(To read part one of this post please click here)
On one of our regular meet-ups Vincent* told me how he was rescued as a 13 year old orphan at the end of the Rwandan genocide by a platoon of soldiers.
They took him, his younger sister, niece and brother to a UNICEF camp for orphans at the Saint Famille Church by the main roundabout in Kigali, where they were clothed and fed on a diet of biscuits, rice, goat-meat and tinned sardines.
His sister’s head-wound had worsened and she was taken to a nearby hospital. The Red Cross took their photos in case someone, somewhere, who might have survived, would recognize them.
At the age of 13, he was the family head so they asked him many questions; where they had been living; who were his neighbours; what school had he attended. It was a rude awakening in to adulthood.
In October 1994, three months after the end of the genocide, his maternal aunt, who lived in the eastern province that borders Tanzania, recognized their photos in a local newspaper and she came to pick them up. I wonder what that reunion would have been like. Their eyes lighting up when they saw her in in the forecourt of the church. The hugs. The tears. The return of hope once more.
They stayed with their aunt and went to a local school because education was free for orphans. In 1996 they returned to Kigali, a city being rebuilt from ruins, with foreign investment, guilt-money from distant benefactors who had sat on their hands 2 years earlier.
Perpetrators still lived in the shadows, out of the clutches of justice (as some still do today). One of them was his mother’s killer, his neighbor; they had gone to the same church together and lived close by (even today, many of the genocide perpetrators are still living a stone’s throw from the families of their murder victims.)
Vincent approached the RPF to point out the man but his neighbours berated him saying, “You Tutsi, you have come to chase us out.” It troubled me to think that the old way of thinking still prevailed in nasty small anecdotes even when I was there in 2008. The odd comment. A random beating or even killing of a genocide survivor. A scribble of a machete on a child’s exercise book (I’ll write a post on this later in the series). But then there were the bigger events like the grenade attack. A dark undercurrent still runs in Rwanda, which accounts for the scrutinising government.
One of the most disturbing angles about the Rwandan genocide was the way friends who had slept, worked, prayed, played and eaten together for years suddenly turned on each other. How did that happen? What was the mechanic? What was the psyche?
Vincent and I would discuss books on Rwanda’s genocide and how their narrative explained it as a noxious concoction of historical and social processes that went back over a hundred years, mixed with politically incited ethnic hatred.
One of the books that has never left me was ‘Season of Blood’ by the BBC journalist Fergal Keane who witnessed the horrors first-hand. It’s a tough read, but a must-read for anyone who want to understand 1994. Before he came to Rwanda, he believed that evil was kept at bay by the force of good; that in the end goodness would triumph inevitably. But Rwanda changed all that for him, because of the scale of the killing; this was no longer a Rwandan issue; it told us about what he called the “soul of man”; it told us about about ourselves. It would haunt him for years and it is a devastating revelation. (Some of Keane’s paragraphs have never left me and I still find them, till today, utterly troubling.)
Vincent was hopeful. His favourite phrase was always, ‘the best is yet to come’, a phrase he would repeat often in kinyarwanda, a phrase he kept asking me each time to repeat, but I forgot each time.
His faith kept him to a world of hope, because religion is a thinking, rightly or wrongly, where goodness triumphs. A world of love and forgiveness, a binary world where evil is trampled. The genocide, he maintained, was the work of Satan.
“The man who caused a problem to us could cause us to not go to heaven. So leave the problem about bad people alone.”
Vincent’s mind was free from any desire for revenge; it has enabled him to help others; it has allowed him to lead a normal life without anger or hatred. His belief has saved him from a treacherous path. In contrast his brother was unable to cope with the haunting legacy of the cruelty he had witnessed, reliving the worst moments of his life time and time again through flashbacks and nightmares. At first it was just a few bottles of beer a night, then it became more. He became withdrawn. There was no treatment for his post traumatic stress disorder and he would sit still arms-crossed for hours on end and unfold them just to consume bottle after bottle. He died in 2001.
When Vincent became 16 his free education was ended and, unable to pay, he was told to stop school. But he had other plans: he donned his school uniform (“to make me look official”) and went to see the local mayor of the Eastern Province (Rwanda by then had its 12 provinces limited to 4 to centralize control) but he was shooed away by the Mayor’s security guards.
Undeterred, he saw the mayor’s car return and he went back to the office – there, he refused to move until he could have at least 10 minutes with the mayor. Impressed by his tenacity, the mayor granted him those ten minutes; they were ten minutes that changed his life.
Vincent showed him his school uniform, explained he was a genocide orphan and had no money to continue his education. The Mayor wrote him a letter, which he took to his school’s director: it granted him and 3 of his friends free education for 5 years, allowing him to board at secondary school while his siblings stayed with his aunt.
His sister recovered from the genocide; she fell in love with a taxi driver and they married in 2001 and today they live happily with their two children in their house in Nyamirambo.
After his schooling, Vincent got a job at a utility company, looking after the marketing and distribution contracts, earning £30 a month – it was enough to pay for his siblings’ education. When I met him he was working for the Kigali City Council, and saved his money for education fees (in 2013 he qualified as lawyer, ‘to help people’)
A few years ago, Vincent met his mother’s murderer again at a gacaca, a local court meaning “justice on the grass”, a traditional village court for grievances, invoked post-1994 because the official legal system, the ICTR, wasn’t able to cope with the burgeoning casework. Even today trials, confessions, sentences are resulting from the gacaca. His mother’s murderer was 42 years old and condemned to years of community work constructing road embankments.
Vincent visited his camp, singling him out from the chain-gangs of pink-uniformed prisoners. They used to be friends so they instantly recognized each other. They talked in the shade of a tree and Vincent him so many questions. But why. Why. Why. The biggest question started with the word ‘why’. It’s still the one we all ask about Rwanda 1994 or Auschwitz 1940-45 or Cambodia, or Bosnia, or … so many others …
Vincent reached inside himself and found, in some deep, special part of his inner being, the ability to forgive his mother’s killer and he revisited almost every month to check in on him, to see how he was getting on.
After some months, they became closer, and till today he continues to share meals with him on his birthday and on Christmas day.
Vincent, this gentle, humble guy with the broad Colgate smile, the elfin eyes and ears was clearly not how I first saw him, as just another person, avoiding his calls. People are never as they seem; what you see is never what you get. He was immense, a huge man.
Vincent is not alone. Rwanda abounds with tens of thousands of survivors, each with their own narratives of terror and grief, of escapes and rescues. Many of them today are adults in their thirties, who were just children at the time.
When you have taken that all that steel and bullets and cruelty and hatred can give, had your life broken down, lost everything, your parents, all you owned, your childhood, your future, and through the embers, the smouldering ash, the rubble, the dereliction, emerge to build up once again, to pick up the remnants of your once life, piece by tiny piece and then, as a child without being told, to make yourself a better person and help others, even those who wronged you without self-pity, remorse or any malice. That is the zenith of the human.
*Not his real name, names and associating place names have been changed in this post to preserve anonymity. All other facts are true as I understood 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