A Little off the Top
I interviewed Patrick Reed, Director/Producer of Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children, and he shared this story about Roméo Dallaire, the Lieutenant-General who served as Force Commander of UNAMIR, the ill-fated United Nations peacekeeping force for Rwanda between 1993 and 1994. I thought it was fitting to use this in this month's blog because ... well, let's just say, because it's a good story.
“You could take a bit off around the ears, and that would be good.” So began a bizarre and fascinating trip to the barber. Canadian General Roméo Dallaire was back in Kigali, Rwanda, and was having a bad hair day.
This “crisis” was a welcome change for Dallaire. In 1994, he was UN Force Commander during the Rwandan genocide, forced to witness the slaughter of over 800 000 people in 100 days. That experience haunts him to this day, understandably, and each rare trip he makes back to Rwanda is emotionally fraught. We knew this first-hand: the last time he was in Rwanda we were filming our documentary Shake Hands with the Devil (2004).
This time, though, was different. We were making another film with Dallaire, Fight Like Soldiers Die Like Children, but this one was about child soldiers.
We were finishing up a month long shoot throughout the region, where Dalliare confronted, engaged, and occasionally enraged the various players in the child soldier dynamic: militia commanders, peacekeepers, humanitarians, and the child soldiers themselves.
We’d done some hard travelling to remote spots like Dungu, northern DRC, and Yambio, South Sudan—near the frontline where the Lord’s Resistance Army still operated—and were all looking a bit worse for wear.
Over breakfast, Dallaire surveyed our crew and said: “Damn, you guys look like crap. If you were in my regiment, you’d never pass inspection.” No argument there. We then discussed what we might do with our few remaining hours before departing home for Canada. The General declared: “I need a haircut.”
And so began Extreme Makeover—Kigali Edition.
We had heard that just down the street was a barber shop where the young man cutting hair was a former child soldier.
When we entered the small hole-in-the-wall establishment, the chatter immediately stopped. Dallaire remains a recognizable face in Rwanda, and was not the typical clientele for this neighborhood place.
Regardless, we were graciously welcomed and Dallaire was lead to one of the chairs by Claude Mugisha, 18 years old.
During the usual small talk, the General admitted that when he gets his hair cut back in Ottawa, Canada, it’s one of the few times he really relaxes, and would occasionally fall asleep in the chair.
Claude smiled and said: “I’ve never cut a white person’s hair before. But don’t worry I’m a professional.”
The General replied: “Something tells me I’ll stay awake for this haircut.”
As Claude started snipping away, he filled in his own story. Although ethnically Rwandese, he grew up across the border in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. As a six-year old, he joined a local militia group. Acting first as a porter, and later given an AK-47 and trained to fight. For 10 years he lived in the bush, describing with frank openness how he saw many of his friends die in battle. A few months earlier he finally laid down his arms when he heard of a rehabilitation and repatriation program run by the UN.
He turned in his weapons, trading a machete (or panga) for scissors, and learned a new trade: “I used to be forced to cut limbs; now I cut hair.”
The General asked Claude why he was so open about his experiences and Claude responded: “People think former child soldiers are somehow damaged and deranged and often avoid us. It’s really great to talk and engage with people. I did bad things, yes. But I’m not a bad person.”
The General smiled and said: “You’re a good barber. I hope you don’t mind if I close my eyes for a while and rest now.”
And, for the first time, I finally saw the General able to relax in Rwanda.
My journey as an author, giving voice to those who can't - or won't - speak.