Terry J. Allen | 802.229.0303m
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The Man Who Tried to Stop Rwanda's Slaughter

The General and the Genocide

In an indifferent world, Gen. Romeo Dallaire and a few thousand ill-equipped U.N. peacekeepers were all that stood between Rwandans and genocide. The Canadian commander did what he could—did more than anyone else—but he sees his mission as a terrible failure and counts himself among its casualties.


After a 100-day reign of terror, some 800,000 Rwandan civilians were dead, most killed by their machete-wielding neighbors. Dallaire had sounded the alarm. He’d begged. He’d bellowed. He’d even disobeyed orders. “I was ordered to withdraw...by [then-U.N. Sec. Gen. Boutros] Boutros Ghali about seven, eight days into it...and I said to him, ‘I can’t, I’ve got thousands’ —by then we had over 20,000 people—‘in areas under our control,’” Dallaire said in a recent interview with Amnesty Now. The general’s hands, always moving, rose beside his face as if to block the memories. “The situation was going to shit. ...And, I said, ‘No, I can’t leave.’”

The U.N. had sent Dallaire and 2,600 troops, mainly from Bangladesh and Ghana, to Rwanda to oversee a peace accord between the region’s two main groups, Hutus and Tutsis. But on April 6, 1994, eight months after the peacekeepers arrived, a plane carrying the Rwandan and Burundian presidents, both Hutus, was shot down over Kigali, the Rwandan capital. Hutu-controlled radio blamed the Tutsis and immediately began calling for their extermination, as well as for the murder of moderate Hutus considered friendly to the Tutsi “cockroaches.” The broadcasts gave details on whom to kill and where to find them.


Dallaire and his troops were about to become spectators to genocide. As bodies filled the streets and rivers, the general, backed by a U.N. mandate that didn’t even allow him to disarm the militias, pleaded with his U.N. superiors for additional troops, ammunition, and the authority to seize Hutu arms caches. In an assessment that military experts now accept as realistic, Dallaire argued that with 5,000 well-equipped soldiers and a free hand to fight Hutu power, he could bring the genocide to a rapid halt.

The U.N. turned him down. He asked the U.S. to block the Hutu radio transmissions. The Clinton administration refused to do even that. Gun-shy after a humiliating retreat from Somalia, Washington saw nothing to gain from another intervention in Africa, and the Defense Department, according to a memo, assessed the cost of jamming the Hutu hate broadcasts at $8,500 per flight-hour.

Dallaire’s pain is palpable as he remembers his yearlong mission. His words, raw as a wound, make a grim contrast to the carefully parsed regrets of the world leaders who actually had the power to stop the genocide but turned away. He has just spoken at an Amnesty-sponsored conference in Atlanta on law and human rights, and he looks tired—older than his 56 years. His eyes are close set, raptor-like, but his gaze is warm and direct. “When you’re in command, you are in command,” he says. “There’s 800,000 gone, the mission turned into catastrophe, and you’re in command. I feel I did not convince my superiors and the international community,” he says. “I didn’t have enough of the skills to be able to influence that portion of the problem.”

Three days after the Rwandan killings began, with Dallaire’s troops running short of rations as well as ammunition, about 1,000 European troops arrived in Kigali. The general watched with frustration as the well-armed, well-fed Westerners landed and left again as soon as they’d evacuated their own nationals. Then, after Hutu militias killed 10 Belgian paratroopers, Brussels withdrew all of its peacekeepers (the only significant Western contingent and the only one that was properly equipped) from the U.N. mission. Dallaire’s depleted force was on its own.

Even as the already desperate situation worsened, Washington called for a complete withdrawal of peacekeepers. On April 21, after international pressure, the U.S. agreed to a limited force and supported a Security Council resolution slashing the force to 270 peacekeepers. U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright accurately described the tiny force as enough “to show the will of the international community.”


Remarkably, with scant resources—indeed, with only one satellite telephone for the whole mission—Dallaire was able to maintain safe areas for those 20,000 terrorized Rwandans. But he could do little else, and the killing continued.

Eight years later, in daylight and in dreams, Dallaire still hears the cries of wounded children, the weeping of survivors, the voice of the man who died at the other end of a phone line as the general listened. He still can’t escape the smell of death, the memories of hacked-off limbs scattered on the ground, and worst of all, he says, the “thousands upon thousands of sets of eyes in the night, in the dark, just floating and looking back” at him in anger, accusation, or eternal pleading.

With counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder, and a handful of pills a day, he is working to use his experiences to prevent another Rwanda. But the baleful ghosts remain, and the book he is writing about the slaughter is rousing them. “As I go over what I have written,” he says, “more and more I see lost opportunities; more and more I see errors because of lack of intelligence or simply from mis-assessing a situation. I’d take a decision on the phone, and people would die within seconds. I was getting pressure from everybody not to use my soldiers.” His voice fades to a whisper . “It’s horrific because every day decisions were taken on life and death. Every day. Real people, real people.”

We are sitting in a dark taxi and I can’t see his face. He may be remembering when the Belgian senate blamed him “at least partially” for the deaths of its paratroopers. Or he may be listening to his Rwandan voices. As we near his hotel, he says, “I always have people with me. Like tonight, I’ll ask the guys at the desk to just check on me because I’m not supposed to be alone because it can go to extremes.”


Dallaire says that about 20 percent of troops and humanitarian workers on missions like his suffer much the same thing, as do 5 to 10 percent of diplomats. “They are casualties,” he tells me. “High suicide rates, booze, drugs, pornography, finding themselves on skid row.”

When Dallaire returned to Canada from Rwanda, he tried to drink himself into a stupor of forgetfulness. He raged at his family. He tried to kill himself. In 2000 a few months after he was medically released from the Canadian Forces, he was found passed out drunk under a park bench in Hull, Quebec. ‘’He was curled up in a ball,’’ photographer Stephane Beaudoin, alerted by a police report, later told the Ottawa Citizen. ‘’I never took a photo. I felt sad for him. I thought, ‘This man has done so much for us. How did he come to be here?’”

Dallaire’s reluctance to give himself credit for what he managed to accomplish certainly contributed to his breakdown. Asked directly, he admits saving people, “sometimes by the thousands, you know, just by giving appropriate orders to my troops.” Past and present merge as Dallaire remembers one day when he, his driver, and aide-de-camp “were making our way through a large population move in the hills. It was raining and cold because it’s fairly high up. And there this woman was, right there by the road, and people are walking around her, and she is giving birth. And so, as we’re inching, the child came out. The woman, already emaciated, sort of picked up the child and then fell back. So we jumped out, you know, because nobody was stopping. The mother was dead. We tried to wrap the baby up as best we could, brought it back, and then other people sorted it out.”

But Dallaire quickly returns to the people he failed to save and to the limits of his skills. “Thirty years ago when I joined the army, if somebody mentioned human rights, we immediately equated them with communists,” Dallaire now says. The former career officer has come to believe that, along with the ability to attack and kill, soldiers must learn peacekeeping, negotiation, and human rights preservation. That belief is reflected in the war stories he chooses to tell. Rather than tales of derring-do, he offers anecdotes that plumb the moral ambiguities of modern soldiering.

“A young officer is entering a village,” Dallaire recounts. “The village has been wiped out except for a few women and children still alive [in a ditch filled with bodies]. There is 30 percent AIDS in that area. There is blood all over that place, no rubber gloves. Does the platoon commander order his troops to get in there, into the ditch risking AIDS, and help?” The question, it turns out, is not an exercise in armchair ethics. “When I asked the platoon commanders, those from 23 of the 26 nations that sent forces said they would order their troops to keep marching. Commanders from three nations— Holland, Ghana, and Canada—were saved the complexity of the question because by the time they turned around their troops were already in the ditch.”

Dallaire continues, his hands alive, his eyes still, the Gallic-tinted accent of his native Quebec growing more pronounced. “Or a soldier is watching two girls, 13 or 14, both with children on their backs, with a crowd spurring on the one with a machete to kill the other girl because she is different. What does the soldier do? Shoot the girl with the machete, possibly killing her baby? Shoot into the crowd? Do nothing?”

“Should I myself,” he asks, “negotiate with a militia commander with gore on his shirt and his hands from the morning’s work, making a joke, to get him to withdraw his gang so I can move thousands of people [to safety] Or do I pull out my pistol and shoot him between the eyes?”

“The corporal,” says Dallaire, returning to the soldier watching the machete-wielding girl, “tried to negotiate his away through the crowd to stop the attack but headquarters in his home country ordered him not to intervene. That corporal is now an injured ex-corporal,” Dallaire says, and like the ex-general himself, a casualty of post-traumatic stress.

For all the blame he heaps on himself, Dallaire also faults the strictures that bound him in 1994 and that will have to change if the world is to avoid another Rwanda. The institution of peacekeeping missions, he says, is deeply flawed. Even if he had received the political and humanitarian training the job demanded, the U.N.’s rules would have robbed him of the ability to use his military skills. With thousands of civilians begging for protection as they were hunted down in their homes and churches, “I could tell [the peacekeepers] to do things,” he says, “but they would check with their country. The troops are under my operational command, but they remained under the ultimate command of their nations, so...if a national capital feels that a [rescue] mission is unwarranted, or too risky, or something, the soldiers can turn around and say, ‘No, I can’t do it.’”


Asked to name one of the countries that ordered its soldiers not to move injured Rwandans to safe areas, even when Dallaire told them to, the general hesitates for a long time before saying, “Bangladesh.” It was the Ghanaians, he adds, who performed most humanely.

With the exception of the Red Cross, the non-governmental organizations were clueless, Dallaire says. “When they started sending people in, they kept sending me assessment teams. Assessment teams! ‘Listen, I don’t need a goddamn assessment team. I need food, medical supplies, water for 2 million people, and I’ve got to feed them twice a day. Get the shit in here. We’ll sort out the distribution.’ "

If Dallaire’s anger at those who did too little is fierce, his fury at world leaders who feigned ignorance and did nothing is white hot. He cannot forget, for example, that President Clinton stopped for a few hours in Kigali in 1998, after it was all over, and with the engines of Air Force One running, said he was sorry; he didn’t know.

Or that David Rawson, the U.S. ambassador to Rwanda at the time of the mass murders, waited a month before declaring a “state of disaster,” and then dismissed the slaughter as “tribal killings.” Calling what happened in Rwanda “tribal” conflict made intervention seem futile. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Prudence Bushnell, who had pushed hard for the U.S. to “neutralize” Hutu hate radio, later explained to author Samantha Power, “What I was told was, ‘Look, Pru, these people do this from time to time.’”

The designation of “tribal” conflict also nicely avoided the word “genocide.” Had a major power or the U.N. invoked that term in time, all states that were signatories of the 1948 convention on genocide would have been obliged to condemn the slaughter and act to stop it.

Avoiding the word did not however avoid the fact. “They knew how many people were dying,” Dallaire says, no matter what word they used. “The world is racist,” he says bitterly. “Africans don’t count; Yugoslavians do. More people were killed, injured, internally displaced, and refugeed in 100 days in Rwanda than in the whole eight to nine years of the Yugoslavia campaign,” he says, and there are still peacekeeping troops in the former Yugoslavia while Rwanda is again off the radar.

“Why didn’t the world react to scenes where women were held as shields so nobody could shoot back while the militia shot into the crowd?” he asks. “Where . . . boys were drugged up and turned into child soldiers, slaughtering families? . . . Where girls and women were systematically raped before they were killed? Babies ripped out of their stomachs? . . . Why didn’t the world come?”

Dallaire supplies his own answer: “Because there was no self interest. ...No oil. They didn’t come because some humans are [considered] less human than others.”


Nonetheless, Dallaire still calls himself an optimist. Despite its troubles, he believes that the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which operates out of Arusha, Tanzania, “is one of those great potential instruments of the future.” His own job, he says, won’t be done until the tribunal finishes its investigation. “My duty as force commander who ultimately became head of mission will not end until the Arusha Tribunal says it doesn’t need me to testify anymore, or when the tribunal decides to hold me accountable.”

There is virtually no chance the international court will blame him. The question is whether he’ll one day stop blaming himself. “The work I’m doing helps,” he says, referring to his campaign to stop the use of children as soldiers. Counseling seems to be helping, too.

“One day after a couple hours of therapy,” he says, “we’re sitting there, and, you know, to-ing and fro-ing. I all of a sudden felt joy in my stomach. You know when you feel happy in your tummy? And I had not felt that in the seven years since Rwanda. All of a sudden I said, ‘jeez, I feel, I feel better.’” Dallaire stopped, tilted his head as if to listen to his own words and broke into a smile as sweet as warm winter sun. “My therapist let me savor that—and then we talked. And at the end of it, I said, I think I have moved from survival to living. And maybe to getting better.”

The world, he knows, has not. Without the political will and institutional mechanisms to stop it, “Rwanda” will happen again.