He could follow the orders of his UN bosses and lead his 400-plus UN peacekeeping troops in retreat to safety from a Rwandan village where they were likely to come under attack, or he and his troops could stay to protect area villagers whom they were sent to safeguard in the first place – villagers who would otherwise become victims of a genocide underway in Rwanda.
For him, Dallaire said, the choice was easy: He chose to remain and protect the villagers.
A retired Canadian Senator and celebrated humanitarian, the former Lieutenant-General, the Honorable Roméo Dallaire (Ret’d), was the final speaker in the Museum’s Upstander Speaker series before a crowd of 200 at the Mack Ballroom on the SMU campus on Oct. 15.
In her opening remarks, Museum President and CEO Mary Pat Higgins noted that Gen. Dallaire had pleaded with the UN to intervene in Rwanda as the genocide looked imminent, but that his request for intervention was denied. More than 800,000 Rwandans died in fewer than 100 days of the genocide in the spring of 1994.
In fulfilling the ethical obligation to protect those who sought refuge with the UN forces, the actions of Gen. Dallaire and a small contingent of Ghanaian soldiers and military observers, are credited with saving the lives of 32,000 people.
Gen. Dallaire’s courage and leadership during this mission earned him the Meritorious Service Cross, the United States Legion of Merit, and the Aegis Award on Genocide Prevention.
However, as he openly and candidly discusses, the experience left a scar on his life. Dallaire suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder and in 2000, attempted suicide. He is now an outspoken supporter of raising awareness for veterans’ mental health.
“How does one escape the debilitating despair that must follow having your calls for help ignored and being a witness to an atrocity of epic proportions that could have been prevented?” Higgins asked. “It’s beyond me, but somehow Roméo Dallaire has found the strength to advocate for those without a voice.”
Today, Gen. Dallaire advocates ending the use of thousands of child soldiers worldwide as war combatants through his organization, The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.
“Children are a new weapon in this era into which we have entered,” Dallaire said. “This is most troubling weapon system in the world. Children are being used to sustain war. And now we’re seeing them recruited younger and younger. This is quite extraordinary because in the past we would protect children from war. These children, if they survive, become adults, and they’ve grown up in the atmosphere of war, and it is very difficult to break that cycle.”
But through research, training and advocacy, Dallaire said he hopes to break the cycle by turning children into a liability for those who would use them in war rather than an “asset to be sustain conflict.”
Mary Pat Higgins said of Dallaire’s work, “In his writings and public speeches he (Dallaire) often asks, ‘Are all humans human? Or are some more human than others?’ General Dallaire’s challenge to society is for this century to become the Century of Humanity, when we as human beings rise above race, creed, color, religion, and national self interest and put the good of humanity above the good of our own tribe. For the sake of the children and our future. This is what it means to be an Upstander.”
The presenting sponsor for the Upstander Speaker Series is Real Time Resolutions. Trea and Richard Yip, the Harold Simmons Foundation, and The Dallas Morning News sponsored the Gen. Dallaire presentation.
Be sure to make plans to experience the Museum’s current Special Exhibit through the end of the year, “Holocaust by Bullets,” which tells the story of the mass killings of Jews, the murder of Roma and the disabled—and the quest to uncover the truth of the atrocities by he French organization Yahad-In-Unum.
YIU is led by Father Patrick Desbois, a French Catholic priest whose grandfather was a French soldier deported to the Nazi prison camp Rava-Ruska, located in a Ukrainian town that borders Poland. Fr. Desbois was one of the Museum’s 2012 Hope for Humanity honorees and was recently featured on CBS’ 60 Minutes.
–Chris Kelley for the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance