A Train, a Genocide, a Visionary

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December 29, 2010; Source: The Tyee | In Canada, a senator named Romeo Dallaire is considered one of the nation's wise men and gave speech several weeks ago about such disparate topics as the importance of "ridding the world of the ugly phenomenon of child soldiers" and the symbolism for Canadians to develop a high speed train uniting the nation in time for the 150th anniversary of the Canadian confederation. Dallaire's connection to the nonprofit sector is the General Romeo Dallaire Foundation, which finances projects for the children of Rwanda, 500,000 of whom were orphaned in that country's genocidal civil war of 1994.

On January 9, there will be a referendum in the Sudan about whether the southern part of the country can secede and become an independent, albeit incredibly poor nation. Millions of people have been killed and whole populations uprooted by the ongoing warfare – or genocide as many have charged – in the Sudan, a nation led by a president (Omar Hassan al-Bashir) who has been indicted for war crimes in the Darfur region.

No matter which way the vote goes next week, it's all but impossible to imagine that there won't be more horrible bloodshed. Nonprofits have done tremendous work in the Sudan under the most trying circumstances, their staff members heroes and heroines all. But we might want to note those nonprofit voices here at home who continue to remind us about the impending disaster.

Dallaire is also a fellow at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies and the co-director of that organization's Will to Intervene project aimed at stopping mass slaughters like those in Rwanda and the Sudan. Now retired from the military, Dallaire was the head of the UN peacekeepers in Rwanda during that nation's slaughter. He begged and pleaded with the world's leaders to intervene to stop the killings, but to no avail, and reportedly, he is still personally tortured by atrocities.

The U.S. president at the time, Bill Clinton, frequently mentions our failure to intercede to stop what eventually resulted in 800,000 dead Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. Not surprisingly, Dallaire has long campaigned for the West to stop the slaughter in Darfur. Now, one of Dallaire's admirers, Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, is an advisor to President Obama, and perhaps she might convince him to hear Dallaire's plea to stop the next genocidal slaughter.

So what connects the high-speed rail in Canada to child soldiers in Sudan? It is the idea that we need wise women and men like Dallaire to rise above the quotidian and the mundane and help us create compelling visions. As the author of the editorial linked to above notes, "Dallaire pointed out [that] it would take a different kind of political leadership than what we have now. It would take a leader less focused on cheap political points and dirty tricks and more focused on building a Canada that appeals to the best of who we are, not the worst." The same could be said about the U.S., especially in its response to the January 9th referendum in the Sudan.—Rick Cohen