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Cleveringa Professor Roméo Dallaire on Rwanda and PTSD

Cleveringa Professor Roméo Dallaire led the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda in 1994, but was unable to prevent a genocide from unfolding before his very eyes. Eight hundred thousand people lost their lives. In his Cleveringa Lecture on 26 November, this retired Lieutenant-General from Canada speaks openly about his horrific experiences and the trauma that this left behind. We spoke to him before the lecture.

Good morning, General. Congratulations on your appointment as Cleveringa Professor at Leiden University. What did you think when you were approached about the appointment?

‘To be honest, I had to look up where exactly Leiden is. As you know, I have ties with the Netherlands, but that’s with other parts of the country [Dallaire was born in Denekamp in 1946 to a Canadian father and Dutch mother, ed.] But it is a great honour. I didn’t even know I was being considered.’ 

To prepare for this interview, I read your book Shake Hands with the Devil. It is a moving story about the Rwandan genocide that you witnessed at close hand. You will speak about this in your lecture on 26 November. Why is it so important that we keep telling these horrendous stories? 

‘Eight hundred thousand people died in Rwanda, but I didn’t want the story of the genocide to die with them. After the Holocaust we said, “never again”, but it’s obvious that we have not kept this promise. What is more, the international community didn’t even do its best to prevent or stop the slaughter in Rwanda. And if we don’t keep on talking about this, this story will be forgotten. It is essential that we keep remembering all those lives lost, and to remember them as people like you and me.’ 

You went down in history as the commander who remained. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) that you were leading was ordered to withdraw in 1994 to protect the safety of the soldiers, but you and some of the troops decided to disobey this order rather than abandon Rwanda. ‘Like Professor Cleveringa, I recognized a greater, moral and ethical responsibility to disobey,’ you write in your speech. Is it not hard for a member of the military to ignore a command from the higher ranks? 

‘That is a question that only civilians ask me. Although it may be difficult for a soldier to disobey an order in peacetime, it’s not when you are in a war. Then the ethical consequences of your conduct are suddenly clear as a bell and choices much easier. The order to withdraw was immoral, so I didn’t consider it for a moment. If I had done, I would have been consumed with guilt. The only thing I did worry about was whether the troops would remain alongside me. Many soldiers did, fortunately. In the end we were able to save a considerable number of lives.’

Generaal Roméo Dallaire during a press briefing right after the start of the genocide in 1994. Photo: Scott Peterson/Liaison

The UN is not exactly covered in glory in your book and lecture. You were let down in the early days of the genocide, soon after ten Belgian soldiers had been killed by the Rwandan presidential guard. The UN turns 75 this year, and this is being celebrated around the world. I can imagine you have mixed feelings about that. 

‘I was obviously very angry at the time, and to a certain extent still am. I still think that the then Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, should have taken responsibility for what happened at the time. But it’s too easy to give the UN the full blame. The member states are the UN, nothing more, nothing less. The organisation doesn’t have its own army, so all the UN can do is beg for soldiers, which is what we did in 1994. In the end, it was the individual member states that didn’t want or dare to send troops. The world turned its back on Rwanda.’ 

Rwanda wasn’t the only time a UN mission has been unable to prevent a genocide. We in the Netherlands experienced a national trauma after the fall of Srebrenica. What can the organisation do to prevent such a disaster in future? 

‘There is already an ambitious reform package that could make the UN stronger and more effective. It was presented to the then Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, in 2003, but one country on the Security Council vetoed this package. Can you guess which country this was?’ 

Russia? 

‘No, the United States! The package was rejected by John Bolton, the ambassador to the UN under George W. Bush. The same man who was National Security Adviser under Donald Trump until September last year. The US didn’t want the UN to gain any more power because that would represent a potential threat to superpower America.’

The building where ten members of a Belgian military regiment were killed during the Rwandan genocide was preserved as a memorial. After the event, Belgium withdrew its troops.

What is the way forward then?

‘There’s a vacuum between the superpowers and the developing countries. The middle powers in between can exert a lot of influence on the direction that the UN takes. They should crank up the pressure to make the organisation strong and future-proof. One of these middle powers is my own country, Canada.’ 

What is shocking about your book is the blatant racism that jumps out of the pages. And I don’t just mean between Hutus and Tutsis, but also among some peacekeeping forces and UN staff. As I read this, it struck me that it will be a long time before the UN is a truly global organisation. 

‘Racism and prejudice definitely played a role in the terrible turn that the conflict in Rwanda took. Rwanda had few natural resources, no geopolitical value and a black population. No one cared! I even heard people say that the violence was “in the genes” of the Rwandans; but they forget that we’re all the same. No one is more human than anyone else. Young people today seem to understand this. With their modern technology they can communicate with anyone in the world and access all the information. They see the world as an ensemble. They are the first truly borderless generation and that makes them a more activist generation.’ 

Generation Z as the new flower power generation? 

‘There you go.’ 

That’s something I wanted to discuss more. Protecting children figures heavily in your personal beliefs. You set up the Dallaire Institute, an initiative aimed at eradicating the use of child soldiers. Why this focus on the young? 

‘The young have all the power. Take Canada: young people here count for 2.9 million votes. That means the power balance could shift if they would unite. They can decide which direction the country and the world takes. And they have all the energy to achieve reform or even revolutions. They dare to take risks because they don’t see risks. They just need to realise how much potential they have. Fortunately, they are becoming much more aware of this, if you take the climate change protests as an example.’

Due to the corona crisis, general Dallaire will deliver his speech through a livestream. His ceremonial toga was sent to him by the mail.

In 1997, you were one of the first commanders to openly admit you were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You will also speak candidly about this in your inaugural lecture, even about the times you tried to end your life. Why was it important for a high-ranking officer to speak about this?

‘If a soldier has PTSD, it is significant, but for a long time the care for these traumatised soldiers was under par. We spend peanuts on the health of our veterans, particularly if you compare it with the enormous sums that we spend on military equipment. It was important that I, a two-star general, spoke out to break this pattern. I told my colleagues that the suicide rate among soldiers was a direct consequence of their participation in foreign missions. That made lots of people angry, but it also generated awareness. And more important still: it was my responsibility. 

The genocide in Rwanda is 26 years ago. Would you mind me asking to what extent you have managed to recover from your trauma? 

‘You can work on physical trauma and can make a full recovery. But I’ve seen victims of murder, girls and boys who had been raped, so I suffer from a moral trauma and that runs incredibly deep. You can’t heal something like that. You can only get it under control, which I’ve managed to do thanks to psychologists, psychiatrists and nine pills per day. 

‘Two things have kept me going: the support of fellow sufferers and the love of my current wife. She was always there for me, even in my darkest moments. Her love is the dominant force that has meant that I am still here at all.’ 

Text: Merijn van Nuland

‘Dallaire more or less removed the stigma of PTSD’

General Dallaire was nominated for the Cleveringa chair by LUMC professor Eric Vermetten. Vermetten develops novel therapies to reduce the impact of war trauma and PTSD on veterans and other service members. He works with immersive methods such as virtual reality therapy and the drug MDMA, which can assist the psychotherapeutic process in trauma patients. ‘When the Dean of the LUMC asked who I would like to nominate, one person stood out from the rest. General Daillaire’s message is a really good match for the philosophy of this chair. And his openness about the disorder more or less removed the stigma of PTSD in Canada. This was of enormous benefit to acknowledgment and acceptance of the impact of war trauma.’

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