‘I did not want to go, to be honest. Why return to hell? But there was a major conference being held on genocide there.’
It was an intense experience. ‘Every location has been cleaned up since the but I still saw and felt what had happened. Images from ten years ago kept appearing in my view.’
He started a new mission: to end the use of child soldiers. ‘That is something I will touch upon in my Cleveringa lecture. There are billions being spent rehabilitating child soldiers, but nothing to stop them from being recruited.’
That is what the general is focusing his efforts on with the Dallaire Institute for Children, Peace and Security at Dalhousie University in Canada. ‘We are supporting children’s rights and are trying to persuade militias, armies and terrorist organizations to stop using children as soldiers. We are playing a long game, akin to banning slavery.’
With his PTSD, this took more effort than he could handle. ‘I was going to work myself to death, that was the idea. And I almost did. Four years ago I was told I’d croak if I went on doing what I did.’
Just medication and therapy are not enough to learn to live with PTSD, he discovered. ‘Human warmth and love are essential It is difficult to find some who understands you, which leads you to hiding in a dark corner with no way out. That is why there are some many divorces and suicides among people suffering from PTSD. You have to have someone to shout at, to let it all out.’
War trauma is a constant factor in the Dallaire family. ‘My father fought in the Netherlands in World War Two. PTSD and alcohol abuse almost turned him insane. My two sons are in the military and served in conflict areas. They have to deal with trauma. It is generations of misery.’
Daillaire was eventually able to find his way out of despair. ‘My self-destructive attempts finally stopped when I met an extraordinary woman. We fell in love. I divorced and remarried. Love has truly saved me.’
The Cleveringa lecture can be watched online here.
During the Belgian dominion over Rwanda, that lasted until 1962, a strict separation of different populations was in place. Even though the Tutsis only make up twelve percent of the population, they are made the dominant group. This causes resentment among the Hutus, who make up about 85 percent of the country’s inhabitants.
There had been violent struggles between the different groups for years, but in 1994 the powder keg exploded when the aeroplane of president Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down. Habyarimana did not survive the attack.
It is the starting signal for Hutu militias to attack Tutsis and moderate Hutus, and to brutally murder them. The notorious propaganda outlet Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines incites the militias. Between 500,000 and a million people lost their lives.
The international peace mission UNAMIR, under the command of general Dallaire has no mandate to intervene. On April 7th 1994, prime minister Agatha Uwilingiyimana and ten Belgian UN soldier tasked with protecting her are killed. The Belgian government recalls its troops in response, other countries soon follow. Dallaire remains with a unit of soldiers and asks for reinforcements. They arrived much too late.