Saturday, January 14, 2006

Shaking Hands with the Devil

I am currently about halfway throught Shake Hands with the Devil – The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, Lt. General Roméo Dallaire's memoir of the time when he was responsible for the woefully-poorly-equipped and understaffed United Nation Allied MIssion for Rwanda (UNAMIR), which tried to vainly implement a doomed peace accord between feuding Rwandan factions and which futiley warned about and tried to stop the impending genocide in that country.

Many people who know me well will be very surprised that I'm just reading it now. After all, not only is this an area of intense interest to me - I was working in the area of refugee settlement when this all unfolded in the early 1990s, and count many of the refugees from that dreadful conflict as clients and later close friends - but Lt.-Gen. Dallaire is a great personal hero of mine, a man who represents the best of the Canadian military and who embodied, in his commands, his respect for Canadian ideals which are precious to me - peaceful cooperation between ethnicities, protection of minorities, and peace through community development.

The truth is, I've wanted to read Shake Hands with the Devil since it was published, but was afraid to. I didn't want to go where I knew the book would take me.

When I started this career, I had no idea what it would really evolve into. I certainly couldn't have foreseen that it would lead to me being pressed into service to interview survivors of torture and genocide to record their testimony for posterity and legality. But it did.

The thing that impressed me most, in doing that, I think, was the horrific creativity of murderers and torturers and génocidaires. You are left breathless with the ingenuity of these monsters to inflict inventive misery, pain and despair on their fellow sentient creatures.

Almost as terrifying is the ability, and even eagerness, of our highly-evolved species to identify any ethnic, religous or cultural dividing line -- one Bosnian Serb told me with contempt that the Muslims "didn't even smoke the same cigarettes we did" -- and seize upon it as a means to completely and utterly strip 'the other' of its own humanity; to see one's fellow human beings - even those you knew and lived or worked beside for years - as inyenzi, bipedal cockroaches, and to therefore cheerfully go about the work of exterminating them - men, women, children, infants - with nary a twinge of guilt.

The problem, from a very personal standpoint, is that once you listen to and take down the story, and and the witness cries a little, and maybe you do too, and you perhaps put an arm around them to comfort them for a while, and then gently usher them to your office door to leave and continue trying to rebuild a new life in Canada -- then the problem is that the images they have witnessed have been transferred into your head, like a terrible contagious disease, an infection that flares up as you lie in your bed sleepless and your restless brain invents your own unbidden and unwanted pictures to accompany their words.

There is not enough funding available for counseling for those who have lived through these terrible traumas. There is none for the Settlement Workers whose daily jobs involves working with them. And certainly none for those who, like myself, are occasionally thrust from their usual administrative role into the role of testimony-taker due to the sheer volume of people whose stories must be recorded, when the witnesses come in hundreds or thousands, and recording their stories now may be the only key to successful prosecution of the architects of genocide in the future.

So while I wanted to read Dallaire's book, I was loath to add new images to the parade of human trauma that sometimes marches through my head at night.

I was chastened when a new co-worker, a much younger woman who's earned her stripes working with sub-Saharan refugees in Cairo, expressed surprise that I hadn't read the book. A few days later, she brought in her own copy and lent it to me. It's sat for three months next to the bed now. Three times I've started it, reading with great interest Dallaire's childhood in Québec, his military training, his experiences as a young officer guarding government buildings during the October Crisis in Québec City in 1970, and then sputtered, stalled, when he is posted to lead the mission he will designate UNAMIR, "someplace in Africa" called Rwanda. This time I think I trust him and myself enough to go with him all the way. Even though I know there is no happy ending to this story, I feel like I owe it to him - and even more, to my Rwandan and Burundan friends - to walk through it with him.

(J'ai serré la main du diable : La faillite de l'humanité au Rwanda est disponible aussi en français.)



Anonymous Sister said...

I understand what you're talking about, in a way. I certainly can't say I understand how it is to sit across from these poor people who suffered through the torture, taking down their personal accounts, but I understand what you mean about how it gets into your head. When in MUN, I had a prof that you had as well, I believe, teh author of Hunting Humans, Leyton. He was, and I think, still is, teaching War and Aggression, and he went to that country shortly after the genocide was declared "over". He saw first hand what was left over, and when he came back, he related to us what he had seen. I have images in my head that stay with me forever, as I am certain he does as well. Perhaps the only small, sad bit of comfort in this is that in some way it sort of reaffirms that we are human, and we are left numb with confusion when such a thing happens. I have seen a documentary on "Shaking Hands with the Devil", and it was very good, but like you, I'm not sure I could read the in-depth book. But sometimes we need to bleed to understand another's hurt a little more.

9:24 p.m.  

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