A Message of Hope from Roméo Dallaire

by Jonathan Chambers 

romeo-dallaireOn the evening of November 12, Carleton University had the honour of hosting a presentation by Lieutenant-General the Honourable Roméo Dallaire (Ret’d).  General Dallaire, for those who may not know, is the author of Shake Hands with the Devil, a harrowing and deeply personal account of his experience as commander of the United Nations force in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide.  General Dallaire’s visit to Carleton came as a part of FPA Reads, which is organized every year by the Faculty of Public Affairs to highlight the work of a particularly outstanding author.

The event was very well-attended, with hardly an empty chair to be had.  There was a palpable sense of excitement as we waited for the event to get underway.  Then, as General Dallaire came out and began speaking, the room fell remarkably quiet.  Such is the presence of General Dallaire.  He projects a remarkable combination of affability, vulnerability, wisdom, and experience.  All of us there knew that we were in the company of a truly great man.

General Dallaire opened by speaking about his experience in Rwanda, offering some analysis about how the genocide began and why it was allowed to accelerate and continue.  The subtitle of Shake Hands with the Devil is “The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda.”  That is at the root of General Dallaire’s analysis:  the genocide happened because humanity failed.  Rwandans failed to see each other as humans, and the rest of humanity failed to stop the slaughter they knew was happening.  It’s a tragic tale, and a sad indictment of the evil humans can perpetrate.

But General Dallaire refused to leave the story there, to leave us stuck in the past in a place of darkness.  Instead, he took us into a future of hope.

Gen. Romeo Dallaire poses with students at the event.

Gen. Romeo Dallaire poses with students at the event.

The world is changing, he told us.  We are an interconnected, globalized generation with the technological tools to actually experience for ourselves the humanity of people halfway around the world.  We are a “generation without borders,” with an unprecedented ability to effect positive change in the world.

It’s a new world out there, and this new world can be chaotic and sad.  One need not look further than Rwanda to see that.  But as General Dallaire said near the end of his presentation, this new world is a new opportunity.  Now is the best time ever to serve.  We have the tools we need to shape the world—we just need to get out there and do it.

This theme of hope, this vision of a better future—that’s the message that stuck with me from General Dallaire’s presentation.  He’s lived through hell, shaken hands with the devil, and yet he remains optimistic about the future.  I left inspired by his example.  Judging by the standing ovation the audience gave General Dallaire, I’d say we all did.

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