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from the November 2013 issue

A Coward’s Repentance

He had been watching me for a while, but I hadn't noticed him. I was busy chatting with my cousin Astrida on the doorstep of her store in the center of the capital. In Kigali, to greet an acquaintance means to ask her what is happening in her life at the moment. Has she had children since . . .  No one says the word "genocide" in this context; people tend to say "since then," and right away the other person understands the reference to that catastrophic spring. Our conversation was cordial and very animated.  Then, I said good-bye to her, and when he saw me alone, ready to leave, he came up to me.  A small man, with a timid and distressed expression on his face. I recognized him right away: Gasake. The Hutu husband of Immaculée, the one who had abandoned her at the height of the genocide . . .

I had crossed paths with him one time before this. I was leaving my sister Josephine's house when a little boy threw himself at me, crying "Mama Tika!" Once I recognized him, I understood his mistake right away: the son of Immaculée and Gasake had taken me for Stéphanie. His father hung back, a few steps behind, uncomfortable, and I, responding to the child, had given in to a rush of malice because, you see, without curbing myself, I had corrected him saying that no, I was not Mama Tika, that she had been killed. But more than that, I had added: "She was killed with your mom." Right away, I was angry at myself for this remark, and I felt bad for the kid. I wanted to hurt the father, and I had brutalized the son. He was about twelve years old, and I didn't even know what he knew about the whole story. What do men tell their children in a case like this? We all immediately fell silent, all three of us; then I quickly retreated. Later, a droll thought softened my remorse: Stéphanie was always jokingly proclaiming that she was more beautiful than I, but here the boy had well and truly confused me with her. So, with an affectionate smile, I had secretly thumbed my nose at my sister, my much-beloved sister. 


So, Gasake came up to me, at the store exit. Customary greetings, compulsory courtesy. I look him in the eyes, and obviously cannot think of anything other than that period of 1994. To be the spouse of a Tutsi woman during the genocide was not so easy. Gasake hadn't known how to resist his fear. I have trouble judging him, I know that he was not the worst of the worst. An actor whose plays were often broadcast on the radio, a poet in his free time, rather sweet. A man of whom it would have been said, back in the day, that he wasn't "a bad guy" and that he would certainly not have abandoned his wife. But, after all, he did . .  . Gasake hadn't known how to resist his fear . . .


You know, there's no logic in these reactions: take Thomas, with whom I am so angry for not revealing anything to me about my sister's tomb, Thomas, in whom I don't discern a scrap of nobility or grandeur, Thomas, you see, is married to a Tutsi woman, and never abandoned her during the genocide. He, too, could have fled, or paraded around the neighborhood, preoccupied simply with patrolling as a militiaman without worrying about the fate of his spouse. But he defended her, protected her, and even, people in his neighborhood say, he decided against leaving Kigali, where the fighting was intensifying, where provisions were lacking, in order to be sure that nothing would happen to her. And I never would have described Thomas as a good guy. I refrain from rigid or hasty judgments of Gasake. Who knows what played itself out in him. Fear is such a difficult feeling to assessNonetheless, if he wants me to hold on to all my tolerance for him, he'd better not to come too close to me. He'd better not ask me to express benevolence to him. I know how to keep things in perspective, but our reactions are sometimes stronger than our reasoning, like the reaction that I had with his son. 

Still, that morning, he stopped me in the middle of the street, almost twelve years after. And to say what to me, do you know what he said to me? He had heard about the gacaca concerning his old neighborhood and he inquired, "Well, what happens during this gacaca?" I had a fierce desire to retort: "Really? You are asking me?"  I did not say this, I politely explained it and recommended that he participate: "You haven't come; you have to go and say what you saw, what you did. It concerns your wife, the truth must come out." But I don't believe that he wants to know the truth about the death of his wife, unless he already knows it. I added that he had to bury her, just as I was trying to do for Stéphanie. He responded that for the moment, he was especially busy "writing poems to her. For what happened." Then, he spoke about his remorse for her. Here, I didn't know how to respond. I just insisted again that he come to the gacaca, that he try to help us. Gasake could easily obtain information because the guilty were not wary of him. And then I finally interrupted our conversation: an appointment at the other end of the city, I have to go, sorry. . . . (Silence.) Listen, I can't, along with everything else, deal with Gasake's remorse. . . . I think that he must really feel tormented, that he repents for his cowardice, but it's not up to me to calm him, nor to alleviate his guilt. 


(Low voice.) At the moment when I started the car, right away, I felt an immense physical fatigue. I murmured: "Oh, I'm exhausted all of a sudden." I almost followed that, dishonestly, with: "I don't know why—" but I cut myself off. I knew very well why. The images of my sister's final moments suddenly flooded my mind, or, rather, what had been revealed to me, without my really knowing what is true, what is false, and I felt  only disgust. For everything. For him, Gasake, who had needed to confide to me his remorse, for myself who could have delivered him from it. Yet again I felt nothing but fatigue. Immense fatigue. The urge, but without any real desire, to abandon everythingI had to go on, "go on just the same," and I was annihilated by the cruelty of that man, by what was undoubtedly involuntary cruelty, in opening himself up to me. Even today, I ask myself the question: Why did he do it?  Did he think for a single instant about what that could awaken in me? Did he realize that his wife, to whom he wrote poems, and Stéphanie, my sister, that they had been killed together, by the same assassins, and that Stéphanie my sister, my sister, my sister . . . And he who writes poems to his wife that he had left to be killed. . . . What can you say to him about that?

There was another reason for my sudden despairVery early that same morning, I had visited a young survivor, Dina. An old patient of our center at AVEGA,[1] she had learned of my arrival in Kigali and had insisted on seeing me. She was twelve years old at the moment of the genocide; militiamen had killed her parents and had left her for dead. She had been cut on the temple and on the cheek and deformed for life, and today she no longer dares to smile. When she does happen to smile, she hides her mouth behind her hand. After the genocide, Dina didn't want to go to school anymore; the AVEGA staff had nonetheless convinced her to finish her degree and she managed to do it. But her greatest dream was to have reconstructive surgery. She had already had several eye operations because she could no longer blink and suffered infection on top of infection. She is better now, but still obsessed with this desire: to restore her face to normal. And thus to leave Rwanda where such an intervention is not achievable. In Butare, where she is from, the killers responsible for the death of her family had just been released from prison; some of them were planning to settle in the capital and this news had reawakened everything in her. First of all the suffering, of course, of what she had seen, gone through, but also a sharp feeling of defenselessness as well as one of immense loneliness. There was no one left to protect her and she repeated to me, with a determined gaze: "Esther, I want to leave, I want to go far away from them. . . . Them, they're coming back, they're in good health and I, I'm still disfigured . . . " It was as though suddenly the terror of seeing these killers reduced her again to the little girl that she had been, confronted with them, as they were trying to exterminate her, a defenseless little girl, without any power against these killers; they, carried away by madness, she, very close to drowning in it.

After having said good-bye to Gasake, I thought again of Dina, I thought of her and I said to myself that, in this unreasonable Rwanda, you could be confronted, in the course of a day, with the despair of a survivor or the remorse of a coward who had abandoned his wife. . . . Each of them needs to recount his or her story, and, especially, to be listened to. And I, I listened to each of them. But it's impossible to understand everyone, and, in any case, impossible to do so in the same moment. Yes, there is humanity in each of us, and thus in each of them, and who can say what we, in their place. . . . But there, my head swimming, my hands gripping the steering wheel, I no longer wanted to think about anything, nor to understand anyone. You just ask yourself what compelled you, since your arrival in Rwanda, to try to lend your ear to everyone, tales of survivors, confidences of those who repented, lies of killers, silences of their accomplices. You feel bad, bad . . . just like each time that you confirm, whether you want to or not, that which you hope to deny: Genocide works because, inside of you, genocide never ends. 

[1] AVEGA: Association of Widows of April's Genocide.  Mujawayo is one of the founders of this organization, which provides widows with emotional support and help accessing resources.

From La fleur de Stéphanie: Rwanda entre réconciliation et déni (Paris: Flammarion, 2006). © Esther Mujawayo and Souâd Belhaddad. By arrangement with the authors. Translation © 2013 by Elizabeth Applegate. All rights reserved.

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