Sort of by accident (is there any such thing?) over the past few days I’ve watched these films: Trime, Blackhawk Down, Shake Hands with the Devil (documentary) and Shake Hands with the Devil (re-enacted). These last two are accounts of the Rwanda genocide told from the point of view of the General sent by the UN to pretend to suppress it. He was criminally unsupported, not at all to blame, and yet he was the man so assailed by guilt and trauma as to need intervention to keep from killing himself while the responsible politicians went blithely on. Rwanda was the true Heart of Darkness of Africa.
Romeo Allaire is a human Prometheus. I’ve just watched the documentary Shake Hands with the Devil three times so as to pick up all the voice-over commentary tracks. And I’ve watched the re-creation, which walks through the steps of strategy that failed. The actor was good, but it was nothing like looking at the face of the real Romeo Allaire. The documentary is unsparing. The re-creation is only a little more bearable. Allaire himself is eloquent.
Prometheus, in case you’ve forgotten, gave fire to the humans against the wishes of Zeus and because of that Zeus chained him to a huge rock where an eagle tore out his liver and ate it every day, but every night the liver grew back, so that the next day was the same torture. When Rwanda blew up, a foreseen genocide exploded that killed 800,000 people in 100 days. The numbers mean nothing. Watching men with machetes kill other men, realizing that a little boy corpse is not dead when his eyes roll to look at the photographer, peering across a sea of dead and decaying corpses fallen over the benches that had served as pews in a church -- that’s the sort of thing that means something.
When I composed a piece about religion needing to move away from anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism -- the whole religious obsession with human beings being the entire purpose, focus and center of the galaxy -- I forgot the crucial importance of our caring for each other. I suppose one should call that humanism. But Allaire was a devout Catholic.
We struggle all the time to understand how humans are different from other primates. The evidence converges, not on speech, not on tools, not on souls, but simply on compassion for each other. Not for our pets, not for the charismatic megamammals or figures from history, but for each other as we present to each other daily. We can sink back into our pre-human sources very easily. Allaire speaks of the gaieté of murderous violence, how excited people get, how celebratory that they just slashed someone’s penis off or just ripped a baby out of someone’s belly. It is a release, an ecstasy, an escape from one’s own self. Only later does the emptiness hit.
Allaire is not just Canadian. He is Quebecquois, from the province of Quebec, bilingual. His people are the source of the voyagers who were in Blackfeet country long before Lewis & Clark. I wouldn’t be surprised if in his genetics he had a little Iroquois, those worst possible torturers of Jesuits. But the Jesuits kept coming.
Allaire had a decency and steadfastness in him that simply would not let him flee with the other whites, that forced him to breathe the stench of horror, and then to fight himself over the guilt of not doing more in an impossible situation. His contempt and hatred of the Belgian quitters is obvious. They should not have ever been sent in from the beginning, but they were the only armed and trained forces available. Rwanda had been a Belgian colony and deliberately divided the people against each other to make it more manageable, just as Americans did on reservations. The radio recordings (much of the documentary version is footage taken in the actual time and place) sound like Rush Limbaugh. HATE, HATE, HATE. Black on black hate.
Of course, Belgium is one of those lingually divided nations (French/German) and Quebec is also divided between Anglophone and Francophone. The truly educated and upwardly mobile are bilingual like Allaire. I think it gives them a vital flexibility of sympathy. My in-laws, staunchly Anglophone, were from rural farms near Montreal where Allaire grew up in a working class family. His father had fought in WWII to liberate Belgium.
There are always fault lines in any society and the work of the religious ought to be prevention of genocide, not its encouragement. It is blatantly apparent that white Catholic church authorities fanned the flames of Rwandan genocide. One apologist suggests it was because the church felt the majority ruled and they would be wise to side with the majority, who turned out to find the minority inconvenient and easily eliminated. Thus, a sanctuary inhabited by skeletons in rotting rags. I hear the same dynamics around here: winner-take-all, no mercy for losers. Even if it’s Indian on Indian.
The US government at the time was headed by Clinton and had just taken a big hit as portrayed vividly in Blackhawk Down. The consequences to sending in the Marines stationed a half-hour from Rwanda (which would have stopped the killing) were politically dangerous, so Clinton basically put a bag over his head and claimed not to see anything. Afterwards he and Hillary came to express lip-biting sorrow. I wonder how often she thinks of that now as she tries to head off Iran.
Because of the genocide in Rwanda and the many others -- the Nazi holocaust is far from unique -- young people begin to hate humans, to think that humans are despicable, esp. humans in power and their self-preserving institutions. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Churches are not always based on schism, but can be about joining and harmony. The devil is a product of schism. And the evil entered Allaire by tearing him apart. He cut his thighs, he drank, he went into the river to drown -- all those things. The re-creation includes the stoic female psychoanalyst who says nothing, her episodes all filmed in disassociation gray green.
Whatever worked, whether religious or scientific or simply personal morality -- maybe his wife had a lot to do with it -- Allaire came back to himself, drugged, sometimes gripped by the past for long frozen moments, but eloquent and determined. He is a soldier to the core in the very best way.
One of the reasons it was so easy to write off Africans is that they are black. Let’s be honest. This causes most whites to see them as “other.” The Devil is black, Evil is black. The great service of this sequence of movies is to make black people real and good. The corpses are terrible -- not even human, but the faces of the living are symmetrical and beautiful. The intelligence in their eyes is laser-focused. Their bodies are tall and lithe, swaying under the bundles balanced on their heads. In several places they are outlined in a frieze along a dark horizon, against a bright sky. They dance and sing. This must be what people are supposed to be like, what they were in the beginning. What they were and are in New Orleans.
There are two sequences in the documentary that were acted. Very simply, a man walks down a country road towards us. He is alone, carrying a machete. In that country everyone slashes cane, butchers meat, carries a machete or a cudgel. He is potential. And potent. But it is Allaire whose liver is torn out over and over.
As it happens, I also watched a tribute film about Allen Ginsberg in the middle of this very dark sequence of films. Many people mentioned a simple act he took in the middle of the violent Democratic convention in Chicago when the crowds and the cops confronted chaotically, emotionally. Ginsberg simply chanted “OM” and walked through the crowd. As if magnetized, the idealistic young joined him, chanting and walking as he led them out of the park to safety and sanity. He did not pay the terrible price of General Allaire. He was deeply Buddhist and not afraid of death, but in the midst of life. It is not always necessary to be so dramatic, or as Allaire himself puts it, “so romantic.” Several times Allaire used his voice to save the situation, he also walked through crowds, bringing the fire of idealism. His witness and testimony are profound. And yet so many of the politicians we are hearing -- even federal judges -- cannot absorb it.