In this exclusive excerpt from Roméo Dallaire's new book, Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD, the retired lieutenant-general describes his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder as he fought to better the quality of life for Canada's veterans.
I am drowning in dark water, struggling to push my way up through the bodies. Gasping for air.
Breathing in blood.
I jerked to consciousness with a start, soaked in sweat, my heart racing. The clock read 11:55 p.m. Would the night never end? Stumbling into the kitchenette, I poured myself a drink and unwrapped a chocolate bar.
Over the next few days, I set up a replica of my office in that crummy little apartment. I didn't like staying late at work, and knew I wouldn't be able to get a good night's sleep in that horrible place, anyway. I never slept in the cell-like bedroom again, refusing to be a prisoner in that tiny space where all the spirits could invade. Instead, I nodded off at my desk, or on the small couch beside it. The lights were always on, keeping the darkness at bay.
I stayed there for almost a year. I worked 20 hours a day—on my official duties, on my speeches, and on the Letters Rogatory—only passing out each night when I'd exhausted myself.
The separation from direct command over my soldiers, plus the weight of the urgent responsibilities I now had for the welfare of all of the troops and their families, left me even more raw, more susceptible to the darkest of thoughts and memories. No one at work seemed to notice I was fraying—after all, I had just been moved into a high-profile job—but I knew something was changing, and it wasn't for the better. I had started to take small, unnecessary risks, like driving too fast (though never after drinking—I drew a firm line there).
For two years, work and adrenalin had warded off whatever was coming, but something inside me was now demanding attention, and it was using my dreams to make itself known, invading the little sleep I got. I dreamt of bodies moving through the water like fish, slimy against me. I was underwater, trying to get to the surface, but the closer I came, the thicker the bodies were. Many times I had a dream in which the souls of Rwandans surrounded me like jellyfish in a dark ocean. In another recurrent dream I was someplace very dark and a pair of eyes appeared, blinking like small lights. Then another pair, and another. More and more pairs of eyes. Some seemed angry, some were puzzled, and some were purely innocent. I knew these were the spirits of the slaughtered Rwandans.
The dream of eyes led me to another memory from the genocide: fifty, sixty, eighty thousand people walking in the cold rain, the red mud, with no protection from the weather, up and down the Rwandan hills. They filled the road completely, they were so tightly packed, and as they walked they dropped things that got heavy. The roads were filled with discarded stuff. And among these discards, in the rain, were elderly people too tired to go on. And children crying not only because they were hungry, and they were terribly hungry, but from fear.
I was in my vehicle, inching my way through these displaced tens of thousands, headed for a meeting to help negotiate a truce. Every now and again we had to stop because there was just no way to get through. At one such stop, I saw an old man propped against a tree. He was wet and he was exhausted and I could see that he was dying. I got out of the truck and he looked at me and our eyes locked. His were filled with bewilderment. How had it come to this? He had farmed his garden, raised his kids, survived other conflicts—and here he was dying alone in the mud.
On weekends not overtaken by my job or speaking events, I drove from Ottawa to Quebec City and back to visit the family, a 900-kilometre round trip. My Ottawa posting did not provide a driver, which was fine, though I missed the camaraderie with my old comrade, and I was concerned about losing so much productive worktime by having to drive myself. But I did not anticipate the effect that driving alone would have on me.
Next: For the first time in years, I faced straight hours in which I had nothing to distract me...
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