“Fox Trot Niner is the Force Commander, and if you don’t have anything else to do right now, he would like to talk to you. Over!”
I could hear the guys at Mama Papa Zero chuckling.
“Oh, sure, yes, put him on, please. Over.”
Then a clear, strong voice came over the radio.
“Carl, this Fox Trot Niner, General Dallaire. How are you doing out there? Over.”
“Very good, Sir, very good! And thank you so much for the truck, Sir! Over.”
“That’s no problem, Carl. We know you’re doing good work, and if there anything else you need, please let us know, and, if things get too hot, don’t hesitate to call on us to get you out of there! Do you understand? Over.” – I’m Not Leaving, Carl Wilkens
Do you know that question who would be on your dream dinner party guest list? There are many people I would love to meet but without hesitation the first person I’d invite would be Romeo Dallaire.
The 5th of May is an important day in The Netherlands. It is their Liberation Day. When I walk out of my house during this time I see the national flag but also the flag of Canada as it was this country that freed the Dutch from their ‘harsh winter’ of Nazi occupation. A Canadian soldier met a Dutch nurse in 1945 and she returned to Quebec with him and their baby boy. That little boy, Romeo Dallaire, grew up in the east end of Montreal and would become a soldier and finally a General. He was bilingual and I’m sure it was his language skills that ultimately led him to a tiny country called Rwanda in the summer of 1993. He was posted to command the United Nations Assistant Mission for Rwanda. He spoke French but crucially he was not French or Belgian. Belgian forces left their former colony from Kigali airport around the same time Dallaire’s father was liberating their country decades before. General Dallaire’s peacekeeping mission was abandoned but he did not abandon Rwanda. He defied orders from New York to pull out of the country, something seemingly impossible for a soldier to do, and stayed with the Ghanaian General Henry Anyidoho and a small team of ill equipped and lightly armed peacekeeping soldiers from diverse countries. He created safe havens from football stadiums to hotels to UN compounds and transported refugees past those waiting to murder them. The genocide in Rwanda was the fastest and most efficient killing in history.You can read about it in his memoir Shake Hands With the Devil. I also recommend the two films Shake Hands With the Devil and Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire by White Pine Pictures. Harder to find but also excellent is the documentary The Last Just Man.
It was the Frontline documentary The Ghosts of Rwanda that started a personal chain of events. I had just moved to Paris with my husband from Abu Dhabi in 2010. I was living in a flat in Saint Fargeau in the 20th arrondissement. There was nothing on the television so I tried to find something on You Tube. I typed in ‘documentary’ and it was there, innocuous, on the right hand side along with others. I clicked play. It had a visceral and lasting effect on me. Third culture adults have to have processing time because, certainly for me, there was never any time as a girl to process all the international relocating. I believe that is why I was diagnosed with information processing disorder at age 14 and given extra time in my school examinations. A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. At that moment, something finally processed. I later learnt what happened to Dallaire when he went home but never came home from Rwanda. His story triggered reflection on what my story was. There was also a pull inside me, a catalyst. I sat down in front of a computer and started writing a story. It started with the image of a 12 year old girl outside a riding school on a US military base in Ankara, Turkey. That girl was me and I have fictionalized my life panning out to before and after.
I was 15 in 1994 and I remember my parents going on mission to The Great Lakes region as aid agencies braced themselves for what the United Nations described as the largest dislocated population in the world. I had third culture peers whose parents also went. I still have a letter from a friend telling me of her mother going to visit her father in the Zaire refugee camps. I have read of military kids vicariously suffering through their parent’s PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) but not once of the children of aid workers. What happens to the families of peacekeepers and humanitarians when they can’t keep the peace? What happens when they bring the trauma of their work back home across the thresholds of their doors? What happens when charity does not begin at home and never did? I felt strongly as I was writing that there was a voice missing form the third culture chorus. The voice of a female TCK whose parents were not American for a start and not missionary, military, foreign service personnel, immigrants, refugees, oil workers or businessmen. The voice of a TCK born into high mobility in host countries only.
So when May 5 comes I celebrate with the Dutch but I also think of a baby born here the same day as me, the same year as my parents, 70 years ago. I think of him playing with his toy soldiers on a carpet in a working class district of Montreal. I think of his children and what they faced when he was repatriated.
Romeo Dallaire was the muse for Canadian artist Gertrude Kearn. She painted portraits of him and superbly titled the series UNdone. I’ve attached them below. She made the invisible visible. The Kinyarwanda word for the time of mourning between early April and early July is Kwibuka which means Remember. Dallaire used radios in the opposite way that the genocidaires did more than 20 years ago. Indeed he used any form of communication to tell the world what was happening in Rwanda. There were many radios when I was a girl and then a woman but there was one frequency that I doubted, my own. I don’t any more since I learnt the story of Romeo Dallaire who I admire for his candidness and humility. How he keeps trying to thrive even amidst his anguish. His is a a voice you can tune into, one that transcends the static and interference, a voice that delivers.