Roméo Dallaire’s resignation from the Senate may be seen by some as a sign of weakness, of a man retreating from public life. But they’d be wrong.
By: Patrick Reed
Roméo Dallaire’s resignation from the Senate this week comes as little surprise.
His struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common knowledge. Bearing witness to one of the worst genocides of modern times as UN Force commander in Rwanda in 1993-94 continues to haunt him.
“I live every day what I lived 20 years ago and it’s as if it was this morning,” Dallaire told a room packed with reporters in Ottawa after announcing his resignation on Wednesday.
He approached the Senate like he did most things in his very public life — taking on intractable issues, shouldering a heavy burden and almost obsessively driven by a sense of responsibility.
This was apparent in his work on the subcommittee on veterans affairs, advocating for soldiers with PTSD; his founding of the parliamentary group for the prevention of genocide; and his very public stance on less popular files like that of former Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr.
Some may see his resignation as a sign of weakness, of a man retreating from public life. But they’d be wrong.
Dallaire isn’t, and never was, someone who walks away from a fight.
I’ve seen this many times and have gotten to know him well over the last decade. First in 2004, while making the documentary Shake Hands with the Devil with White Pine Pictures about Dallaire’s return to Rwanda on the 10th anniversary of the genocide. More recently, when filming with him in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan, detailing his work on child soldiers in Fight Like Soldiers Die Like Children.
Here’s one story, among many:
We’re in Nyabiando, a village in DRC, near the front line of an active civil war. Child soldiers are used here by all sides in the conflict.
Dallaire was meeting with two child soldiers, Serge, 15, and Ajefi, 16. Both had just escaped their armed rebel groups. Dallaire was there to hear their stories and help them get an airlift on a UN helicopter so they could return home.
Just before departure, with the children now aboard, a number of UN troops pile into the helicopter hoping for a weekend furlough. The crew informs Dallaire that the two child soldiers have to get off to make room.
His response: “You throw other people out or we don’t fly.”
As the standoff played out, Serge and Ajefi overcame their fear of being on a helicopter for the first time and stared at Dallaire. In their experience, commanders treated their soldiers like cannon fodder; here someone they just met was their advocate.
Arrogant? Perhaps. Effective? Definitely.
The company commander eventually ordered two of his men off and the helicopter departed, taking Serge and Ajefi from a troubled past to an uncertain future.
For Dallaire it was a victory of sorts, but a hollow one, once again highlighting the inherent bureaucratic frustrations of UN missions. And yet, unlike armchair critics, Dallaire is willing and able to work within structures (whether the UN or the Senate) that others easily dismiss. Flawed institutions, yes, Dallaire would readily admit, but the best we have at the present time.
Here’s another story:
Dungu, DRC, a remote town near the border with South Sudan. The Lord’s Resistance Army, which has been abducting children in the region for more than 20 years and using them as child soldiers, is active in the area.
Early morning UN patrol with Moroccan troops.
One of the lead vehicles is a beaten up Humvee with a 50-calibre machine gun precariously mounted on back with rope. Perched behind the gunner, seated on a rusty tin is Dallaire. It’s been a rough few weeks on the road. And as the convoy bounces along dirt roads, the 60-something Dallaire says: “For the last few days, there’s just sort of a rhythm that I’ve fallen back into that you want to stay with, you know, you want to relive.” His eyes intensify and focus, peering into the passing brush, lost in the moment.
Until he snaps out of it, looks over and smiles: “Damn. This is a nice break from Ottawa.”
He never seemed as alive and young and vital as when out on that early morning patrol.
Maybe the fact that Dallaire was more relaxed on front lines in DRC says something about the corrosive nature of the current political culture in Ottawa.
Or maybe it just says something about the man himself — someone who is never happier than when he is getting his “boots dirty.”
As he mentioned on Wednesday, “I’m leaving one job because I’ve got a more demanding job, I feel, internationally.”
The Senate’s loss is the world’s gain.