To fully appreciate the horror of the genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994, I recommend the fact-based Don Cheadle film “Hotel Rwanda,” yes, but first see “Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire” for background. After this double feature, your conscience and guilt will be fully awakened, I assure you.
Most people have not heard of Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian lieutenant-general who headed the United Nations’ “hopelessly underfunded” (to use the movie’s terms) peacekeeping efforts in 1994. If the U.N. hadn’t botched the job, Dallaire would be remembered now as the man who prevented, or at least minimized, the genocide, and this film wouldn’t be necessary. But instead he is lost to history, a man who, despite all his best efforts, could do nothing to stop the slaughter.
The film commences in 2004, as Dallaire returns to Rwanda for the first time to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 100-day massacre during which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by militant Hutus. Everyone familiar with the horror knows Dallaire was not to be blamed, that he simply didn’t have the resources to stop it — everyone except Dallaire himself. He remains haunted and horrified by what occurred a decade ago, frustrated with the U.N. and the world for not stepping in to help him, disappointed in himself for not being able to do more.
As the movie, directed by veteran documentarian Peter Raymont, demonstrates, Dallaire’s self-blame is unfounded. He comes across as as humble, moral, eminently GOOD man. He has a soft voice. He has been hardened by the tragedy, but is not bitter. Perhaps he wasn’t forceful enough with the U.N., and certainly he was naive about U.N. procedures and bureaucracy. But that wasn’t his fault: The U.N. assigned him to the job of keeping peace in Rwanda before the massacre began, and the U.N. knew he was inexperienced.
The U.N. also knew what was going on when the killing started, because Dallaire made frequent impassioned, urgent pleas to the council to send reinforcements. Twenty-five hundred troops did come in from many countries — but they were all there only to rescue their own expatriates, offering no help to Dallaire, the U.N. or Rwanda.
Raymont gives us some history on Rwanda, too, tracing the source of the inter-tribal rivalry between the Hutus and Tutsis. It was Belgian imperialism that created the rift between the two tribes some 40 years earlier; as “Hotel Rwanda” points out, it is often impossible to tell which group a person belongs to without asking him; the differences are not as obvious as, say, the difference between white and black Americans. Decades of tension and riots finally culminated in the Hutus rising up against the Tutsis, who had often ruled the country, and not always kindly.
Through clips of 1994 footage and Dallaire’s recollections, we get a strong sense of the shocking brutality and inhumanity of the genocide. “Once you’ve killed once, the whole inhibition is gone,” Dallaire says in explaining how ordinary citizens were worked into a frenzy by their rabble-rousing leaders.
Dallaire eventually realizes, as someone puts it, “there’s no cavalry over the hill. There’s no one coming to get you out.” He and his small troops do what they can, but it is not enough. Nearly a million people die. Dallaire himself suffers a breakdown during those 100 days, becoming delirious and depressed. In the aftermath of the ordeal, he struggled with alcoholism and suicide attempts. He felt more personal anguish over what happened than probably any other white man in the world.
And so it is enraging when, during the 10th anniversary memorial, a Belgian senator attacks Dallaire for not having saved the 10 Belgian soldiers who died early in the conflict. Here is a man who already feels guilty for the 800,000 Rwandans who died, and this bastard from Belgium — the country that caused the Hutu-Tutsi rivalry in the first place, you’ll recall — tries to compound his agony by blaming him for the deaths of 10 Belgians. I don’t know this Belgian senator’s name, but during his few moments in the film, I truly hated him. His attitude is unspeakably insensitive.
The Clinton administration, it is noted, did nothing to stop the killing. Indeed, most of the world paid little attention to the Rwanda crisis at all, seeing it as an intra-national conflict that didn’t require their attention.
The awful part is that little has changed. The film shows Rwanda commemorating the 10th anniversary of the genocide — a memorial service to which the U.S. sends only one minor diplomat to represent it. A Rwandan official says, “We’ve come to expect nothing from the world, and the world never disappoints.” Those are the saddest words I’ve heard in a long time.
But through it all is Dallaire himself, a woeful, pitiable figure, the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy. He had only the noblest intentions and was thwarted in his intense desire to do good. And yet, this compelling, eye-opening film shows that he is still hopeful. He believes in God, perhaps now more strongly than ever. He reasons that he has seen the devil and his handiwork close-up; surely this means there must be a God, too, if people would just look for him.
A- (1 hr., 31 min.; )