Time worsens Rwanda wounds


Recovery: The Canadian general who led 1994's ill-fated U.N. mission battles recurring visions of bloodshed.

July 17, 2000|By Allan Thompson | Allan Thompson,TORONTO STAR

OTTAWA - The most terrifying moments come in the dark of night, or when his busy world falls silent. That's when Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire is swept back to the horrors of Rwanda - the bloated corpses, the terrified children pleading for rescue, the faces of the peacekeepers he couldn't save.

In one of those moments of despair, the Canadian general who commanded the United Nations mission to Rwanda during the 1994 genocide tried to take his life. But he survived.

And in a recent interview, after the military formally announced his early retirement for medical reasons, Dallaire said he will continue his struggle to climb out of the darkness caused by post-traumatic stress disorder.

"You become very leery of the dark and the silence," Dallaire said. "The silence is intolerable," he added. "It opens up all kinds of opportunities, be they dreams, daydreaming or sitting there with nothing else moving and suddenly, you're back there."

He can have flashbacks triggered by the smell of fresh fruit in the supermarket, or when bushes at the roadside suddenly appear to turn into piles of corpses. "Sometimes a word, a statement, a smell, an action, literally throws you into an uncontrolled state."

Just over two weeks ago, Dallaire was found drunk, lying in a local park and curled in the fetal position. He has tried twice in recent years to kill himself.

"It can be anger, incredible depression. You can be literally unable to function. You do become suicidal, and you do [make] attempts," Dallaire said.

Dallaire's decision to resign his post after 35 years in the Canadian Forces was met with praise and sadness. In the House of Commons, members offered a standing ovation.

"He has left an indelible, endearing mark of dedication and duty to this country and the Canadian Forces," Defense Minister Art Eggleton said, calling the general "a great soldier, a great patriot, a great humanitarian" who bears a great burden.

Dallaire said he will write about his experiences once he is better prepared mentally to discuss the mission in Central Africa.

Dallaire led a 2,500-member U.N. mission in Rwanda, including Canadian troops, and warned senior U.N. officials of the pending genocide in which up to 1 million people were killed.

But his U.N. superiors ignored his warnings.

An official inquiry last year said the massacres could have been slowed, if not prevented, had Dallaire's mission been allowed to act in the first hours of the killings.

If anything, Dallaire's visions of Rwanda are even sharper now than they were six years ago, when he commanded the ill-equipped mission that was left high and dry by the world community after extremist Hutus launched a campaign to exterminate the Tutsi minority.

"One of the terrible things about this is that your memory of the incidents or the circumstances becomes stronger. Where maybe you were living through it in a haze, or the urgency of whatever the circumstance, all that comes back in digital clearness," he said.

Dallaire's anguish is made worse by the fact that he tried to warn the United Nations.

In January 1994, Dallaire had been told by an informant that Hutu extremists who opposed a power-sharing deal with the minority Tutsis were plotting genocide. But when he reported the intelligence to U.N. headquarters in New York - where Canada's current defense chief, Gen. Maurice Baril, was then a military adviser - Dallaire was told that it was beyond his mandate to take action against the conspiring militias.

Hundreds of thousands of Rwandans who huddled in churches for sanctuary were slaughtered. Nuns took up machetes and killed children. Neighbor massacred neighbor.

Dallaire, 53, describing himself as "a casualty of Rwanda, an injured officer of the Rwandan war," said: "This is an injury. It's not a bullet hole but it's circuitry and the effects of that on the brain of the person that causes this injury."

Dallaire will retire with a comfortable pension, but is unlikely to be able to make the transition to a second career. His priority is to continue therapy for post-traumatic stress, a debilitating illness that he estimates afflicts more than 10 percent of Canada's soldiers, and can have a devastating physical as well as mental impact.

"It will hit you at different times. Some are immediate casualties, some are soon after when they come back into the country and close to loved ones," he said. "Other ones, like in my case, go into a very strong denial tradition, that, `I'll overcome it by working hard, and it'll disappear in my memory.' Until in fact you are so driven by ... your inability to sleep, to recover, to eat properly, to manage yourself, and you essentially crash."

Dallaire said it took several years "before the full impact of that happened."

"You can't concentrate, you can't focus, you have no appetite. You end up in fits of incredible anger, depressions," he said. "I mean, a cloudy day could be catastrophic."

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