Friday, November 13, 2009

Dinner with Dallaire

One of the benefits of being in policy school is the opportunity to attend intimate dinners with luminaries, to be able to ask them questions in a small forum and exchange ideas. On Monday, I was able to join a small dinner with General Romeo Dallaire, the former head of the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) during the 1994 genocide. General Dallaire, in 1994, was informed that a genocide was imminent, and informed Kofi Annan at the United Nations that action could and should be taken to prevent it from happening.

This warning fell on deaf ears. Once the genocide started, ten Belgian peacekeepers were killed, and the United Nations, for this reason as well as member nation reticence to become involved, reduced its troop levels there to a skeleton force. With few peacekeepers and a UN Chapter 6 force mandate (which permits force only in cases of peacekeepers’ self-defense), General Dallaire was essentially helpless as hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered around him. In addition, as the UN Force Commander, he had the unenviable task of communicating and negotiating between the genocidal Rwandan government and the Rwandan Patriotic Front. His famous, meticulously detailed and heart-wrenching account of his time in Rwanda, Shake Hands with the Devil, documents this.

I had heard from others that for years, he couldn’t talk about the genocide in public without falling apart. He has attempted suicide multiple times, and over the past decade has become a major spokesperson on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Canada. When I was informed that he was going to speak at my graduate school, I was interested to hear what he would talk about and if it would be as emotional an experience as others had said.

The dinner was very conversational, and I was surprised to see that it seemed that he had dealt with his demons. There were about 15 of us around the table, and he chatted cheerfully about Canadian politics and peacekeeping. He is a strong believer that a human is a human, and that skin color and national interest should not influence whether the UN (or individual countries) should intervene to end a genocide. Some have argued that race was a factor in the decision of Western countries to intervene in Yugoslavia, but not in Rwanda. Sadly, there are more crises around the world than the international community can provide resources for, so it will always have to choose...and I suppose we can only hope that the lessons learned in Rwanda will prevent another such horrendous miscalculation on the part of the international community from happening again.

Dallaire also argued that middle countries (he named Canada, Germany, and Japan) should step up their commitments to peacekeeping, because they have the capabilities and don’t carry the same “baggage” that the U.S. does (and Britain, to a certain extent). In other words, Canada carries a reputation for neutrality that the U.S. does not.

In arguing that all humans are equal and deserving of protection, he referred to a story he told at the beginning of his book. His convoy was speeding through the no-fire zone when he spotted a child by the side of the road. Eyes glazed, belly distended, mucus running down his lip. The convoy slowed and stopped, and he went back to find the child, who had retreated into his house. There were bodies everywhere, had been there for weeks, half eaten, he said. And the child was just sitting among the bodies, as if to say: This is my house. I am at home. He picked the child up and looked him in the eyes. In them, he saw the eyes of his son. Dallaire spoke easily, and to my surprise, was not emotional in the least, even as he described the piles of corpses. He said it as if it were simply a fact. The numbness with which he spoke was the only clear indication to me during the course of the evening that he has been deeply traumatized.

What I was most curious about, of course, was what he thought about Rwanda today, 15 years on. I asked him about it, and he said that it was a real success story. Things work. There are services. The people feel safe. The country is strong. But then he said that while President Kagame is a good leader—the two have close ties—he believes that the time has come for Kagame to relinquish a bit of his stronghold. After all, the press is self-censored or intimidated. There is a strong intelligence system involving wiretaps and informants. There is, for all intents and purposes, one political party. These were all justified in the context of strengthening security and promoting post-war unity, he said, but now that 15 years have passed, it was time to allow more freedom in these areas. He also said that Kagame needs to begin thinking about a political successor. Next year, presidential elections will be held in Rwanda (which I, and everyone else, believe that Kagame will win by a large margin), and the two-term limit will mean that after six years, a new candidate must step to the plate. Who that will be is unclear.

He also commented that, until France permits the extradition of genocidaires that it continues to harbor (it airlifted many of the genocidal leaders out of Rwanda at the end of the war), the Rwandan government will continue to fear that it will be attacked again, and will continue to maintain a strong (benevolent) authoritarian control over the country.

Very interestingly, he discussed the idea that perhaps the current geographical borders of the Great Lakes countries were not necessarily permanent…that perhaps they could change. This wasn’t his idea—he attributed it to others—but he said that some had talked about the possibility that Rwanda and Uganda’s territories increase to be more reflective of population identities. In other words, colonizers carved up Africa without regard for tribes, ethnic groups, or languages. When Germany carved up Congo and Rwanda, they gave the Western side of Lake Kivu to Congo, despite the fact that the people there spoke Kinyarwanda. In light of all of the meddling by Rwanda and Uganda in Eastern Congo (which is rich in resources), I found it interesting that anyone had actually proposed that Rwanda could expand. I had heard this, only jokingly, from Rwandans, who said they thought that they could manage that area better than the Congolese could. I can’t imagine why the Congolese government would ever consent to that, though.

When it came to the ethnic question—that “Hutu” and “Tutsi” divisions no longer exist, and that everyone is simply Rwandese—he said only time will tell. For many, it is clear who is of which ethnicity, and he agreed that addressing the underlying causes of ethnic friction—which in the past has been the inequality of opportunity for Hutus—is the way to prevent another genocide from occurring. “Will another genocide occur?” he asked. “Maybe.” But then he said that, if real reconciliation between the ethnic groups was achieved, it didn’t have to be that way.