Rwanda Peacekeeping Force Commander Roméo Dallaire: “… the living hell that surrounds us…”
Declassified Documents Shed Light on the Effect of UN Decision to Withdraw Peacekeeping Troops from Rwanda at Height of Genocide
By: Clara Fisher
Today the National Security Archive is posting 85 documents from the Clinton Presidential Library that shed new light on the US decision to call for the withdrawal of UN peacekeeping troops (UNAMIR) from Rwanda. The documents show that the withdrawal decision was made by the US before Belgian peacekeepers were killed, and demonstrate that the UN Security Council’s passing of Resolution 912 on April 21, 1994, to withdraw a majority of UN troops, was the result of heavy US influence. The documents also reveal the high-level discussions, deliberations, and trade-offs considered by international leaders during the lead-up to the Security Council vote, and underscore how the decision was made divorced from the reality on the ground. Today’s posting highlights the effect that this decision had on UNAMIR Force Commander, Major-General Roméo Dallaire and his troops.
From the start of its mandate in October 1993, UNAMIR was undersupplied, underfunded, and under supported. After a vote on April 21, 1994, by the UN Security Council to withdraw UNAMIR peacekeepers, support decreased even as the situation on the ground became worse. Cables from Dallaire to the UN show the increasing desperation and hopelessness experienced by the force commander and his troops as they attempted to save as many Rwandan lives as they could amidst the deteriorating humanitarian situation. General Dallaire was aware of the political and logistical difficulties of keeping UNAMIR troops in Rwanda, and of the very real danger his troops were in under their current Chapter VI mandate which prohibited them from engaging militarily. On April 17, Dallaire sent a military assessment to New York, stating:
Maintaining the status quo on manpower under these severe and adverse conditions is wasteful, dangerously casualty-causing and demoralizing to the troops. Either UNAMIR gets changes in its parameter of works in order to get into the thick of things (with more resources), or it starts to thin out in order to avoid unnecessary losses and reduce the overhead and administrative burden to the negotiation process for a ceasefire and peace.
Dallaire, however, was also cognizant of the danger to Rwandan citizens if the UN withdrew the peacekeepers entirely. On April 20, Dallaire sent a cable explaining his opinion regarding Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s proposed options for UNAMIR, and reminded the UN, “For humanitarian reasons, it would be unethical to leave this terrible scene without at least giving a last hard and determined chance for a cease fire and an embryo of a relief organization in country.”
Two months after the UN had withdrawn the majority of UNAMIR troops, and despite approval in May 1994 of UNAMIR II, which would have enlarged UNAMIR by 5,500 troops on May 17, neither new troops nor supplies had arrived in Rwanda. The troops would not arrive until mid-August. On June 20, Dallaire wrote a frank and desperate cable to the UN, laying out in bare terms his assessment of the situation and his opinion of ongoing UN planning:
Since the passing of Resolution 918 on 17, May 94, UNAMIR has patiently waited for its expansion in order to fan out and help stop these massacres, offer humanitarian security assistance to the hundreds of thousands of displaced Rwandese and be in a viable/effective position to influence and implement a ceasefire. The ineffective reaction to meeting the critical needs of the Mission in order to implement its mandate has been nothing less than scandalous from the word go, and even bordering on the irresponsible to dangerous toward the personnel of the Mission here in theatre. This has directly led to the loss of many more Rwandese lives, [and] to the casualties amongst our troops.
Dallaire continues, “At the moment UNAMIR cannot pursue a Chapter VII mandate and is just holding on militarily (all 8 x BTR 80s are unserviceable now) and basically surviving logistically (we have had no fuel for 3 days).”
General Dallaire usually ended his cables to the UN by politely sending his regards. In this cable, however, the General was so disheartened he ended, “At this point FC finds regards very difficult to express.”
Unfortunately, Dallaire’s hope for UNAMIR was never fulfilled. The genocide did not end until the Tutsi rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), toppled the last government-supported extremist Hutu Power stronghold in mid-July and declared the civil war over.
Dallaire later sent his opinion of UN debates in comparison to the situation on-the ground to the UN; “I acknowledge that this mission is a logistical nightmare for your [headquarters], but that is nothing compared to the living hell that has surrounded us…..although many fine words have been pronounced by all, including members of the Security Council, the tangible effort…has been totally and completely ineffective.”
These declassified documents provide insight into the complexities of the international community’s decision-making process during one of the worst genocides of the 20th century. Continued and increased access to these documents is crucial to learning from past mistakes and implementing better preventative policies today and in the future.
 Samantha Power, “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide. (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 382.