Roméo A. Dallaire has spent a lifetime giving a voice to the voiceless as a tireless advocate for human rights.
Soldier, general, senator, author and humanitarian, Lt.-Gen., the Honourable Roméo A. Dallaire has fulfilled all those roles with honour and distinction, befitting his induction into Canada’s Walk of Fame in recognition of his lifetime of service to others and, perhaps most importantly, his care and compassion for others as a celebrated advocate for human rights. His life is a lesson for us all.
Born into a military family where he remembers shining the brass buttons on his father’s uniform as a child, Dallaire enrolled in the Canadian Army in 1964 and rose to the rank of lieutenant-general in 1998. In late 1993, Gen. Dallaire was appointed force commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, prior to and during the 1994 genocide. Here is where his advocacy for human rights faced its toughest test.
Gen. Dallaire provided the UN with information about the planned massacre, which ultimately took more than 800,000 lives in less than 100 days, yet permission to intervene was denied, and the UN withdrew its peacekeeping forces. However, Gen. Dallaire and a small group of military observers disobeyed the command to withdraw and remained in Rwanda to fulfil their ethical obligation to protect those who sought refuge with the UN forces.
He wrote his first book about what he witnessed during the Rwandan genocide, publishing Shake Hands With the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda in 2003. The book was later adapted for two films: a documentary and a feature film.
The courage and leadership Gen. Dallaire demonstrated in Rwanda won him many honours and the respect of people from around the globe, but the experience left him with post-traumatic stress disorder. His revelation paved the way for destigmatizing this potentially lethal operational stress injury among military veterans, as well as first-responders, and his passionate leadership on the issue culminated in the publication of his bestselling memoir, Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle With PTSD.
Lt.-Gen. Dallaire is founder of the Dallaire Institute for Children, Peace and Security, a global partnership with the mission to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers and to seek innovative ways to assist governments worldwide in this cause. He has brought this cause worldwide attention and in 2010 published his book They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children: The Global Quest to Eradicate the Use of Child Soldiers. Whether as military commander, humanitarian, senator or author, Roméo A. Dallaire works tirelessly to bring national and international attention to situations too-often ignored, whether they be the prevention of mass atrocities, the battle military veterans face with post-traumatic stress disorder or the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict.
The true measure of a person is not by stature, but by deed and by their care and compassion. By that measure, through their passion for people and leadership in humanitarian efforts to benefit others, Lt.-Gen. Roméo A. Dallaire is a giant among people.
His character and his genuine humanity clearly came to the fore when he sat down for an interview with Dolce.
Q: As someone who’s seen humanity fail right before their eyes, how have you found peace?
A: It’s interesting because I’m now a member of an international commission on the principles of peace, of lasting peace. How do we establish that? Because we’ve seen many of the peace agreements over the years haven’t survived — hundreds have fallen right back into their same mess, often because they’re so ill-advised. And still, we’re trying to figure out exactly how to handle these situations of insecurity in Europe.
As far as inner peace, that was only found about five years ago, when I fell in love with my current, and lovely, wife, who worked for 25 years as the executive director of a big family resource centre for military families. She had over 9,000 families, with troops coming back from Afghanistan and other missions, some in body bags, some injured. And she was in the midst of all that, and so there was a communion of our ambitions and of our beliefs and the work we were doing for the people we love in the army, then we discovered the love that we have for each other.
I’ve got to say also that nine pills a day does help and 20 odd years of therapy also helped. I was shown by my doctors that I was subtly and sort of in a bit of a camouflage way, through the work ethic and the way I was living, committing suicide, and so love completely changed that around, totally. Now I’m just mad that I don’t have enough years left.
Q: Your loyalty to the UN and the world was understandably tested during the time you were in Rwanda. What was the biggest learning lesson from that time?
A: I think that ultimately, the primary lesson to learn, in the greater scheme of governance and engagement by nations into complex and ambiguous scenarios that we face now, certainly from the security side, is that there is no room to blink. That is to say, there is no room to go in for a while and then if it gets too tough, leave. And there’s certainly no room for the faint of heart, to be prepared to face some of the most morally destructive scenarios that human beings can do to others, even if there are many who have goodwill among that. In the end, the only way we will solve this future sense of security of humanity is by engaging with nations, by assisting them, by bringing peace and not imposing peace, or letting simply the political elites run away with the agenda and leave the individual citizens and their families trying to figure out what the hell happened.
Q: Can you speak on moral injury, a lesser-known type of trauma?
A: The research we’re doing is twofold. One is that PTSD comes, more often than not, from ordinary activities or scenarios. It could be a car accident for anybody, and so there is an absolute need for an immediate response to that, to be able to help a person stabilize and come to grips with what they’ve gone through, and so it could be an ambush situation, or whatever.
The moral injury, however, is the second level, and that level comes from the fact that you have witnessed or been engaged in ethical and moral and legal dilemmas that go beyond any reference that you have from your societal values that you have been inculcated in you all your life, and so it is so offensive to you that it actually puts you in continuous self-doubt of whether or not you can return to a semblance of normality; that you’ve been so affected by it, that you are in fact weakened before the onslaught of scenarios that might even bring this back. I think ultimately, the moral injury, it’s so difficult to explain. I mean, if you’re facing child soldiers, and the child soldiers are shooting at you and the people you’re protecting, and you end up having to shoot children — how do you explain that to your family? How do you hold your own children after that? And so those are the depths that ultimately, if not treated, will become a growing cancer that will literally eat the insides of you with pain and angst and depression and inability to act reasonably, and so that side is deeper and longer lasting, and ultimately the best you can hope for is that you’re able to control it.
Q: What is the best way people can help?
A: My book. That is to say, read my second book, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, because unless you become aware of what this is, you’ll still live this sort of Hollywood-esque perspective of this little drummer boy walking with the big troops into battle. Well, child soldiers are essentially the fundamental mobilization base of all of these conflicts, every one of them that’s out there. And if they only know how to fight, how to kill and how to destroy, they don’t stay children, they become adults, and what you then create is generational wars. And so the wars simply perpetuate them because that’s all they know, and that’s all those kids who become adults know, and in the demographics of the countries in the developing world, when 50 per cent are 15 and younger, you’ve got a lot of history of engagement in conflict that’s in your society that you have to overcome. Education, and just giving them a way of life, let alone discovering what love can be because they’ve never had it, they don’t know what it is.
Q: What do you think 15-year-old Roméo would say to the Roméo of today?
A: It’s been far more than what could ever have been imagined from a kid from the wrong side of the tracks.
Q: What are you most grateful for?
A: Falling in love. Because it’s literally saved my life, and I would argue that the strongest instrument to work their way through PTSD and moral injuries and psychological injuries is love. There’s nothing deeper than that. Nothing. I truly believe that humanity is out there to thrive and not to survive. So, if you start your day by thinking, Will we survive this? then you’re already unable to think progressively beyond just surviving.
Q: What does la dolce vita mean to you?
A: Serenity. That’s what’s important.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
INTERVIEW BY ESTELLE ZENTIL