By Marvin Ross
Beyond the basic concepts, I’m not all that familiar with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and, as a fan of Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, I got his latest book on that topic. General Dallaire was the commander of the UN Multinational Peace Force in Rwanda at the time of the genocide. I had read his original book on the topic, Shake Hands With the Devil, seen the film and heard him talk when he was on a national book tour promoting his first book.
Dallaire and his men were traumatized by the level of brutality they witnessed in Rwanda and powerless to do much to prevent it. Between April to mid July, 1994, an estimated 500,000 to a million people were butchered in that small African country. Dallaire and his men had front row seats. Not able to prevent it or stop it and with little support from the UN or the international community, they did what they could.
As Dallaire says in his book, he was the commander who set out on what he thought would be an adventure only “to bear witness to the most terrible horrors on earth. I too was responsible for the mission, and therefore bear the responsibilities for the deaths. I too face blame – from others and from myself – for not preventing the atrocities. I, too, live Life-in-Death.”
After his return to Canada, he resumed his normal duties as a staff officer and a frenetic work schedule while experiencing sleep deprivation, flashbacks, nightmares and emotional turmoil until he was given a medical discharge. There were numerous suicide attempts and, at one point, police found him passed out after he spent a night beside the Ottawa River.
Dallaire has devoted his time to bringing to light the events that happened in Rwanda and to helping to eradicate the use of Child Soldiers in conflicts through his charity. I was reminded when I read that in this book of a comment he made when I heard him speak. He mentioned the impact on trained soldiers of facing little kids of 9 and 10 charging at you with automatic assault rifles firing and their realization that if they did not shoot the kids, they would be shot themselves. It took a great deal of resolve to fire and left the soldiers with memories that they could not erase.
When Dallaire was putting the material together for his first book on the genocide, he hired a researcher to help him. The impact of that work resulted in her taking her own life.
While he does have counselling, General Dallaire also takes medications and what he has to say about his pills is relevant for all mental illnesses. He says that some vets refuse pills because they want to fix their real being. His reply is that if you lost a leg, you would use a prosthesis and pills are the prostheses for what’s between the ears.
“If I wasn’t taking my pills, I would be a horrible person – depressed and aggressive, no matter how much therapy I was undergoing.”
A few pages later he says,
“Each night I take my pills, and try to sleep with the hope that I will not awaken amidst the roaming souls who still wander the hills of Rwanda, asking me to join them.”
Interesting too that someone can stave off the effects of the trauma for years before it finally comes crashing through. In one case he mentions, one of his men was able to carry on for 14 years before it impacted him and he committed suicide.
One of Dallaire’s activities is trying to get better understanding and support for the victims and it may be paying off. At this years Remembrance Day Service at the Cenotaph in Ottawa, the chief chaplain for the Canadian military included the victims of suicide in his talk.