This book has given me inspiration in quite a number of ways, but mainly, after destroying my faith in humanity, Lt. Gen. Dallaire has rebuilt it.
I feel that this is a piece of work that everyone should read. It tells about the horrible way that humanity, mainly in the Western world (in which I live), abandoned the people of a nation to be slaughtered by their warring overlords and how the group of people sent in to help had to stand helplessly by and watch the genocide because when they sent their pleas for aid to the rest of the world, everyone turned a blind eye. The book is an incredibly accurate and personal account from Dallaire's own records and memories. You get as real a sense as possible from a book as to what life was like on the ground. I won't insult Dallaire or any of the people who were in Rwanda at the time of the genocide by claiming to actually have a genuine sense of the horrors that they experienced; from what I read, I feel like evening my greatest imaginings couldn't compare. Dallaire does do a wonderful job in his descriptions of what it was like from all the senses. The constant reminders of the smell within the book are particularly resonant. Shake Hands with the Devil is not a book for the faint of heart, but it does remind us of our responsibilities to each other person on the planet and what happens when we fail to fulfill those responsibilities and therefore, I consider it essential reading.
What am I plundering from this book? It reminds me that my work needs a purpose. It reminds me that the stories I tell need to have meaning and need to accomplish something. It also reminds me of my own frailty as a human; how expendable life can be. Dystopian fiction has always been a favourite of mine. Books with warnings about the failure of humanity and many of the works that are ruminating in my brain right now deal with this issue. Shake Hands with the Devil is an example of dystopian non-fiction. The glory of fiction is that unpleasant warnings or lessons can be spoon fed to the readers in sizable amounts, so that it is easier to swallow. Dallaire takes it all and shoves it in your face in a way that I can understand would be overwhelming and alienating for most who are uncomfortable seeing the world for what it is. This is where fiction writers come in and can be the voice of the masses. We need to take the works of people like Dallaire, consume them fully, digest the truth and find a way to make everyone else in the world hear that truth as well. This is why this book inspires me.
I finished reading it a couple weeks ago and have had a hard time putting it back on my shelf. By putting it on the bookcase, among the rest of the books, puts its message out of sight and I can't bear to accept that yet. I want the horrifying images described within at the forefront of my mind. I want to be reminded each day that it is my primary purpose to be kind and help those around me when I can. It may not yet be within my capacity to change the fates of people in situations like that of the Rwandans, but the genocide was not born in one day; it came from decades of hatred and anger that was perpetuated and passed down through generations. I need to work everyday to remove some anger or stress from those around me, it may not amount to much at all; it could be as small as picking up a piece of trash, giving up my seat to an elderly person on the subway or holding the door for someone behind me, but at least it is something. Everyone can do something.
Before I conclude, I feel I need to share the most disturbing sentence I have ever read, which is from this book:
"Engraved still in my brain is the judgement of a small group of bureaucrats who came to 'assess' the situation in the first weeks of the genocide: 'We will recommend to our government not to intervene as the risks are high and all that is here are humans.'" pg. 6
I still have not recovered that, given the carnage describe by Dallaire, the officials we have selected to represent our collective wills as nations would choose not to help. This brings up more questions: have our officials grown too comfortable that they no longer represent the collective will of the people they have sworn to serve? Or (much worse, in my opinion) have we as a collective people grown too lazy in our beliefs to care about anything that does not directly affect our own way of life? Both of these are questions that continue to haunt and inspire my work.
After reading something like Shake Hands with the Devil, I wonder if I should pack up and join an NGO and go to work for the betterment of a village or school, but then I need to remind myself, that is not my tool. My tool is the written word, so my job is to write the stories that bring focus to our nature and the threat of a passive people. We each have our roles and our talents, it is the way in which we use them that makes a difference.
Though, by page 6, I had given up my faith in humanity, it is Dallaire's optimism at the end of the book that restored it. If a man, who has seen all the things that he has, can still maintain hope that man will be able to find peace in the world, then so can I. I will end with the final words Dallaire writes in his book:
"We have lived through centuries of enlightenment, reason, revolution, industrialization, and globalization. No matter how idealistic the aim sounds, this new century must become the Century of Humanity, when we as human beings rise above race, creed, colour, 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 of our future. Peux ce que veux. Allons-y." pg. 522
Shake Hands with the Devil is available from most online book retailers, especially in Canada.