WATERLOO — The world was not listening to Romeo Dallaire when he warned of the impending Rwandan genocide, and hundreds of thousands were slaughtered, including 300,000 children.
And from that horrific experience, he wonders what, if anything we have learned.
“Are all humans, human?” was the question the retired Canadian general asked over and over to a packed auditorium at the University of Waterloo’s Humanities Theatre Friday night, where Dallaire was the keynote speaker at the third annual arts student union event.
He made a direct comparison between the 1990s conflicts in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, where the former received a quick response “with all sorts of resources,” while Rwanda was largely ignored until it was too late.
“Why did we do that?” he asked, answering his own question by noting that Rwanda was a country of limited valuable resources and the danger was only to the people who lived there. “They’re only human beings,” he said. “They (powers) ask ‘what’s in it for us?’ ”
In one particularly poignant moment, Dallaire recalled finding a boy of about five standing in the middle of a road, and when he and his soldiers went to investigate the area, they found huts filled with rotting corpses. The boy himself was thin and filthy with a bloated belly, but in his eyes, Dallaire saw exactly what he had seen in the eyes of his own five-year-old son back in Canada.
“My son is thriving … what happened to that five-year-old boy?”
Dallaire had been in charge of a failed 1994 UN peacekeeping mission during the Rwandan genocide and wrote a 2003 book based on Theoneste Bagosora, the man responsible for the mass slaughter, calledShake Hands with the Devil, the winner of the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction. He recently released a new book, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, and told the university crowd that war has changed and the enemy no longer respects rules outlined in the Geneva Convention.
He also talked about child soldiers, particularly girls who make up 40 per cent of the numbers recruited. Unlike the boys, these girls have a multiple purpose, as cooks, sex slaves and soldiers, trained to handle AK47 rifles.
Dallaire, a Liberal senator since 2005, is outspoken about the failings of governments to make real change in foreign policy and said many of the middle power countries are not stepping up to the plate to help — countries such as Australia, Spain, Italy, Brazil and South Africa. Even when the U.S. and Canada do send soldiers into a war zone, he said their main concern has become skewed.
“The aim has been to bring you home safely and it should be to complete the mission.”
Dallaire is concerned that given present policies regarding foreign conflicts, more powerful nations will not react quickly enough to help the people in places such as Libya, Darfur and Congo. He said up to now, governments have only acted out of crisis management and that must change
“Responsibility to protect is a new concept,” he said.
On a positive note, Dallaire pointed out there is real power in non-governmental agencies, better known as NGOs, run by people who are working in the middle of conflict. “They are there before during and after a conflict, they are the eyes and ears,” he said.
He also squarely addressed the young people in the crowd, pointing out that only 15 per cent of their population ever bother voting and should they ever decide to consolidate, their influence could affect generations to come.
“You hold the balance of power in this democracy and you’re not exercising it,” he concluded.