Friday, June 18, 2010

Variations on a Theme, part 2

Is Romeo Dallaire a broken man?

To be sure, there's plenty of blame to go around, from a homicidal government to an apathetic world to a cowardly and bureaucratic United Nations, but as the head of the UN's peacekeeping mission to Rwanda in '93, Canadian Lieutenant General Dallaire clearly feels that he - outnumbered, outgunned, underfunded, hounded by desperate families and dependent upon bureaucracy so intransigent and complex that basics like food, fuel, and ammunition were never to be counted upon - is also to blame for UN's and global community's failure to keep Rwanda from plunging into chaos.

Lt. Gen Dallaire begins at the beginning, taking the reader back to his childhood in Canada as the son of a military man and a Belgian war bridge. Whether all this autobiographical verbiage is necessary is questionable, it does provide insight into why Dallaire tried so hard and felt so deeply about the failure of the UN and his mission to stabilize Rwanda.

In a few short chapters, Dallaire goes from a man who has no idea where Rwanda is other than somewhere in Africa to a man who feels a deep connection to the people and tenuous peace he's been charged to protect. When it falls apart, Dallaire is one of the few who remains, as his few trusted colleagues are removed from Rwanda (or crack under the pressure). Backed by a woefully unprepared and shaky multinational force, Dallaire scrambles for support from the UN, before realizing that none will be forthcoming, and the most he can try to do is protect a few small groups from being murdered by their neighbors.

Shake Hands with the Devil provides a valuable insider's look into how the peacekeeping mission was actually structured, revealing a bewildering bureaucracy with unclear lines of command and no group prepared (or willing) to take responsibility or swift action. Instead, Dallaire's requests for mundane supplies take weeks, even months to be acknowledged or answered. A 'coalition' of troops from Belgium, Ghana, Bangladesh, and elsewhere can't communicate or coordinate. Soldiers arrive without basic provisions or supplies, refuse to accept Dallaire's orders, and in some cases, deliberately cripple their APCs so they won't have to respond to reports of fighting in and around Kigali.

Dallaire's prose is sometimes muddy and overblown, and the lengthy introductory material unnecessary, but as he says himself, he's a soldier, not a writer. Particularly moving is his return to Canada after being relieved of duty under questions about his mental stability, which he freely admits began crumbling. Back in Canada, a suicidal, deeply depressed Dallaire begins drinking heavily before the summons to testify before the world council tribunal on war crimes gives his life focus again.

Dallaire's research assistant, Sian Cansfield, committed suicide before the book was published. Dallaire also attempted suicide, almost successfully, after his return from Rwanda. He now sits on the Canadian Senate. If you watched the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics, you would have seen Dallaire carrying the Canadian flag during the opening ceremonies.

In contrast, in Shaharyar Khan's world, the UN hums along fine, UN officials are, without exception, wonderful, kindly, learned people, UNAMIR is going swimmingly, and since we're just here to watch, we've already fulfilled our mandate!

Marred by factual errors and mislabeled photographs, Khan's book is more of a hagiography of the various UN bureaus and offices than a work of historical record. Khan attends ceremonies and diplomatic events, dutifully files report after report, and dances around mentioning that oh and by the way the streets are paved with bodies. Shallow Graves does provide some of the historical context of Rwanda and it's relationship with former colonial powers France and Belgium that Dallaire's book leaves out, and it introduces the reader to a dizzying and ultimately forgettable array of diplomats, desk officers, minor functionaries, deputy assistants of every stripe, and the rest of the elements of the vast and ponderous UN bureaucracy.

Good for Khan, though, he manages to get his daily one-hour walk in as Rwanda drowns under an ocean of its own blood.

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