Revisiting Rwanda

Peacekeeper's return shows genocide's lessons are still unlearned

Sep 7, 2005 at 12:00 am

As a companion piece to the recent Hotel Rwanda, Peter Raymont’s documentary about Rwanda’s 1994 genocide offers the power of brutal truth over the polite artistry of fiction. As played by Nick Nolte, Dallaire was a supporting player in Hotel, a cynically gruff peacekeeper who confessed to Don Cheadle’s character, “They think you’re dung. You’re not even a nigger. You’re African.” The truth of Dallaire’s role in that shameful event, however, is far more complex. Abandoned without resources by the United Nations and woefully outnumbered, the Canadian general and his troops may not have always made the right decisions — something Dallaire has never forgiven himself for — but they faced their dire situation with courage and compassion.

Following Dallaire’s return 10 years after the failure of his peacekeeping mission, director Raymont captures a portrait of a man haunted by his inability to get the world to pay attention to Rwanda’s genocidal atrocities. His confrontation with the past demonstrates the remarkable integrity of a man who did his best but blames himself for not doing more. Unexpectedly soft-spoken and deeply religious, the former general believes he witnessed God and the devil in combat on Earth. After seeing CNN’s footage of the time, you may agree.

Still, Dallaire refuses to grant the rest of the world absolution for apathy and inaction. At the country’s 10th anniversary gathering, he tells a rapt audience in Kigali’s football stadium that he believes the West simply didn’t care, that Rwanda didn’t matter: “It was blacks killing each other, and perhaps there were too many of them anyway.” Apparently, the O.J. Simpson murder trial was of far more importance than the murder of 800,000 Africans.

Charting the origins of conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes to the divisive Hamitic myth (i.e. the White Man’s Burden), the documentary makes painfully clear how colonial Europeans stoked the flames of tribal discord and then refused to prevent or help remedy the inferno of rage and violence that followed.

It’s appalling to hear the leaders of the Western world trot out the same tired excuse for turning their backs on black Rwanda: “We didn’t fully understand the magnitude of what was going on.” Tellingly, not one major Western nation sent a senior dignitary to the commemoration. As one Rwandan official explains, “We have come to expect nothing from the world, and they never disappoint us.”

But Raymont’s documentary is more than an exercise in historical perspective and finger pointing. By digging into Dallaire’s tortured psyche, the film becomes a poignant exploration of humility, as an honest but flawed man struggles to regain his humanity in the place where he fears he lost it.

A film like Hotel Rwanda, as compelling as it might be, tends to depict the travesty of Rwanda as a lesson learned. The audience once again becomes a distant and passive observer. Shake Hands with the Devil and, by example, Roméo Dallaire dare us to take responsibility for what happened then, and what happens next.


Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre, inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit, at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 12.