Updated: Aug 1, 2021
In early April in 1994 a missile shot up from the hillsides near the Kigali airport and brought down a small plane holding Juvenal Habyarimana, Rwanda’s president, and a few others, including the president of neighboring Burundi. Much of the wreckage crashed into the presidential palace, perhaps a fitting symbol of what was to come. The western news media paid little mind to the incident, and most of us went about our daily routines without even a passing curiosity.
Rwandans had no such luxury. The presidential assassination unleashed an ethnic turmoil that had burbled sporadically for generations. In the coming weeks, the western press came to analyze and debate a relatively unusued concept – genocide. No one really knows how many were killed before a fragile peace was won three months later. Some estimates runs as high as a million, and the floor seems to be set at 800,000. No one knows.
What we do know is that most of the killing was intimate, committed through machetes and clubs, neighbors slaying neighbors. Piles of bodies lined the roadside checkpoints where the militias exercised a drunken authority over life and death. Churches where the targets sought sanctuary became killing centers, places where God turned his back and the worst impulses of the sorry creation of man acted out in violence and despair.
Now, nearly three decades later, almost no one pays heed to the Rwandan genocide. Our lives have gone on from the news, as they should, and we regard now the challenges and crises that mark the new days.
But I cannot do so, and each April on the anniversary of the onset of this incredible slaughter, I think back to Rwanda.
A few years after the genocide I visited Rwanda for a week in the springtime. I was working with the American Refugee Committee (now renamed Alight) and was sent to tour the work done in the conflict’s aftermath. What I saw – what I felt – during those days changed who I was forever.
In my second novel, Through the Waters and the Wild, I drew from that trip to dwell on those changes. Conor Finnegan, the immensely flawed central figure in the narrative, visited a Rwandan refugee camp and encountered a small girl, no more than six or seven, who came to represent one of the book’s central themes.
This girl exists, or at least she did then, and continues to haunt my thoughts and flare my conscience. While I fictionalized parts of the encounter, I did not fictionalize her. When she first saw me she rushed to me and grabbed my hand. For the remainder of my time in the camp she did not let go. She did not speak, or smile, or laugh, or do anything one might expect from a small child encountering the new phenomenon of a white man walking through her world. I knelt before her several times to ask her name, to smile at her, and to pat my own heart as I tried to bring her out. No response other than an intense stare through dark eyes beneath a furrowed brow.
The other children teased us, telling me that she was ‘votre cherie’ – my sweetheart. Still she held on to me until I reached the point where I had to leave. I turned to her one final time and whispered words that I hoped she might understand, that I was going but that I would never forget her. As I climbed into the truck to drive away, at last she gave me a response: While all the other children had run back up the hill to the camp, she stayed to continue looking at me through the fencing. Two giant tears ran down her face.
To this day I see those eyes, see those tears. And I have no idea what to do with that. I’ve tried to ascribe meaning to the incident, tried to make sense of it and use it as some type of impetus – for thought, or action, or even just feeling.
But what impetus can there be in the suffering of children caught in the crossfire? What possible value is there in the sacrifice of this young girl’s childhood – and the childhoods of millions of young people around the world – who become the currency of conflict, and whose lives are nothing more than the byproduct of hatred, greed and the violence that goes with it all? I have no answers. None of us do.
And so each April I regard the genocide in Rwanda, and think of this little angel who had no chance to be a child. I cannot imagine the trauma she faced in her young life. I wonder what it is she had lost – a home, perhaps her parents, a family dispersed, the identity, security, discovery and joy of being a child as the world opens up. I wonder where she is today, and what became of her.
At the end of these days when Rwanda comes back to me, I try to sleep while the images float through me and around me. And before I make the effort to sleep, I will say another prayer for the soul of this girl, and thank her, although she could never have wanted to proffer the gift, for making me wiser by showing me what I cannot know.