||A Review of: Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda
by Gwen Nowak
Welcome to the theatre of war-to war as theatre. And all the world
is its stage.
Lieutenant-General Romo 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 plus pages
of his account. We can see the disconnects because there is no
disconnect between Dallaire's word and his action-he keeps 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 .
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 putrefying, 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, despite the temptation
to shoot the gnocidaires 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 suicide of Sian
Cansfield, his dedicated researcher and shadow author who is, in
his view, an "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
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."