Over a span of roughly 100 days in 1994, hard-line Hutu militiamen killed over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda. Peter Raymont’s documentary Shake Hands with the Devil is a peek into this horrific time from the point of view of the Canadian lieutenant general whom the United Nations appointed to quell the violence – Romeo Dallaire.
Upon getting word of a possible humanitarian crisis, the United Nations sent Dallaire on a peacekeeping mission to Rwanda. The documentary makes clear that this mission, terribly underfunded from the beginning, was a desperate one. In one scene, Dallaire describes a situation where his troops were protecting a stadium full of thousands of Rwandans from Hutu militiamen. As his men were dying outside, he explains, inside the Rwandans were dying because of lack of water, food, and basic medicines.
The film goes on to explain that such issues of inadequate resources were compounded when in the early days of the killing, 10 Belgian soldiers were killed. Belgian representatives, blaming Dallaire for the deaths, voted to withdraw their troops. As a result, Dallaire’s force was cut from a scanty 3,000 men to about 500. After being denied an extra 5,000 troops by the U.N. Security Council, a number Dallaire explains was essential for stability, any hope of stopping the violence was greatly diminished. Needless to say the mission proved to be a complete failure.
This documentary follows Dallaire back to Rwanda in 2004 for the 10th anniversary of the genocide. Raymont goes with the former general to different areas where he commanded. Scenes are interwoven with video clips from 10 years prior of Dallaire yelling orders to U.N. troops and trying to stay alive. The director, in employing this 1994 footage, had no qualms about conveying the degree of violence that occurred in Rwanda, presenting the audience with shootings, beheadings with machetes, and piles of innocent Rwandans lying on the side of the road.
As the documentary continues, the viewer is educated on the other story of Dallaire’s tenure in Rwanda and the aftermath; the blame heaped upon him by the international community, the subsequent post-traumatic stress disorder he experienced, his depression and suicide attempts, and at one point, being found drunk underneath a park bench in Montreal.
The documentary Shake Hands with the Devil seems to have been made for two reasons. The first is to vindicate Dallaire of his supposed failures in Rwanda by showing this man’s passion to stop the killing in light of his pathetically scarce resources.
Raymont instead points his finger at the largely silent Western nations, their media outlets, and their leaders. For instance, in one scene we see former President Bill Clinton four years after the genocide, apologizing to the Rwandan people for not doing anything – providing the “if only I was aware” excuse, which was a claim of ignorance largely disputed by Dallaire and the few media outlets, like the BBC, that decided to cover the genocide.
The second reason for creating this documentary was to answer the “why?” question. Why was the U.N. mission under-funded? Why was Dallaire’s request for 5,000 extra troops denied? Why the silence (to the point of complicity) on the part of the West?
Dallaire raises the point that at a time when the United States poured thousands of troops and millions of dollars into the Balkans and Yugoslavia to assist humanitarian crises, hundreds of thousands of Africans were being slaughtered in Rwanda. Unfortunately, in light of millions of Congolese having perished because of war-related issues in the past five years, and the current unchecked genocide in the Sudan, such a diagnosis is proving itself accurate with time.
Shake Hands With The Devil is a moving portrait of the effects of war on the individual and a chilling indictment on the Western world’s refusal to face one of the worst humanitarian crises in history.
Michael Harvey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.