Shake Hands with the Devil:
The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda
By Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire
with Major Brent Beardsley
Random House Canada

by Gwen Nowak

Review published in Books in Canada, December 2004

Welcome to the theatre of war — to war as theatre. And all the world is its stage.

Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire didn’t write Shake hands with the Devil for theatre or film but his award-winning book is eminently adaptable to either genre. Since we already know that as Canada’s UN representative ‘in theatre’ Dallaire was unable to prevent the Rwandan genocide we might expect SHWTD to be nihilist theatre. No transcendence. No redemption. Dark forces triumph. Curtain down.

Not quite; at least not yet.

Shake Hands with the Devil follows in the tradition of ancient Greek theatre or medieval morality plays in which dark forces –the Furies, Satan– are presented as real influences on the course of events. Such dark forces must be recognized, confronted, and unmasked in order for the protagonists to survive on and, by implication, offstage. Dallaire’s UN mission was peacekeeping in Rwanda, a mission that inexorably evolved into a confrontation with the dark forces bedevilling it. Ultimately the mission resulted in genocide – 800,000 Rwandans slaughtered in 1994.

Dallaire, the wounded hero of this drama, is a dedicated military man with profound respect for both the letter and the spirit of military protocols and objectives. As well, his universe is a moral one, specifically western Biblical, a spiritual tradition which warns against allowing a divide between the letter and the spirit of the law.

In order “to get the story right” Dallaire goes beyond conventional military debriefing reportage and geopolitical context. Rather, he sets his account within the larger context of biblical symbol and archetype. For him Rwanda is Paradise, a real Garden of Eden. The archetype for evil is Lucifer, the biblical fallen angel as inhuman beast devouring human flesh, ultimately rendering the Rwandan paradise a literal hell on earth. And how does our military hero know that God exists? His simple answer bypasses both arcane theological discourse and reflexive fundamentalist rhetoric: “I know there is a God because in Rwanda I shook hands with the devil.” As he graphically describes it, those who were slaughtered seeking God’s protection in churches, chapels and missions “ended instead in the arms of Lucifer.”

It is clear that Dallaire does not mean a literal Lucifer with pitch fork and cloven hooves. Rather Dallaire shows us that the devil is in the disconnects, the details of which fill the 500 + pages of his account. We can see the disconnects because there is no disconnect between Dallaire’s word and his action – he keeps, actually en-fleshes, his word in the face of every disappointment, setback, lie and/or threat. And he always seems surprised when others fail to do likewise, whether they are career politicians or diplomats at the UN or in Europe, or the belligerents in Rwanda clandestinely pursuing their ethnic war while pretending to comply with the requirements of the Arusha Peace Accord [1993].

Dallaire’s word ultimately concerns his commitment to the security of the civilians of Rwanda, especially the children. In this he remains single minded, a striking foil to the ‘politicos’ who speak out of two sides of their mouths, their protocols and timetables undermined by their own ambivalence, hidden agendas, and weak or malicious intent. Dallaire names the resultant genocide a “failure of humanity.” The recurring vision of Dallaire making his way through a landscape brimming with the putrifying mutilated flesh of civilians is not a mythic apocalyptic vision; it is literal description, horrifyingly real.

In one charged scene our straight shooting peacemaker/hero manages to stick to his guns by – tossing aside his gun – so tempted is he to shoot the génocidaires with whom he is forced to negotiate. Somehow he knows that you can’t kill the hydra headed beast by shooting one of its incarnations in the outpost of Rwanda. ‘Putting Down The Gun’ plays like an archetypal, numinous moment in this cosmic drama, a moment that should make the world’s weapons merchants shudder, if they are not already laughing diabolically at every peacemaker’s naive hope for disarmament. In another scene Dallaire is walking down a path when he is warned by voices from the shadows to go no further. He continues walking. Guns are cocked, but, surprisingly, not fired. Like Daniel in the lion’s den, Dallaire survives this and other showdowns with “The Shadow Force.”

It does seem miraculous that Dallaire survived physically and emotionally to tell this tale. He mourns the deaths of so many who worked faithfully beside him, including the suicide of Sian Cansfield, his dedicated researcher and shadow author. In his view she is another “innocent victim” of the inhuman slaughter she witnessed at a distance. [This reader thinks of the recent suicide [9/11/04] of Iris Chang. As the author of The Rape of Nanking (1997) is she yet another victim/witness of hell’s dark fury? Still today the‘enemy of life’ continues to leave his diabolical signature on thousands upon thousands of raped and mutilated girls and women.]

Dallaire’s gripping military memoir evolves page by page into a prophetic warning: Unless we find the will and the resources to make this the Century of Humanity transcending every ethnic/tribal/national division we will surely become food for the insatiable beast lurking in our midst. Now that Dallaire has unmasked this ‘devil’ we should recognize him wherever we meet him, in the corridors of presumed power in world capitals or in backwaters like Rwanda....

As the curtain goes down we hear Dallaire’s closing words challenging us to go forward: “For the sake of the children and our future. Peux ce que veux. Allons-y.”