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Roméo Dallaire



Just inside the door to Senator Roméo Dallaire’s Parliament Hill office is a large colour photograph showing several children on a grassy hill in Rwanda. Some of the kids in the 2004 photo are barely tall enough to be seen over the grass, but it is clear MOST were born well after the 1994 civil war and genocide that left hundreds of thousands dead and millions more, including Dallaire, deeply scarred.

Most people who have read his critically acclaimed 2003 book, Shake Hands With The Devil, or his more recent book on the subject of child soldiers in Africa should warm to the photograph, if not because it is a good shot, but because it extends—in the eyes of at least some of the kids—a sense of renewal from the slaughter, despair and frustration described so well in the first book.

It is here—in front of the photo—where the iconic senator emerges from his inner office and greets you by shaking your hand and then inviting you for coffee in an upstairs cafeteria. The casual invite catches you slightly off guard on account of the interview’s precast time slot, but then again, it could be that by arriving early on the Hill a little more time has opened up in “the general’s” schedule, one he may use to establish a few ground rules before proceeding.

The coffee break is tactical for sure, but the ground rules never come. It is a straightforward case of the interviewee wanting to get to know the interviewer, and it begins immediately while following him along the polished corridors of the Centre Block.

Dallaire is approaching 65, but he shows no sign of slowing. He remains physically fit and deeply passionate—and articulate—about his beliefs, but not so completely absorbed in the larger schemes to skip past the smaller moments. In relaxed tones he asks where you are from, how the magazine is doing, what your interests are, and then comments on his—and especially his father’s—connection to the Legion in east-end Montreal.

By the time you are seated across from him in the nearly vacant cafeteria you feel comfortable enough to ask about his post-Rwandan struggles; not whether the memories still haunt him, but how much they continue to affect his everyday life. But this is not the interview; it’s just the warm-up to a discussion that will go back through some of his darkest days, to his work in the Senate and to his separate global campaign to eliminate the use of child soldiers.

It has been nearly 18 years since medically-released Lieutenant-General Dallaire served as United Nations peacekeeping force commander in Rwanda. In the space of just 100 days during that year-long mission his blue-beret force witnessed the slaughter of 800,000 men, women and children; most of them hacked to death with machetes. The situation was made worst by the fact that Dallaire’s peacekeeping force lacked the resources and international support to prevent or stop the genocide. He had requested a force of 5,000 UN troops, but was given 2,600—a figure that was substantially reduced to 454 as the bloodletting continued in the streets and countryside around him. The mission was also significantly challenged by the mandate that authorized only the use of classic peacekeeping tactics—limiting conflict diplomatically, and using weapons for self-defence only.

It was about four years after the Rwanda mission that Dallaire began spiralling uncontrollably toward suicide—brought on by recurring memories of the butchering and the failure of humanity to prevent what would become the worst case of mass murder and war crimes in post-Cold War history, although some insist his troubles may be linked more to the 10 Belgian peacekeepers kidnapped, tortured and murdered while under his command.

The general’s face as it appeared on the cover of his book Shake Hands With The Devil. [PHOTO: COURTESY ROMÉO DALLAIRE]

The general’s face as it appeared on the cover of his book Shake Hands With The Devil.

And so one of the first things you want to do is ask him where he found the will and the energy to fight his demons and carry on after witnessing such widespread depravity? He certainly appears comfortable in his suit and quite at home in the Upper House, but you can’t help think—even after all these years—how different his experiences are from the average person’s. Dallaire has received widespread attention and recognition for what he endured, but he is not the first person, nor will he be the last, to witness such horror. Many others in or recently out of uniform have struggled with similar demons, and while some have found ways to cope, others have been destroyed by them.

“I don’t for a moment think that those experiences have left him,” explains long-time friend and colleague Senator Joseph Day. “They are there and they pop into his mind and cause him some sadness on many different occasions, but he has learned to live with that and manage that and turn that strong, strong feeling of disappointment into something very beneficial for society…. I have been to several places where he has told stories that just make you shiver…but we all learn and gain from his telling them.”

Stephen Lewis, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, agrees there is much to learn from what Dallaire endured in Africa, and his continued sense of principle and idealism. Lewis’s work with the UN spanned more than two decades and included a long and highly respected term as UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. In 1998, he was a member of a panel appointed by the Organization of African Unity to investigate the Rwandan genocide. During a two-year period “we interviewed endless numbers of survivors, traversed Rwanda God knows how many times,” he told Legion Magazine. “We spoke to all the parties, but without question the most vivid, and the most extraordinary exchange occurred (in New York) with the seven or eight hours of testimony from Roméo Dallaire. I couldn’t get over the honesty, the pain, the determination, the courage. I mean the guy is so transparently a decent human being. I am not ascribing saintliness to him, but it is damn close.”

Revisiting Rwanda where the skulls of some of those killed in the genocide cover a large table. [PHOTO: PETER BREGG]

Revisiting Rwanda where the skulls of some of those killed in the genocide cover a large table.

Dallaire’s instantly recognizable face—with its classic cleft chin, white and grey moustache and angular nose—appears thinner than before, but continues to be lit by two piercing eyes that sparkle from the dark shadows beneath his forehead. Some would say he has the face of a hero, and while hero-worshiping remains a decidedly uncool pastime in this country, “hero” is exactly how many Canadians view him through the media’s lens, although he does not accept the label, just as there are others who would never stick that on him either.

His awards include the Meritorious Service Cross for his actions in Rwanda, the Vimy Award, the United States Legion of Merit and the Pearson Peace Medal. Prior to his appointment to the Senate in March 2005 (as a member of the Liberal Party), he was named an Officer of the Order of Canada (2002).

Canadians may also be familiar with the disagreement between Dallaire and retired Major-General Lewis MacKenzie which went public after the release of MacKenzie’s 2008 memoir, Soldiers Made Me Look Good. The controversy, which involved different takes on leadership priorities, has pretty much faded from public view, but its points of contention are still debated, and most likely will be for years among senior military leaders. It stems from separate speaking engagements the men had in 1997 at the Canadian Forces Command and Staff College in Toronto. Dallaire, who was still a general, explained during his presentation that military leaders frequently face dilemmas when it comes to assigning priorities. He expressed the opinion that a leader’s priorities should and must always be mission first, then soldiers, followed by self. At the same venue, prior to Dallaire’s visit, and since then, MacKenzie has expressed the view that in rare circumstances, loyalty to soldiers should occasionally come before mission.

In his book, MacKenzie singles out events before and after the deaths of the 10 Belgian peacekeepers, including the moment when Dallaire, inside a vehicle, noticed two Belgian soldiers lying on the ground at Camp Kigali.

Dallaire with former child soldier Alusine Bah at a Montreal gathering. [PHOTO: JOE DONOHUE]

Dallaire with former child soldier Alusine Bah at a Montreal gathering.

In Shake Hands With The Devil, Dallaire explains that he ordered the major driving the vehicle to stop; that the major disobeyed the order and continued on at speed, warning Dallaire that the troops inside the camp were out of control. Dallaire decided then and now that he had to attend the Rwandese Government Forces senior commanders meeting where he did not raise the issue of the Belgians. His aim was to influence these officers to maintain control of the situation and sort out the situation with their leader, Colonel Theoneste Bagosora (subsequently tried by the UN-backed International Tribunal for Genocide and condemned to life imprisonment). “It was that decision, in part,” Dallaire wrote, “that contributed to the deaths of 10 soldiers under my command….”

MacKenzie’s book, which devotes a chapter to the disagreement, expresses several points, including: “While it would have been possible to reach over and turn off the ignition in order to stop the vehicle, any venture into the camp alone and unarmed would probably have proven suicidal.” But it also adds: “With over four hundred tough Belgian paracommandos dispersed around the city, the potential existed for a UN show of force that would have been more than a little intimidating to the unruly mobs doing the killing.”

The senator with the Olympic flame in Ottawa. [PHOTO: HÉLÈNE LADOUCEUR]

The senator with the Olympic flame in Ottawa.

On that point, Dallaire maintains, “that attempts by the Belgians to move to consolidate their forces were stymied by the elite Presidential Guard as well as their own chain of command in the confusion of the situation.”

Exiting the cafeteria, Senator Dallaire works his way back along the corridor, recalling boyhood Saturdays when his father, Roméo Louis Dallaire, took him to the Legion where he would sit sipping Coke or shooting pool while Dad—“a huge man with piercing blue eyes”—chatted and enjoyed a beer with his buddies. He remembers how incredibly important it was for his father, a Second World War veteran, to have a place to go and connect with other veterans—to be with “those who understood without lots of explanation. There was never this feeling of vulnerability or that you would be queried with a stupid question because they knew the milieu—and they felt it, and sensed it. This type of peer support is so crucial….”

Sharing a few moments with then Governor General Michaëlle Jean in 2007. [PHOTO: SGT. KEVIN MACAULAY, COMBAT CAMERA]

Sharing a few moments with then Governor General Michaëlle Jean in 2007.

Back downstairs, a very unexpected, but unmistakable voice greets you. It belongs to Stompin’ Tom Connors and it is ringing out over a laptop on the senator’s desk. This is not so strange when you consider that it was Stompin’ Tom that Dallaire and others listened and sang along to during his modest Aug. 18, 1994, farewell party in Rwanda. “How great is that?” he smiles, moving in behind his desk for a closer listen. “I love it!”

So what has the transition been like from three-star general to author to senator? One did not lead directly to the other after Dallaire was medically released from the Canadian Forces in April 2000. Before that—in the years following the Rwanda mission—Dallaire capped his military career by becoming Deputy Commander of Force Mobile Command, Commander of Land Force Quebec Area, Assistant Deputy Minister (Human Resources-Military) and Special Adviser to the Chief of Defence Staff on officer professional development. He remembers that when he was medically released “there was just a one-liner. It said this officer cannot command troops in operations any more…because he couldn’t sustain the stress of it….”

Delivering a speech during the 2009 YMCA Montreal Peace Medals event. [PHOTO: JOE DONOHUE]

Delivering a speech during the 2009 YMCA Montreal Peace Medals event.

After leaving the military, Dallaire became special adviser to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) on issues relating to war-affected children and to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) on the non-proliferation of small arms. He returned to Africa in 2001—this time to Sierra Leone. “There I was—not in uniform—but working with civilians—bureaucrats and NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and so on. It was a significant period because I had no staff and there was a lot of methodology that seemed heavy and difficult to work through, but fortunately there was a lot of goodwill among the people I met.”

Around that same time Dallaire’s wife Elizabeth was hoping to see a whole lot more of him. She wanted him home, “working in the garden,” but that lasted only a short time, he recalled. Elizabeth has stood by him from the start. “She is from a many-generation army family, and has built a solid house base and the three children have been both protected and raised on the awareness of what is out there in this complex world,” he says. Two of his grown children have already served in Africa, “the eldest son as a captain in Sierra Leone and the daughter as a civil engineer in water irrigation in South Africa. The youngest son is a full-time computer systems chap as a leading seaman in the Navy Reserve headquarters.”

A looted shop in the Democratic Republic of Congo serves as headquarters for child soldiers in 2003. The girl on the right is on guard duty. [PHOTO: ROGER LEMOYNE, CIDA]

A looted shop in the Democratic Republic of Congo serves as headquarters for child soldiers in 2003. The girl on the right is on guard duty.

It was close friend and retired Major Brent Beardsley who pressed Dallaire and collaborated in the writing of the Rwanda memoir which became a bestseller, earned the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and spawned a motion picture. “The writing took about three years, during which I had that very serious bout with PTSD—that came back massively, with suicide attempts and all kinds of stuff.”

Dallaire was under heavy therapy and medication when he left the forces, and writing the book was not a healthy choice. “It proved absolutely useless in terms of being therapeutic. In fact, what it did was it simply brought me back into it—you had to relive hell in order to write about it…. It was only when I was about two-thirds through that I actually discovered that I liked to write. And so there was a release there inasmuch as I could put it on paper as I was reliving it, but because of all my notes and everything—even some of the material smelled of that time in Rwanda. ”

A group of well-armed boys, part of a RUF (Revolutionary United Front) unit in Sierra Leone, 1999. [PHOTO: SEBASTIAN BOLESCH, CIDA]

A group of well-armed boys, part of a RUF (Revolutionary United Front) unit in Sierra Leone, 1999.

While Dallaire has battled and done much to increase public awareness on post-traumatic stress disorder, on a personal level he is reminded every day about how long it takes to achieve a certain level of stability. “Every night…was…very, very difficult and dangerous—dangerous to me…. I mean there was drinking and all kinds of consequences…. Therapy was starting to help…but because there is no one medication for PTSD, you are like a chemistry factory all the time, and your state of mind changes and you have to adjust a lot. But there is peer support…one person in particular I could call up and that person would come and sit down for four hours and not ask a question. They would just listen and cry or laugh sometimes with me. This is what reminds me of what my father was going through when he was going to the Legion on those Saturdays.”

A staff sergeant in the Canadian Army, Dallaire’s father was in his 40s when he landed with his unit—the 85th Bridge Company—in Normandy about a month after D-Day. He would lose many friends, some blown to bits or mangled for life. While in Eindhoven, Holland, he fell in love with a Dutch woman who became his war bride. Dallaire was born at Denekamp, Holland, in June 1946, and later while growing up in Montreal he learned—like the rest of the family—to avoid his father’s dark moods. At the Legion his father got to laugh or cry with men he could relate to.

The senator still takes nine pills a day. “There is a certain level of stability and maybe you build a prosthesis (mental crutch) that takes away a bit of your vulnerability, but you are always vulnerable to a sound or something that can throw you off and so you hope these instruments—the medication, therapy and peer support—help you establish that sort of steady state you hope continues. Peer support is definitely the way you survive from one therapeutic session to another. I was getting therapy from psychologists, psychiatrists every week and so you hate going to them, but afterwards you are absolutely flushed out. There is a certain satisfaction, but then there is also vulnerability—it is sort of like a hangover….”

In the midst of writing his book, Dallaire was invited to do a fellowship on conflict resolution at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. He headed there soon after the book was completed—for a relatively uninterrupted period of academia. “Harvard was another world. It was absolutely magnificent in the atmosphere of wanting to do research and wanting to think and write. It was like a revelation. You get immersed in it and you are sort of protected in that bubble, and everybody is keen on doing the research and discussing…. It was a milieu in which I found enormous serenity.”

A child soldier in Sierra Leone wears a bracelet that he believes will protect him from wounds and death. [PHOTO: SEBASTIAN BOLESCH, CIDA]

A child soldier in Sierra Leone wears a bracelet that he believes will protect him from wounds and death.

While working within that bubble, he received a telephone call from then-Prime Minister Paul Martin. “I was supposed to do a year-long fellowship, but had just got an extension to do more research. The prime minister said he would like me to go to the Senate, and that to me was very fortuitous because I had been trying to influence policy from the outside, and I was already engaged heavily—not only in conflict resolutions, but matters pertaining to war affected children and child soldiers in particular. At Harvard I was able to get into it in a lot more depth—in Sudan, the Congo and Burundi. It was all very important because of my experience in Rwanda.”

But learning how to function in the Upper House took time. His political skills were lacking and he says it was an education in “subtle responsibilities.” He wasn’t “aware of all the angles” he had to cover before stating a position. He did, however, begin with respect for an institution some believe should be abolished or elected. His respect came while he was a full colonel in the late 1980s—director of land requirements for the army. He attended regular Senate committee meetings that held the army under a microscope. “I found those old sweats in the Senate rather perspicace (perspicacious or shrewd) in their questions. The questions were pointed and not always researched, but they were experience-based. And so we were on our toes coming up here.”

Attending House of Commons committee meetings while in the forces was different. “We rarely got into the subject matter because there was so much posturing. Posturing would fill the first five minutes of the first six minutes given to an MP. You would get the question in the last minute, but the questions were often not as profound—not as well researched.”

Dallaire is now deputy chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence, and chairman of the Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs. The focus for the former, he says, is on the reserves. The priority for the veterans subcommittee is the ongoing examination of the New Veterans Charter (NVC) which came into effect in 2006. “The reserves have bled just like the regulars. They have served with intensity. So now what do we do with that experience? Do you demobilize the reserves, reduce them in capability or keep them at that capability? And how should they be treated back home (after Afghanistan). Should we still have a separate administrative system, a separate pay system or should we have just one system? I think the experience in Afghanistan has proven that the reserves can be counted on and serve well, and they have the courage; they and their families are prepared to pay the gravest of sacrifice. So if they have proven that then it is high time that the regular force or the overall system integrate them and not keep them as a separate entity.”

On the NVC he says the subcommittee will continue to study how it is being implemented and where the pitfalls are. Overall, he believes the transition from military service to civilian life is smoother and more integrated than before, but “not clean enough because there are injured soldiers who want to stay in.” He believes some are reticent to go to Veterans Affairs Canada because they believe they will not find the same level of trust they find in the military chain of command. “There is this family within the military and the family has come back into the equation with quality of life and family support centres and all that good stuff, and so the family is much stronger now within the military…moving to another department with another set of rules is scary and uncertain.”

Andrea Siew, a service officer with Dominion Command of The Royal Canadian Legion, is impressed by Dallaire’s work on the veterans’ front. “His ongoing commitment towards the care of the injured is inspirational. His leadership and shared personal experience revolutionized programs and services for veterans and their families, and ensured they will not be forgotten.”

“I think we have a shared interest in ensuring that the veterans are dealt with in the best way possible,” adds Senator Fabian Manning, a Conservative-appointed senator from Newfoundland and Labrador. “Every individual brings something to the table…. I am sure he finds it frustrating telling others what he has seen and experienced, but there is no doubt that what he has gone through…plays a very important part in what he is trying to do as a senator.”

Dallaire’s much talked-about Child Soldiers Initiative, meanwhile, is separate from his Senate duties, and has found a home in Halifax at Dalhousie University’s Centre for Foreign Policy Studies.

The program’s aim is not to demobilize, rehabilitate and reintegrate child soldiers back into societies, but to prevent boys and girls under the age of 18 from becoming soldiers in the first place. “Our research shows that a lot of good work is being done on the former, but nothing has been done on how to stop the use of child soldiers,” says Dallaire. This, he adds, means stopping the recruiting process, providing timely support and protection to families and children at risk, training military and police forces to recognize and properly deal with child soldier situations, and mobilizing worldwide public opinion. His international campaign known as Zero Force ( hopes to recruit 2.5 million youths worldwide—“the peers of child soldiers”—asking them to be part of a movement that uses Skype to chat with kids in developing countries, and force a change in public awareness and opinion on the issue.

In the early stages of the Child Soldiers Initiative there was serious opposition to some of the military language Dallaire used to make his points. In reference to child soldiers he constantly spoke of “neutralizing or eradicating the weapons system,” creating the impression children would be eliminated rather than their recruitment and deployment. “The first incarnation—maybe a year ago—seemed a little too full of military symbolism, but Roméo took that on board—and that shows his intelligence—and toned it down without toning down the campaign,” says Stephen Lewis. “He created an approach that will win people to his standard rather than alienate them.”

“Over all he (Dallaire) is a great spokesman for the issue because of the uniqueness of who he is and his experience,” adds Professor Shelly Whitman, director of the Child Soldiers Initiative and deputy director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies. “You would be really hard pressed to find somebody else who would be able to speak to it from that very personal perspective, and yet can get an audience with those who come from a military background, and also those who are opposed to the military. If we are going to really try to address this issue we are going to have to bridge that divide. And he has been very good at that.”

Lewis, meanwhile, sees several roadblocks, but believes Dallaire is on track. “There is desperate poverty, the insecurity and the incredible pockets of conflict in the Congo, Central Africa Republic, northern Uganda, parts of Zimbabwe, the Ivory Coast—I mean the sense that children have that they might find some security as part of an army is very real. What Roméo has to buck, therefore, is this inclination of kids to follow soldiers when they have absolutely nothing else—when the schools are destroyed, when families are falling apart, and where diseases like HIV and AIDs have left them orphans—frantic for some sense of place.”

Lewis says he has met with child soldiers whose lives were destroyed. “They were emotionally eviscerated and the stories they told—when you could get them to talk—were hair-raising. Getting those kids out of battle in some way seems an absolute priority…. If he throws himself into this, and makes it a lifelong commitment, he will make a difference. I am not at all sure it will end child soldiers—I am not kidding myself, because the atrocities that are being committed in so many parts of Africa, just take one’s breath away.”

Dallaire estimates there are more than a quarter of a million child soldiers globally—all under the age of 18 and many under 10. More surprising is that 40 per cent of them are girls, often forced to become sex slaves as well as soldiers. “When you have children who are sexually assaulted by commanders,” adds Lewis “…they can become HIV positive” and that not only puts their young lives at tremendous risk, but contributes to the pandemic.

This campaign, his responsibilities in the Senate and his speaking engagements promise to keep Dallaire in the limelight and on the move, perhaps even to the voice of Stompin’ Tom. And so it appears—at least for now—that any long days in the garden will wait.

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