This past Saturday, January 11th, marked the twentieth anniversary of the “genocide fax,” a message sent by Major General Roméo Dallaire, at the time the head of U.N. peacekeeping forces in Rwanda, to U.N. headquarters, in New York, warning of impending violence against Rwanda’s Tutsis. The fax got its name from a story in The New Yorker called “The Genocide Fax,” written by Philip Gourevitch, and published on May 11, 1998. In the fax, Dellaire proposed a plan: raid a government weapons cache within thirty-six hours, and evacuate the informant who was the source of the information from Rwanda. Dellaire, Gourevitch wrote,
had labelled his fax “most immediate,” addressed it to his superior in peacekeeping—Major General Maurice Baril, a fellow Québécois—and signed off in French: “Peux ce que veux. Allons-y.” (“Where there’s a will there’s a way. Let’s go.”) Reports soon appeared in the Belgian press explaining that the response from U.N. headquarters had been: Let’s not.
For a long time, the details of the response to Dallaire’s fax remained unknown: Who had sent it? How high up in the U.N. hierarchy had the warning really gone? Four years later, Gourevitch wrote, “My fax machine rang and a copy of the missing response to Dallaire spun into my office.” It was under Kofi Annan’s name, and was signed by Iqbal Riza, his deputy in the U.N.’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations.