Today, I was given the honour and the privilege of having breakfast with Lieutenant General the Honourable Romeo Dallaire. Dallaire has become a staple in Canadian history, when he served as the Force Commander of UNAMIR,the ill-fated United Nations peacekeeping force for Rwanda between 1993 and 1994, and attempted to stop the genocide that was being waged by Hutu extremists against Tutsis and Hutu moderates. And I got to have breakfast with him today.
My mother is a dean at Humber College and Dallaire had been asked to do a presentation on the subject of child soldiers and the failure of humanity during the Rwandan genocide. Prior to his presentation, my mother and some of her other colleagues had breakfast with him. My mother brought my younger sister and I along with her. This was an opportunity that I knew I would never be given again.
When Dallaire arrived for breakfast, he was quick to start a conversation with my sister and I, asking me about school and what my plans were now that I graduated from Wilfrid Laurier University. When I told him that I was hoping to be a journalist, he made a joke that I’d be “the enemy.” He then expressed his joy when he discovered that breakfast included pancakes and real Canadian maple syrup.
After breakfast, Dallaire was preparing for his presentation and told my sister and I that we better ask questions during the Q&A period. When I told him that I had ten questions, he and my mother told me to just pick one. Thankfully, I had the duration of his presentation to pick a question.
I can say in all honesty that Dallaire is one of the most eloquent speakers I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. What made his presentation so captivating was that he didn’t talk about his own personal experiences or take a ‘poor me’ approach when discussing the Rwandan Genocide and children used as weapons. I liked that he was able to talk about these staggering issues without making it about him.
I also appreciated the advice he had for youths such as myself: “Live beyond the border.”
When it came time for the Question period, I (naturally) jumpstarted it. I had originally wanted to ask Dallaire about his experiences with PTSD, but I had noticed that during his presentation, he had run out of time to talk extensively about the issue of child soldiers, a cause he was a passionate advocate for. So, I took the mic and asked the question I had memorized these last few months.
I asked, “In your book, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, you have stated that we see conflicts such as child soldiers as a problem that does not concern us, but we are creating the next generation of problems if we do not act now. Do you believe that we are in collective denial of the problem? What can we do to prevent this?”
I was pretty proud of my question. I can’t even lie about it. And I was even more blown away with Dallaire’s answer. He talked about one experience when he was in Rwanda during the genocide and there was a child soldier sitting amongst dead bodies. Dallaire shared that he had picked this child up and he looked at him.
“When I looked into this child’s eyes, I saw the same kind of eyes that my seven-year-old son had just before I left for Rwanda from Quebec City. They were the same eyes of the child,” Dallaire said, to which he was met with applause from the audience.
I am profoundly changed by Dallaire. I had always admired him for his work and the way he persevered in the past, but being able to actually meet him and have a conversation with him was life-changing.
It’s so important that people have real role models, such as Dallaire, who dedicate their lives to bettering the lives of others. The fact that Dallaire has dedicated himself to eradicating the use of children as weapons in war speaks to his character and influences others to care.
I am forever changed by Lieutenant General the Honourable Romeo Dallaire.
“As one of my friends told me, ‘How do you eat a one ton marshmallow?’ One bite at a time. That’s where my optimism comes from. There is movement towards progress and resolution of these issues, it’s up to us to further encourage it, but one must take a long-term view.” ~ Romeo Dallaire