The 1994 Rwandan genocide claimed 800,000 lives. Mostly those belonging to the Tutsi tribe were slaughtered but machetes also slashed many moderate Hutus who called for peaceful coexistence. The official history claims that the genocide, like tsunamis or tornadoes, could have neither be predicted nor prevented. The man who led the U.N. contingent in Rwanda disagrees.
Romeo Dallaire, a 62-year-old retired Canadian general, says that the genocide changed his life. In 1993 this son of a soldier assumed the leadership over the U.N. peacekeeping forces in Rwanda. Some 2,500 soldiers were at his disposal. His job was to make sure that after years of violent wars between the Hutus and the Tutsis, the two warring tribes could finally live peacefully side by side. But when he intended to do just that, he was stopped by the United Nations.
In January of 1994, Dallaire heard rumors that Hutu extremists were planning the extermination of all the Tutsis in the country. “They were going to conduct an outright slaughter and elimination of the opposition,” he recently told CNN. Although he dutifully informed the United Nations leadership, including Kofi Annan who then headed the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, his reports made no impression in New York.
One of the faxes Dallaire sent to the U.N. Headquarters read that his informant “has been ordered to register all Tutsi in Kigali [the Rwandan capital]. He suspects it is for their extermination.” When Dallaire asked Annan for permission to seize local warehouses and confiscate all the weapons, the latter refused. Instead Dallaire heard: “We cannot agree to the operation contemplated…as it clearly goes beyond the mandate.”
Recently asked by CNN for a comment, Kofi Annan answered he had had no choice. “When you’re operating in that sort of context with limited troops and facilities, you have to be careful what sort of risks they take, where everybody may even have to leave, and place a people at greater risk,” he said. “And in a way, this is what happened.”
Dallaire thinks otherwise. In his opinion, a force of as few as 5,000 people could have, if not prevented, then surely minimize the outcome of the genocide. “If I had had a brigade, which is 5,000, I could have done a lot,” he said. But the crucial time was wasted as the United Nations was trying to figure out how to respond to the swelling problem. Dallaire was ordered to stick to his base and not to do anything that would even slightly abuse the mandate his forces had been given.
On April 6, 1994, an airplane with the presidents of Rwanda and neighboring Burundi on board was shot down. It is still unknown who stood behind the attack, but the death of both politicians spurred a wave of ineffable violence that cost the lives of 800,000 people. Women and children, old and young were batted, macheted, hacked. Only very few perpetrators had guns or any weapons made in the 20th century, the fact that makes Dallaire’s theory of preventing the genocide more probable.
But during 100 days of the Hutus rampage, Dallaire’s forces were impotent. Restricted by the U.N. mandate that forbade them to shoot unless first attacked, 2,500 soldiers armed with the latest technology stood paralyzed as thousands of people were being murdered in front of their eyes.
“As they were busting down the door and opening fire we would literally hear people dying at the end of the phone as they were trying to get through to us and we had literally nothing to send them,” said Dallaire.
When 10 U.N. soldiers were killed while protecting some Tutsi officials, the secretary general, supported by all world powers, including the United States, ordered the withdrawal of all the troops, save but few. Dallaire disobeyed and remained with several hundred soldiers. “I refused a legal order,” he admitted. “But it was immoral.”
Soon after the genocide stopped, Dallaire asked to be relieved of command. As he says, he could not look people straight in the face, feeling responsible for each of 800,000 victims. Meanwhile, the U.N. secretary general and other world leaders continued in their posts. In 2001, Kofi Annan, who had torpedoed Dallaire’s plan to seize arsenals, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his “work for a better organized and more peaceful world.”
Since then over five million people have been killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The conflict in the Sudanese region of Darfur that broke out in 2003 has already claimed the lives of over 500,000 people with another 2.5 million being permanently displaced. The United Nations has not reacted.