William Cline's Reviews > Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda

Shake Hands with the Devil by Roméo Dallaire
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's review
Dec 29, 14

really liked it
bookshelves: history
Read from August 16 to September 08, 2012

I read this shortly after reading Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, which was fortunate. Shake Hands with the Devil is clear and well-written, but it doesn’t supply much context. What it offers is a blow-by-blow of the Rwandan genocide from Dallaire’s perspective. Dallaire commanded the military side of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), which was meant to be a straightforward peacekeeping mission monitoring a peace agreement between the government of Rwanda and the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), who had just fought a civil war. Neither Dallaire, nor his bosses in the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), nor the UN’s member states were prepared for the Rwandan government’s plan to murder both its political opponents and an entire ethnic group, hatred for whom it had made a cornerstone of its political power.

Dallaire could tell that something was wrong in Rwanda, but he wasn’t able to figure out what until the genocide had already begun. While some nations had intelligence officers and military advisors embedded among the Rwandan forces, their information wasn’t shared with the UN or Dallaire. The head of UNAMIR, Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh, did an unenthusiastic and sometimes incompetent job of managing the political side, and Dallaire did not get along well with either him or his staff. (For what it’s worth, Booh-Booh has written a rebuttal to Dallaire’s book.)

Both before and after the killings began, Dallaire faced seemingly every possible obstacle, including an obstructive UN procurement apparatus, a shortage of critical staff, and a DPKO who considered UNAMIR a sideshow alongside more “important” conflicts like Yugoslavia. As with most UN matters, he was also hamstrung by the member states. The United States and other countries refused to officially acknowledge the genocide for what it was until after the fact. France actively supported and armed the Rwandan government right up to (and possibly including) the start of the genocide and the resumption of the civil war. Once the war restarted, the United States quibbled over its price for leasing armored personnel carriers to the UN — even as the killing happened — and said APCs eventually arrived in Africa stripped of radios, ammunition, spare parts, or even operating manuals. Belgium was the only rich nation to supply a significant troop contingent, but some Belgian troops’ colonial attitudes caused problems with the Rwandan locals, and Belgium pulled out as soon as it suffered casualties. Bangladesh supplied troops, but they arrived under-equipped, poorly trained, and expecting an easy, risk-free tour of duty; Bangladeshi troops sometimes sabotaged their own vehicles to avoid missions, and their commanders countermanded Dallaire’s orders when they thought a mission was too dangerous.

The list goes on.

As an account of UNAMIR’s military role during the genocide, Shake Hands is very good. As its subtitle indicates, it’s also an enumeration — a very long one (see above) — of the failures of the UN, our governments, and ultimately ourselves. Dallaire’s subtitle calls it, literally, a “failure of humanity”; we failed to see the Rwandan people as humans whose slaughter presented a moral imperative to act.

Where I had trouble with the book was in understanding Dallaire’s mental and emotional experience during the approximately one hundred days of the genocide. He tells his story as a straightforward linear narrative, with no digressions or anecdotes to break up the action or supply context. Consequently, the book has no rhythm. I say this not to fault Dallaire, but rather to caution would-be readers that this is not an easy book to get through.

The writing is clear but spare; it engages the reader on a mostly intellectual level, even when relating events that ought to inspire the strongest emotions. Because Dallaire doesn’t try to tell the reader how he should feel, and because Dallaire doesn’t dwell on each individual horror he witnesses — had he tried, he would have quickly run out of superlatives — reading Shake Hands is an exercise in empathy, which I think is actually appropriate given how badly humanity failed to empathize with Rwanda in 1994.

As a detailed, first-hand account of an event in recent history, Shake Hands with the Devil satisfied some of my curiosity and supplied another take on some of what Gourevitch covered in his book (mentioned above). In particular, Dallaire is highly critical of Paul Kagame, the RPF military leader and now president of Rwanda. Gourevitch paints him as a righteous rebel leader fighting for democracy against a murderous and racist regime, but Dallaire casts aspersions on Kagame’s motives and argues that Kagame’s military campaign was executed in such a way that it had the side effect of prolonging the genocide.

Where I’m left now is mainly curious about the international politics surrounding the Rwandan genocide, which neither Gourevitch nor Dallaire address except in how their end result affected the situation on the ground. Fortunately, Shake Hands includes an extensive bibliography.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Dan (new)

Dan It's incredibly sad that these kinds of things have to happen in our modern society. Every time we think we've moved past it, it happens again -- just look at Syria. The next book like this will be about that situation.

message 2: by Amar (new)

Amar Pai Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh?!

message 3: by Meghan (new)

Meghan Krogh Dan wrote: "It's incredibly sad that these kinds of things have to happen in our modern society. Every time we think we've moved past it, it happens again -- just look at Syria. The next book like this will be..."

Amar wrote: "Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh?!"

I had both of these thoughts while reading this review.

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