Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda
by Roméo Dallaire
This was one of the more gut-wrenching books I’ve read in a while. It is Lt. General Roméo Dallaire’s chronicle of his term as Force Commander for the U.N. Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). This mission was established to help implement the Arusha Peace Agreement of August 1993 that ended the Rwandan civil war. This agreement was signed between the Hutu-led government of Rwanda and the mainly Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Almost from the moment is was signed the Hutu-led government seemed to do be doing everything it could to undermine it, with the more extreme elements positioning themselves for an assault on the Tutsis.
Dallaire maintained and extraordinary level of dedication and discipline throughout his tenure; in fact, it became difficult to understand how he was able to sustain his attempts to keep the parties moving towards the implementation of a treaty that was becoming increasingly irrelevant as the days wore on. He was frustrated at every turn by many competing interests among the government and the RPF themselves, the U.N. diplomatic corps, the French and Belgians (who had colonial history there) and the United States (which had just suffered its own loses in Somalia).
He had little knowledge of the situation in Rwanda before signing up for the mission, which is in part responsible for what made the book so gripping. Knowing ahead of time the general outlines of what is to come, it’s unnerving when he writes about a mysterious “third force” that he senses working behind the scene. It was this third force that was ultimately responsible for the killings.
The actual catalyst that unleashed the genocide was the death of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, himself a Hutu, in a plane crash. The plane was most likely shot down by the extremists in the government who thought he was too accommodating of the peace agreement and wanted to blame the RPF on his death. This provided a thin excuse for the extremists to set upon the Tutsis.
The title of the book comes in part from his strong Catholic beliefs. Instead of questioning God’s existence in the aftermath of the killings, he states that he knows the Devil exists because he actually shook hands with him: at one point, much to his frustration he actually had to meet with some of the men that he knew were leading the atrocities. He describes having to unload his pistol before the meeting because he was worried he wouldn’t be able to resist simply shooting them down on the spot.
Dallaire interacts with so many different people and organizations, at times it’s difficult to keep the names and acronyms straight. In a way though this served to underscore the difficulty of the task that was laid before him. The tragedy on the ground was so overwhelming and the means to prevent it so obvious, that his inability to get the U.N. Security Council to act in a meaningful way ultimately caused him an acute psychological trauma. He is very forthcoming about the post-traumatic stress that he suffered from; after reading this book it is easy to appreciate the source of his affliction.
There is an interview with Dallaire and an excerpt from the book here.