Saturday, 14 June 2008

Book Review: Shake Hands With the Devil (2003), by Romeo Dallaire with Brent Beardsley

Rwanda, 1994. A small United Nations force enters the country presumably to make sure that a recently-signed peace treaty between warring factions gets implemented. Instead, the local militias are busy preparing for a short, brutal, and vicious civil war that will end with the massacre of more than 800,000 civilians, in about 100 days. It is doubtful if the history of civilization has ever witnessed a more intense civilian killing spree.

Romeo Dallaire was the Canadian commander of the under-equipped, under-financed and poorly supported UN force. In addition to witnessing the genocide and being helpless to stop it, he suffered the humiliation of having 10 Belgian soldiers under his command slaughtered as part of the massacres, without being able to intervene. Since 1994, Dallaire has battled severe depression, and agonized over every decision that he took before and during the mission. He lays it all out in this powerful and moving book.

There is no doubt that Dallaire had his heart in the right place, and his eagerness to help establish peace in Rwanda is honest. Unfortunately, his eagerness to take his first high profile command may have also blinded him to the many realities and warning signs around him. The United Nations - and the World - was much more engrossed with events in the former Yugoslavia in the heart of Europe and near the Western democracies, to really care about a small African country with little strategic value. Dallaire's mission, to everyone but himself, always seemed like an afterthought.

Once on the ground in Rwanda, Dallaire describes his various meetings, initiatives and encounters with local leaders in the menacing lead-up to the eruption of violence. His writing style is fluid, artistic, and surprisingly descriptive. In hindsight, it is clear that most of the militia leaders and politicians clearly saw the UN mission as an irritant, an obstacle to be marginalized once the business of civil war started. And civil war was coming. This becomes increasingly clear to Dallaire, and he describes his increasingly frantic attempts to get the UN's attention and to try and beef-up his forces in a futile attempt to stop the catastrophe.

It's all to no avail, and when the machetes are drawn, the blood starts to flow, and the bodies of men, women, and children literally pile up on the roads, in the rivers, and throughout Rwanda's countryside, Dallaire and his men become mere observers and sometimes victims as Rwanda descends into the closest thing to hell on earth. Dallaire's description of the days of genocide is heart-wrenching and soul-destroying, but told with a unique sensitivity and humaneness that may not be expected from a soldier.

A highly recommended book that successfully reveals the inner-workings of UN missions, soldiers in the field, and the deepest, darkest atrocities that humans are capable of.

Paperback published by Vintage Canada, 522 pages.

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