In the end, you start wondering if people ever get to rest in this town anymore. On a Tuesday night, people in Remera still seem busy. The wind was blowing from the west with quite a few traffic on the road. It’s a Citron — that Fanta — that doesn’t really taste differently on my tongue. He prefers a Fiesta; a bit too sugary and sweetened — perfect for kids. Same as Orange. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all those who drink it are as narrow minded as a primary school kid.
There are untold stories and, as much as we have the responsibility to examine our legacies, we find ourselves in the obligation of tracking down every story that reflects our past, and share it with the world. However good or bad.
Perhaps no one will ever describe the horror of the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi in 1994 better than those who were directly affected — the survivors. Or, maybe, there is still little written on the history of the holocaust and its aftermath.
At 22, Dieudonné Gakire has authored a book that remarkably documents consequences of the genocide on an age-group that is, today, playing a vital role in rebuilding a nation; Rwanda’s children 20 years ago and a bit later. His book, A Dreaming Child, was officially launched at a ceremony on Sunday, 16 February 2014.
I met Gakire for the first time sometime in the last 4 months of 2012. One of my friends introduced him as a passionate young writer, who was writing a book on genocide. Myself having particular interest for the topic, I was eager to meet with him and learn about his work. He had completed his manuscript and was working to get it translated, in English, then French. His work was nothing but admirable and convincing. And he really wanted the book project to happen.
A year and a few months later, we arranged to meet again and discuss progress, his book and the way forward, but for me to also have a deep understanding of his work and what motivated him to write on such a topic.
It was a quiet evening and yet Gakire looked exhausted. I had joked, just as we met, that I was feeling tired, after a long day of work. But I could see that he hadn’t slept for months. Writing a book on such a sensitive topic in this country is hard work. Perhaps harder than writing about a topic you’re not familiar with. And for a young man, with limited resources, who has knocked at over 60 doors of big offices — with little feedback — it must have been tiresome.
At the age of 16, Gakire was a student at the SOS Technical high school. He was head of a “family” group of members of the students’ association of survivors of the genocide (commonly known by its French acronym, AERG), when he had a thought of organizing his team to write down their testimonies.
“We knew each other very well. I had listened to their stories over and over again. And I wanted to encourage them to write the stories,” he told me. “But it couldn’t happen. No one wrote a single line,” he added, with a shameful face as we sat down at a restaurant in Remera.
After failing, so many times, to get his comrades to write their stories, he decided to collect them, one by one, in a notebook. With courage and determination, Gakire wrote down the 12 stories, including his. They included testimonies of survivors who are part of his AERG “family” and the hardships they went through after the genocide; but also how they made it to become successful students. When he finished, everyone in the association wanted to read from the notebook. And now, he says, there are plenty more stories that are added each year — as new members come in.
The feedback that Gakire got from the collection of stories and how compelling they were made him want to write more and more about the genocide. “If a roughly written collection of testimonials can make people want to read and understand what we went through, why not do more?” I read through his carefully crafted words.
The previous year, in 2008, he had visited — for the first time — the Kigali Genocide Memorial that is located in Gisozi sector. Even back then, not everyone, including genocide survivors, felt comfortable with visiting such sites. I asked him why he had to wait for 4 (long) years (the memorial opened in 2004) and he told me, “I felt too much fear for any places that reflected death and genocide. I wasn’t feeling ready to face the horrible memories.” Gakire visited the memorial with his school mates. It was compulsory, he told me. There was no way to escape.
When we met, my first question to him was, “What special contribution does your book bring to the literature on the 1994 genocide?” He explained with confidence: “I feel like people have taken for granted the experiences of children during the genocide and after. Whenever I told people that I wanted to write about the genocide, they asked me what I really knew — sceptical of what a then-aged three-year-old would have to say. My book contains details on the life of children before 1994, what happened to them during the genocide and their experiences in its aftermath.”
In the book’s foreword, signed Senator Jean-Damascene Bizimana, you will find an explanation on how Gakire’s book portrays “the savageness that characterized the Genocide, the many difficulties that children who survived the Genocide have encountered, and their courage to fight for life.”
Courageous enough, Gakire has sat down with genocide perpetrators from the central prison in Kigali and elsewhere, one of the former hate-radio (RTLM) journalists, and former local leaders who played key roles in spreading the genocide ideology. He has interviewed so many survivors that he cannot help not sharing their stories. But when I asked about him, he seemed a bit uncomfortable — maybe that feeling that your story doesn’t matter in so many challenging testimonies. Yet, in a chapter entitled ‘Poem of Life,’ he details the life of his family and how he survived the killing spree:
Sometimes I could not be identified as Tutsi as I was very dark-skinned while other members of my family have a lighter brown skin color. I wore a dress in order to look like a girl as they thought girls would not be killed like boys. In addition, whoever saw me was told that I was their grandchild who had come to visit them, so it was easy not to be identified.
As a child, Gakire went through various traumatic moments. As his family escaped from Ruhango to Kabgayi — where thousands of innocent people had headed to seek refuge — he, like many children in 1994, saw dead bodies and the coward ice of his family members at its highest degree. Claudette Kayitesi, his sister, who was only 10 years old, carried him on her back for the most part of the journey.
Kabgayi was centre to a very important Catholic Parish. It is where they met a priest whose name was Joseph Ndagijimana. Gakire told me that he has never been able to forget the words Ndagijimana said when they asked for help: “The God of the Tutsi is no longer on your side—you have to die.”
For a child, these kinds of sentences are unforgettable. Because they also bear so much to feel than just hear. And yes, indeed, the God of the Tutsi watched a million of innocent people being killed to the machete. Even from His own church.
In his 244-page book, Gakire goes on to write a letter to children victims of the 1994 genocide and another one to those who survived. They are both contained in a chapter entitled ‘Letters’, certainly the part of the book to which he vastly devoted his heart. He told me that it’s his heartfelt chapter from the book; that tears happen to roll down his face when he re-reads some of its portions.
Besides, the author has also chased some of the darkest testimonies from ’94. In a chapter entitled ‘My Resurrection,’ he recounts the story of genocide survivor Claudine Uwamwezi, who was only 13 years old. Gakire told me that Uwamwezi’s testimony contains the most thrilling story he’s ever heard. And, indeed, it is. She saw her baby sister trying to feed herself from her mom’s breast, as the latter laid down — in a pool of blood, without life. In her testimony, she recalls terrible moments.
In fact, when [the militia] clubbed mom over her head she did not die immediately; they rather had to come back and finish her off later, but they did not do anything to the baby she was carrying on her back. There was another woman, next of kin to my mother, who got her breast chopped off before she finally got killed in agony. On our way fleeing that macabre place, we came across that old man’s daughter’s body, of which all the members had been horribly chopped off. The cadaver had visibly started to decay.
Gakire has dug into the heart and mind of the killer, the survivor, and he — like so many others — lives to honour the innocent people, including children, that were butchered 20 years ago. He is now worth listening to.