Movie Review - Scene of the Crime

U.N. general returns to Rwanda in Shake Hands with the Devil

Romo Dallaire is a haunted man.

The Canadian general was dropped into Rwanda in 1994 to lead the disastrous United Nations peacekeeping mission there. But Dallaire was given a pitifully thin briefing on the increasingly volatile situation festering between rival ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis. That rivalry, exploited for generations by the country's former Belgian colonialists, unleashed unimaginable bloodshed in a genocide in which 800,000 people died during 100 days of mass slaughter.

Dallaire - the inspiration for Nick Nolte's Col. Oliver in Hotel Rwanda - was ill-equipped by the U.N. and its "byzantine" bureaucracy to deal with the situation. As the world withdrew its citizens, then its soldiers, and finally its attention from the country, Dallaire stayed on, believing - at great personal risk - that he had an obligation not to flee an increasingly dire situation.

The documentary Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire derives its title from Dallaire's book about his time in Rwanda.

Dallaire's experience there, and his personal battle to exorcise its demons years after he left, illustrate how war and genocide do not have the kind of parameters politicians tend to trumpet. Rwanda has proven - just as Vietnam before it and Iraq undoubtedly after it - that horror is perennial and that the people who witness it are changed forever. Post-Rwanda, Dallaire admits to a prolonged battle with depression, suicidal tendencies and post-traumatic stress disorder. Even a decade after leaving Rwanda, Dallaire takes daily medication to keep him, in his words, "reasonable."

Dallaire still wears the mustache and neat haircut seen in news footage of his time in Rwanda, though both have since gone gray. Dallaire also retains the reserve of a soldier; his face tends not to show emotion, though his words betray a tempest of guilt, despair and fury raging within his tightly controlled exterior.

Dallaire and others interviewed in the documentary - fellow U.N. soldiers, reporters, a Red Cross doctor - are frank in their assessment of what went down in Rwanda. The world's disinterest in what was happening in the country is blamed on various factors, including Rwanda's lack of exploitable resources and the twin distractions of the O.J. Simpson trial and the ethnic cleansing going on in Yugoslavia. Racism also played a significant role. It was as though the deaths of thousands of people were somehow less significant because the victims were Africans.

Dallaire is a man twice haunted: once for the atrocities he witnessed as nearly a million Tutsis were hacked to death on his watch, and twice for the disregard for human life and suffering shown by the "civilized" West.

The film follows Dallaire as he returns to Rwanda 10 years after the genocide, both to confront his demons and to attend Rwanda's official commemoration of the genocide's anniversary. Interwoven with the present-day footage of Dallaire visiting sites of mass murder now grown over with bright green grass, is archival footage of Rwandans on a distant road hacking to death their countrymen with brutal efficiency. News footage shows countless bodies filling roadsides and rivers. Even 10 years later, the sense of a place still haunted by the past is apparent as Dallaire uncovers shoes and clothing at a forest's edge, left by fleeing Tutsis.

Shake Hands with the Devil is a sober, harrowing chronicle of one man's attempt to escape the guilt and regret of having witnessed one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century, and being powerless to stop it. Like the recent HBO drama Sometimes in April, it asserts the necessity of the West's remembering what happened in Rwanda since people like Dallaire - not to mention an entire country - deal with the aftereffects of those horrors every day.


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