Sometimes you can’t see how incredible a person is when you first meet them. Still waters run deep, people are like rivers whose long courses from distant springs are uncertain, or like books, whose covers give mere hints to what is inside.
It takes time to get to know them, or perhaps it takes some desperate episode in life to bring out that special part of them; when all is lost, when darkness conspires, a spark lights up, the will to go on, an undying resilience and invincibilty. The inner light.
It was like that with my friend Vincent¹ when I first met him; the conspiring darkness was the Rwandan genocide.
Our friendship started in the most unlikely way, that is to say, with me ignoring his phone calls. It was an odd start.
This post is part of the series, Letters from the Heart of Africa. For a background and a full table of contents please click here.
I met Vincent on 7th of April 2008, on Genocide Commemoration Day, at the Kigali Genocide Memorial where he was volunteering. It’s fair to say I liked him from the start; his cheerful demeanor, his hopeful outlook and an indefatigable desire to help others in need that day marked him out as someone different.
We got chatting and it was something he had said about the importance of doing things for free and why should everything have a price tag that connected with me, and we agreed to stay in touch.
I ignored his calls. I’d fallen in to a period of despondency 6 weeks in to my volunteering placement in Rwanda (sometimes called by psychologists, ‘the sixth week blip’). It was a silly thing to believe in retrospect; everyone deserves to be treated as a blank sheet of paper from the outset.
I eventually answered his call one morning and we agreed to meet on a rainy Tuesday at Chez Lando’s, a semi-open sports bar/ hotel/ restaurant on the road to Kimironko.
I arrived early and sipped a Mutzig, around me were the Rwandan middle classes, eating and drinking, women in make-up and the finery of traditional Rwandan dress like colourful flowing togas; others were glued to the TV eager for an upset as Germany took on Austria in Euro 2008; there were pool hustlers under awnings cheering on every pot with high fives. It was world away from the genocide, when the hotel was bombed, its owner Lando killed, and bodies piled high across this sunny courtyard where I sat.
Vincent arrived in an ironed white shirt, unsullied by the red street-dust of Kigali, his cuffs pinned together with metal cufflinks. He was languid and soft-spoken, with gentle mannerisms, a long face and high cheekbones, and there was something elfin about his eyes and the tops of his ears; in all, a pleasing, friendly face but a face that had made a long journey; one that had aged too much too soon and had shouldered premature responsibility.
Vincent was 27 when I met him 14 years after the genocide – I did the arithmetic in my head, he would have been 13 years old during the genocide. Still in his childhood.
We enjoyed each others’ company, he was fluent in English so that helped and we’d meet up sometimes on Tuesdays after my tennis class, always with tea.
I’d offer him a beer, a Mutzig or a Primus the two main beers of Rwanda, but he preferred tea, which was served in a thermos flask, poured thick and dark, made from full-fat milk and spoon-fuls of brown sugar. (Tea can be teeth-stingingly sweet in Rwanda, it’s a high energy, high-calorie pick-me-up, Africa’s populist equivalent of Red Bull.)
Vincent was always honest with me. When I asked him about the genocide, he replied, “I do not wish to talk about that. You should watch a DVD… watch Shooting Dogs to know about it.”
But I was still keen to understand him, his story as a survivor, after the TV crews and journalists had left, after the killing ended, how did people like him rebuild their lives from nothing; how did individual lives form that tapestry of hope.
“When I was 13, I made the decision to be a man, I made it myself,” he said tapping his chest. “When you are a child and you cry, you usually have someone to hold you, to wipe away your tears and say don’t cry. I didn’t have anyone. No one told me that.” His eyes glint and I’m keen to tell him we can stop talking about it if he feels uncomfortable.
In April 1994, Vincent lost his entire family except for his sister aged 10, niece aged 5 and younger brother aged 9. When they cried, he hugged and consoled them. His sister was taken by the Hutu militia but managed to escape, hiding in a forest north of Kigali nursing a festering head wound.
The children had seen their mother, their only living parent, murdered by the militia in their home and there they buried her. Local radio stations had encouraged Hutus to kill Tutsis and even had lists of names which they read out on air identifying targets.
His mother’s killer was a family friend who lived down the road and they had played, prayed and eaten together. This is what marks out the Rwandan genocide from others – communities, friends, even families, turned on each other.
They escaped, climbing in to the dusty attic of their bungalow where they hid; from the gaps between the roof’s tin-sheeting they could make out gangs of interahamwe militia, marching, chanting, riding jeeps clad in garish uniforms and banana leaves, holding guns, machetes and clubs with nails in them on their hunt for Tutsis.
One group smashed down their front door and they heard the sounds of footsteps echoing on the concrete floor below.
Vincent and his siblings crouched together in the darkness of the attic, terrified. He held the mouth of his little sister for fear that she might cry and give them away. When he was sure the gang had departed he descended to get cartons of fruit juice and loaves of bread for his siblings in the deserted supermarket next door.
That was their life for weeks. Hunted. Hiding. I hate to think what the conditions were like in the darkness of that attic. But that wooden ladder of 15 rungs, was more than just an object. It was a rite of passage for Vincent. He went up it a boy and came down it a man.
One July morning he heard the screams of children beside them soldier’s holding them. At first he thought they were being taken to be killed but when he saw through the gaps in the roof their clean white bandages he saw they were being rescued.
They were screams of joy
The soldiers of the RPF had come in from Uganda and were already controlling areas like Nbabagogu, Muhima, and Kimiuru in the Battle for Kigali which they would go on to win.
At the end of the genocide the country was devastated. A million people were killed, most were unburied; two million people, Hutus, fearing a second genocide fled to Goma in Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of Congo) where the camps became places of misery, cholera and squalor against a backdrop of dark skies and smouldering volcanoes.
The genocide was over; they had survived, but for what? If ever there was a hell on earth, Rwanda in July 1994 was it.
But the phoenix would rise; young Vincent’s struggle was just beginning.
To be continued next week.
¹ To protect his identity, names in this post have been changed. Vincent is not his real name, neither are the associating names of places or siblings. Till this day, 24 years after the genocide, survivors still continue to suffer sporadic acts of violence and intimidation against them.
This was a post in the series, ‘Letters from the Heart of Africa’ first published on http://www.heyloons.com. Previous posts in the series are below and more are to follow during summer 2018.
20. Feeling down
25. As time goes by