November marked the release General Roméo Dallaire’s latest book, Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD. Few figures are as well poised to speak on the subject as Dallaire, who served as the military commander of the United Nations Advance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) in 1994 and bore witness to the brutal work of the Hutus’ Interahamwe death squads. Ottawa residents drew together at the invitation of the Ottawa Writers Festival in Centretown United Church one rainy winter evening, for the chance to hear the former Canadian senator frame this highly personal piece of writing. Convivium’s Hannah Marazzi was there.
Our evening starts late; we are waiting on CBC’s Adrian Harewood – our host for the evening – to arrive after his evening broadcast. General Romeo Dallaire peeks around the corner of the hall in which he waits. From a balcony seat, I watch a crowd of academics, public servants, political staffers, and law students rush the stage at the invitation of the moderator, hoping to fill the first few rows politely left empty. The audience’s quest for the perfect seat is comical and yet faintly ghoulish in light of the gathering’s paradoxical nature. A city full of people who pursue the socio-politically efficient and rational have come to hear from a man who seeks to shine a light in a space in which efficacy and reason cannot help, cannot heal.
Adrian Harewood arrives and ushers Dallaire to the stage. The crowd hushes. The woman next to me whispers to her husband, wondering aloud how Harewood will broach a subject so deeply painful and inescapably personal. Dallaire, however, has come prepared to talk. With little prompting from Harewood, he begins to share memory after memory of a childhood marked by the strict upbringing of Catholic parents and the unique permeation of army culture.
“I did a lot of window washing growing up,” he chuckles. Threaded throughout the memories of his early childhood and coming-of-age looms an unexpected figure – the church. He grins ruefully: “I was baptized; I was an altar boy; I even held up a priest once at the alter to help him finish the mass.”
His smile falters as he surveys the church and sighs heavily. "I was a reasonably active Catholic but Rwanda shattered all that for me. There couldn't be any higher being that would allow something like that to happen. So it has taken me 20 years to begin to think that I need something beyond myself, to bring me to peace."
It becomes clear that the peace for which Dallaire has been searching eludes him still. He admits to being haunted by dreams in which he sees the eyes of all those Rwandans he feels he has failed. He goes on to describe ditches full of bodies, years of overwork adopted as an antidote to insomnia punctuated by crippling nightmares, and the many forms of self-harm employed to make him feel something and then nothing at all.
“It’s like being in The Matrix, ” Dallaire says. Soldiers go to war with a sense of spirituality (if any) that exists within the bounds of a basic moral framework. What happens when they are called to operate not only as a soldier, but as a person in a dimension in which morality – far from being challenged – appears to be absent in totality? They panic. They crumble. The darkness sets in.
Dallaire leans back in his chair and describes one “Matrix moment” that haunts him still. One of his peacekeepers discovered a church full of people who had not yet been slaughtered. The peacekeeper radioed Dallaire, asking that trucks be sent to move the people to safety. The pop of bullets interrupted the radio dialogue: a line of child soldiers was advancing on the crowd of 200 people who were standing by under the protection of the UN Peacekeeping unit. The peacekeeper froze in horror. Another line of child soldiers approached from an opposing angle, but these ones held other children in front of them as human shields. People under the peacekeeper’s protection had already begun to fall. What was the peacekeeper to do in this situation, asks Dallaire? The answer he feels lies in faith. He notes, "When you lose all moral direction, it becomes more important than ever to cultivate the spiritual."
As the formal part of the evening begins to draw to a close, there is a gap in Harewood’s line of questioning. He and the audience are still picturing the child soldier holding one of their peers as a human shield. And then Dallaire’s voice can be heard in the quiet.
“You know – lately, I've been sitting at the back of an old Catholic church in Quebec City where I live. One day I may make it to the front. But for now, I just sit there."
The words of Canada’s great bard Leonard Cohen, departed just weeks before this book launch, run through my mind: “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in .” Is the first light that Dallaire so desperately seeks beginning to come to him by way of a church’s stained glass windows?
A young, lanky veteran, himself recently returned from war, captures the essence of Dallaire’s struggle in his question: “So how do we communicate to our friends and family that while we have returned in person, everything is different now? How can we make them understand that we are not the same person and that nothing will be the same again?”
Faith seems to increasingly be the tool with which to broach the questions so particularly summarized by the veteran. The lack of a chapel at Canada’s military colleges in particular concerns Dallaire in its current inability to spiritually equip soldiers such as the veteran in our midst to answer these pressing questions. “It makes no sense to have a spiritual vacuum. The enemy has us aced on that side. They have taken that reference and made it an incredible tool to indoctrinate... [The troops are] searching for a reference but find a vacuum instead because we have lost that."
The last question of the night comes from a young social worker. She grasps the microphone hesitantly and asks if there was some way to proactively prepare soldiers for the theatre of war in which PTSD emerges. It seems Dallaire is not done with the topic of spirituality just yet. He returns to the concerning lack of a chapel at the military college he visited recently, emphasizing the need for the military to focus upon the spiritual dimension of the men in their command. "We need a place to sit and to think and ponder the complexities of what we were facing through our spiritual dimensions that were attacked significantly [in the field]."
We are all quiet as we leave the sanctuary, lost in thought. We came for a book launch but in many ways leave with a meditation. Who is First Light? Have we made space for Him to come in?
Hannah Marazzi is the marketing coordinator for Cardus