What is Kwibuka? Kwibuka means ‘remember’ in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s language. It describes the annual commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. This month I’d like to share a chapter from my unpublished novel Traveller in The Dark.
Violet – Protagonist
Christian – Violet’s boyfriend
General Romeo Dallaire – Real life Canadian United Nations Peacekeeping Force Commander (Rwanda)
Carl and Joyce – American Seventh Day Adventist Missionaries
Sarah and Henry – Carl and Joyce’s children
Captain Ndour – Senegalese Captain United Nations Peacekeeping Force (Rwanda) Based on Captain Mbaye Diagne
Fidele – Tutsi cook employed by Carl and Joyce
The chapter is about Violet’s memories to do with the evacuation of aid worker children from the Rwandan capital Kigali in April 1994. It was inspired by documentaries and literature and testimony from a French and Finnish man who was 7 years old at the time. I have never been to Rwanda but Rwanda came to me when I was 14 years old. It came in through the door of the house I lived in in the French countryside. It was my 6th international relocation. I was studying for my IGCSEs at the time. My father spent 6 months there after the cease fire and my mother too worked there to demobilize child soldiers. They both suffered undiagnosed and untreated PTSD. Their children suffered it vicariously through them. Like military children, aid worker children are bystanders to the disorder.
“Fox Trot Niner is the Force Commander, and if you don’t have anything else to do right now, he would like to talk to you. OVER!”
I could hear the guys at Mama Papa Zero chuckling.
“Oh, sure, yes, put him on, please. Over.”
Then a clear, strong voice came over the radio.
“Carl, this is Fox Trot Niner, General Dallaire. How are you doing out there? Over.”
“Very good, Sir, very good! And thank you so much for the truck, Sir! Over.”
“That’s no problem, Carl. We know you’re doing good work and if there anything else you need, please let us know, and if things get too hot, don’t hesitate to call on us to get you of there! Do you understand? Over.” I’m Not Leaving, Carl Wilkens
In the photo, Violet is with her mother in a café. Violet had rescued all the photo albums from her parent’s garage. She’d taken them to be scanned and also to a restorer. She hears their conversation in her kitchen in London.
“A girl at school told me she saw the Devil,” Violet said
“Is that so?”
“My mother would always tell me not to talk about such things in case he was listening,”
Violet looked at her expectantly
“And what do you think now?”
“I think that you have to know evil is there,”
“Exactly. They are innate. But evil must be confronted, sometimes just endured,”
They dip their shortbread into their teas.
“When I was a girl,” her mother continued “the priest told us that the devil was infestation, oppression and possession. He also told us what God is,”
“What did he say?”
“Purification, liberation and redemption.”
“And how do you find that path?”
“Prayer, the sacraments, good works…I know what you’re going to say. There are people who live like this but they are still evil, right?”
“The truth is Violet, I don’t know. I guess we have to struggle with good and evil all our lives. Be fearless,”
Christian told her, tentatively, that Romeo Dallaire had a new film out.
“Yes, it’s called Fight Like Soldiers Die Like Children,”
Violet finds it on Amazon and some archived footage from Canada Broadcasting Centre. She clicks play.
“Can you please look around the courtroom here today and tell us whether or not you see Colonel Bagasora?”
“He’s on the extreme right of the last row.”
“Can you describe Colonel Bagasora’s role in Kigali in the spring of 1994?”
“Colonel Bagasora was the lead of the government and he…uh…ran the show pretty well himself. Bagasora had taken control of Rwanda at the time and he directed the massacres. He was calm and at ease with all that was going on.”
The courtroom moves to footage of Dallaire walking with his bodyguards for there are many in Rwanda who wish to silence him.
“It’s my duty to bear witness,” he tells an interviewer
“My next question to you General. In particular, I want to draw your attention to the female corpses.”
“All indicated…uh…to me that these women were raped. The faces were in many cases…their eyes were still open…horrified. Their breasts had been cut off…” his voice scratchy.
The prosecutor’s eyes shift. He pretends to shuffle papers.
“Would you like some more water?”
The Defence comes next.
“General, you are retired now but this is a difficult and risky experience for you is it not?
“These questions are bringing back painful memories are they not? How do you think you are faring under all this pressure?”
“What are you asking?”
“The nervous breakdown that you experienced after the Rwanda mission is well known and documented. In previous testimony, we have seen that you can get confused, that your memory is not always clear. I’m asking whether you are unable to recall specific events 14 years after they occurred,”
“You are referring to the post traumatic stress I suffered. If you knew anything about it you would know that it has the opposite effect. It hard-wires events in your brain to the extent that for the rest of your life they will come back — digitally clear and in slow motion,” he looks directly at the defence lawyer cross examining him. “These are events that you don’t remember, you relive.”
It is the defence lawyer who takes a drink of water, silenced, before rousing himself for further gaslighting.
‘Vous avez placez un doubt dans ma…’ Dallaire fumbles
They do that. Try to place doubt. They make you defend yourself when you have nothing to defend.
‘They didn’t see you coming did they General Dallaire?’ Violet tells him
Violet had roused herself, tried to make her legs move on the morning of April 10, 1994. The power had long since been cut off. The telephones no longer ringing. Is there anyone out there? No, there wasn’t. They were the only ones alive in the neighbourhood. But the radios still crackled and did so that morning. The main one transfixing Sarah and Henry, who spoke Kinyarwanda.
“They are going to clean the country” Henry exclaimed before running outside.
The rain was pounding and pounding but Joyce’s shouts cut through.
“What are you doing? Where did you get this?”
Out the window, Violet sees that Henry has split avocados open with a machete.
“Joyce?” Carl comes out
“Your son…look what he’s doing!”
“Where did you get this Henry?”
He doesn’t answer them. She has him by the shoulders, shaking him before releasing him suddenly. Her hand over her mouth as if she does not recognise him.
“Get it out of my sight. Get rid of it.”
Violet, Sarah and Henry lie in communion on the hallway mattresses. Henry gets up and goes to his room.
“I used to like my room but it’s not like the rooms of the kids in Seattle,” Sarah says
Sarah’s family regularly went back to the community where her parents grew up. Grandparents, friends, old neighbours, church.
“What does your room look like in France?” Sarah asks Violet
“It has wooden floors and a white Ikea bed with a desk and wardrobe. Out of the window I can see La Faucille. It’s a skiing place. You can take a telecabine up to it. I have a two posters of Daniel Day Lewis. It’s different from the room I had in Ankara. There I had lots of whale and dolphin pictures and stuffed toys.”
“Is it like the rooms of kids in England?”
“I don’t know,”
Henry flops back on the mattresses.
“I’m packed! You?”
Henry’s room shows a curious kid, an explorer. His bedspread is a beige quilt
“That’s what Indiana Jones would have!”
He has an old-fashioned airplane hanging on a wire and a giant compass, a world map and a U.S. map on his wall. He recounts excitedly the magical adventures in the castles, markets and trams in Switzerland where his family used to be stationed. He had been born there. Was it a missionary kid’s room? This Violet ponders as she closes the door, doing so reminds of her of all her those scenes in films when parents leave a departed child’s room untouched.
They fish out their passports. Theirs blue, Violet’s red. They put them under their pillows.
“Like before the tooth fairy comes,” Henry says but in a peculiar monotone. He plonks a heavy book next to his sister.
“Please Sarah,” he pleads
Sarah reads for her brother and Violet listens.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies...
“Sarah,” Henry says
“Yes Henry,” she responds, weary
“Do you remember when they told us that during the day God travels the world but at night he sleeps in Rwanda?”
“Why didn’t he come this time Sarah?”
“He is here Henry,”
Every day in Kigali there is a different assortment of insect life in the shower. It’s like having an open door terrarium where the life forms come. The crickets are the most frequent visitors. As Violet uses the toilet they are the only sounds she can hear. They come in various shades of light brown to almost gray, but none of the black ones like the ones in the humid nights in Brawner Street, McLean, Virginia 22101. There had been a strange cricket invasion one summer there. They had infested the basement where Violet kept her toys and where she could watch television. Hideous grey ones with long legs. Camel crickets, invasive species. Something that was meant to eat them had died out her mother had explained. The ecosystem out of balance. Violet weeps as she can no longer recall their telephone number there that she was once proud to have memorized. It’s not only crickets she can hear. There is a humming like an electrical appliance. There is the sound of secrets. Henry is no longer on his mattress. She finds him at the backdoor to the garden. He is staring out through a screen. There is a smell too, it has started, creeping.
And behind them at the opposite end of the hallway, at the front door, is the gardener. He says nothing to them as he opens the door and leaves. Violet finds the key on the floor and locks it before returning.
“You can’t stop me Violet. I’m going,” he informed her, his eyes wide and solemn.
“Where are you going?”
He starts burying his toy soldiers at the border of the property.
“It’s not safe to be here.”
“I have to put them here where nobody can find them.”
“Why don’t you take some of them with you?”
“Violet,” he says
“Have you ever been to the beach?”
“Do you remember when you built the sandcastle and you spend a long time, sometimes all day and then the…the…”
“Yes and the tide just takes it all away,”
“I do know when that happens Henry. Have you seen The Snowman?”
“No, I don’t know that one,”
Violet nods, it was too British. She had seen it for the first time at her grandmother’s.
“What happens in that one?”
“Well, this little boy, he lives in a house in the countryside with no neighbours. He makes a snowman which comes to life. The little boy shows the snowman his house and then the snowman takes him flying on an adventure before taking him home,”
“And in the morning the snowman is gone?”
“Yes, he melts away in the sunshine,”
Violet had seen him on the carpet, how he liked to line them up and play battle. Nobody was allowed to interrupt him or join in.
“I’m gonna be a soldier!”
“A soldier of God I hope,” his father would say back.
“Henry,” she places her hand on his shoulder.
She has déjà vu. It’s because of a film she’d watched as a girl in Virginia; The Boy who Could Fly. Except the little boy had been trying to find his toys again, not to lose them forever.
“Can I help you?”
“It’s done. I’m finished. Wait, there’s one more”
Violet takes the last toy soldier, patting the damp earth down.
“We all fall down like toy soldiers,” he says
“What did you say?”
“Don’t you know that song? Sarah was crazy about it for a long time,”
Henry starts back to the house at dusk. Heavy rainfall starts but Violet waits. From the hill she can see all the doors kicked in, they are still on their broken hinges. Some chickens sleeping in the entrance waiting for an owner. The broken glass of windows smashed open with the butt of rifles. As the Earth spins to welcome the sun, she starts to see the outlines of butchered human beings. In Kibeho, Rwanda many years before there were rumours of an apparition. The Virgin Mary had shown herself to three young women. She had told them this day would come.
Yes Mother, I will repeat it exactly as you ask me to. To the people on Earth, you say three times You opened the door and they refused to come in. You opened the door and they refused to come in. You opened the door and they refused to come in.
“I guess he just wanted to take his chances. Got scared? Maybe he knew somewhere to hide. I don’t know,”
Carl and Joyce were discussing the gardener in the kitchen as Fidele is washing vegetables.
“Where did you learn English?” Violet asks her
“Do you have children?”
Fidele considers the question as if she’s been asked if she prefers coffee or tea. Violet knows she drinks green tea. She keeps the leaves next to the American coffee maker.
“Yes, I have a son.”
“Where is he?”
“I took him to Uganda when he was a baby, with my parents many years ago. He grew up there,”
“New Belgians came. They were different. They spoke French but with each other another language,”
“Flemish,” Carl explained
“And everything changed. I always liked school. I was first in many of my classes but the teachers started not to care. And the other students were jealous. They threw away my results. I went to check for my name on the scholarship list in the town hall. It was not there. The places were all given to Hutus with lower marks,”
“Why?” Violet asks
“It was revenge. My father was a shebuja, a patron. He fined a Hutu farmer. It was all the money the man had saved for his son’s education. Not long after that, the farmer burned down my father’s house,”
“Do you see your son?”
“I haven’t seen him since I came back here,”
She puts her knife down then on all the food she had carefully organised and prepared for a family that was not her own. She starts to wash her hands, over and over, with a Palmolive bar.
“The Tutsis are going to churches. I will go to mine too,”
“Fidele, the churches are not safe. They are killing them there. It…” Carl coughs. “It makes it easier to…”
“I know,” Fidele says. “That’s why I want to go. I don’t want to die alone here in this house,”
And they are all silent. Carl stares at her and Joyce leaves the room.
“I am tired,” Fidele continues. “I saw them leaving this morning, very early,”
“Some of the neighbours. I almost went with them,”
The radio read out the list of Tutsis killed the day before. Fidele’s name was read out.
“It’s just someone with the same name as you,” Carl assures her
“If I stay here and live, I will be alone. I will be dead. Do you understand?”
But there had been another force, another entity. It came in through the open door, one footfall at a time. Violet reaches out to his palm twice the size of hers. His Walkie Talkie electric. His pull like the magnet’s.
“Leve toi Violette,” Captain Ndour’s voice insists
The family dog starts to chase the pickup truck but then stops dead in its tracks.
In Burundi, Violet had spent a long time examining her hands. It’s as if they have been a in a bath for a long time and the tips are sore and pink. She passes them over shards of glass on the tiled floor of a school, from a mirror. She looks for it and sees it mounted on a wall, sees herself staring back, a fractured face. The mirror cracked from side to side. A splintered girl trying to brush her teeth. Behind her reflection a mother explodes at her daughter.
“Ca suffit! Arret! Arret de poser les questions!”
The outburst subdues all in the makeshift camp. So, Violet turned away from her crumbling face in the glass and walked out of the schoolhouse to block that mother’s voice. That was her moment of reckoning. She made a promise to herself. She would never tell anyone what had happened to her. Henry follows her but keeps his distance. Violet stops to let him catch up, holding out her hand for him to take.
Bujumbura to Nairobi with Kenya Airways where they transfer her to a KLM flight attendant. Violet keeps her eyes only on the tall blonde woman in black heels. The tag around her neck tells people she is an unaccompanied minor. She crashes on the way to Amsterdam, the turbulence used to make her stomach jump but it now lulled her sleep as she spread out on empty seats at the back of the plane. Violet disappears into The Netherlands. We all have them and we are destined to return from them.And it was a hard landing, Violet braced and the braking interminable. The luggage compartments shaking so hard that it was if the plane was coming apart. And the passengers, birds moving in flock, evaporated into Schiphol Airport but Violet’s journey was not done. She followed the airline stewardess past the sign marked Transfers. She waits at the gate for Geneva.
“Violette? What kind of name is that?”
A group of teenage girls had overheard the stewardess introducing her to a new one.
“My name’s Violet, the French call me Violette,”
“Your breath stinks by the way and when’s the last time you had a shower?”
Violet cries in the toilets and looks for her toothbrush but to no avail. It is on a schoolroom floor in Bujumbura with her spittle and toothpaste still upon it. It tells a DNA story of the British Isles with smaller influences from Norway, Denmark and Holland. She rinses her mouth instead before preboarding a ghost plane.
“I’m going now but I will wait at departures. I will inform your parents as soon as the plane has taken off,”
Next to her is a little girl of 3 or 4. Totally uninterested in the colouring book her mother has given her. Instead concentrated on the safety manual.
“This is the plane,” she says. “With one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight slides for to go down. Here…” she points to two pictographs, “is the plane going up and then down because it is broken in the water,”
“Pay attention to this part,” her mother interrupts. “Have you got your seat belt on like that?”
She inspects her belt, clicking it on and off.
“Cabin crew, prepare for landing,”
Some cats wake up for the descent, yowling all the way to landing. One tried to burst through the air hole, smooshed cheeks and fiery eyes. The owner sits on the cardboard carrier to prevent a prison break and hissing and spitting all the way through the cabin.
Violet closes the wooden shutters of her London flat. Her father’s favourite radio had been the old fashioned transistor. It would still play, the voices whispering, as he slept. He turned the sound up as soon as he woke up in the morning. There had been many radios as a girl and their cacophony had caught up with her as a woman. She had been afraid to tune into the persistent chorus from her life. The frequency had been too fast, too overwhelming but she’d been wrong to banish their static and interference. She thought by doing so she wouldn’t find her own. The voices hadn’t made sense to the here and now. But it had been her station all along. No, there was no need to block herself of the no man’s lands of her girlhood. She pushes the dials back and forth and lets their transmission deliver.