From a feeling of shame to one of anger, the account of the Senegalese writer Boubacar Boris Diop.
Since you came back from Rwanda in August 1998, you say that, for you, there is now a life before and a life after Rwanda…
Yes. For me, this experience was a lesson in history first of all, but in a certain way it also questioned my entire relation to reality. I saw the mass graves and I learnt how in the space of three months, 10 000 people a day were killed in an African country. I then wondered why I had felt so little concerned in 94, at the time that it was going on. It is a question any normal individual might ask themselves. Why, then, didn’t we see anything? I think that African intellectuals experienced this event in shame, ashamed to see that we were behaving like extremely cruel and stupid people yet again. Then, having been there and having decided to read nearly everything that was written about the genocide, I realized the extent to which all the information on Rwanda was manipulated. I discovered the international community’s casualness and France’s determining role in what happened in Rwanda between April and July 94. Too many powerful interests converged to have us believe that everyone was both an executioner and a victim in Rwanda, that Blacks were killing one another and that was that. Nothing could be more wrong. It is terrifying to think that they managed to hide over a million corpses from us. I won’t say it is the media’s fault, they did their job. But you get the impression that the main media only managed to produce misinterpretations, whether deliberately or not. This was a fundamental turning point in my perception of crises in Africa, and more generally in my way of thinking. There is no point in saying: « I went to Rwanda, I saw, I wrote, but I didn’t understand a thing and in any case, life must go on ». We have to look for rational explanations beyond the writing. Africans can only accept such horrors by saying that the racists are right, by seeing themselves as bloodthirsty savages. After the Holocaust, the Germans didn’t say: it’s our fault, we are degenerate. Moreover, no one ever dared think such an outrageous thing. If the victims of Murambi or Nyarubue did not deserve their lot, we have to seek to find out what really happened six years ago. This quest above all made me discover the foreign powers’ intervention in Rwanda, notably France’s and before that Belgium’s. This reality is proven by the facts and needs to be shouted from the rooftops. My feeling of shame has turned into anger. People will say: yet another intellectual who wants to make the West the scapegoat. Well, I don’t care. It is the height of arrogance to demand that the victims plead their executioners’ innocence. This shift from a feeling of shame to anger translates in the fundamental difference in the treatment of the Rwandan tragedy in my last two novels, « Le Cavalier et son ombre » and « Murambi, le livre des ossements« . I consider that Rwanda gave me a taste for simple ideas again. This tragedy taught me to call the monsters by their name. I might add that, in a way, the genocide put a bit of order in my personal development. Just like most intellectuals of my generation, after having been quite close to the Maoist movement, I had ended up no longer even daring to criticize neo-colonialism. Communism was dead and suddenly it had become old-fashioned to speak of such things. The genocide taught me that the only really important thing for an African intellectual today is to think about the often terribly murderous ascendancy foreign interests have over the continent.
Granted, but it is not as simple as all that! Indeed, despite this awakening, you have chosen to put a family tragedy at the centre of your novel.
Your comment is interesting because the Rwandans themselves said to us: « don’t write novels of all things with our sufferings ». We answered that this was precisely the best way to address the issue, because a genocide is an extremely violent phenomenon, which necessarily situates it on an emotional level. And, as long as it is a question of expressing intimate sufferings, of turning it into reality rather than impersonal figures, the fiction writer is on familiar ground. I wanted to give the victims back a face and a soul, in order to make each reader wonder: « What would I have done in their place? » Situating the action of the novel in the family context was the best way of finding Mr Everybody at home and hitting him there where it hurts, to help him understand that, one day or another, power struggles could plunge him into an equally infernal situation.
I saw this novel as a novel of the absurd, notably the tale of the doctor, Doctor Karekezi, who has a certain level of social respectability and who all of a sudden exterminates his family out of political ambition.
In all the accounts of the Rwandan genocide, there are husbands who killed their wives, sisters who killed their brothers, and even people who tortured their children in an infinitely cruel way before killing them. Doctor Karekezi’s story is sadly quite common. That is why I thought it important not to over-elaborate. The narrative is minimal so that the reader has no excuse to look away. I didn’t what to distract the reader from the book’s content with vain stylistic flourishes.
There is a likeable character – Siméon Habineza – in the novel, a man who calms consciences, a kind of wise man. Is this character an invention or was he inspired by reality?
In Kigali, in the Kimihurura neighbourhood, I met an old man who inspired the character Siméon Habineza. I can only remember his first name, Apollinaire. He spoke to me about his country’s past, the arrival of the first missionaries – the padri, as he called them – and the greatness which can be born out of all suffering. He used to stop at times to play the zither. It was fascinating. When we parted company, I was transformed in a certain way…
Another passage mentions Doctor Karekezi’s escape to Zaire with the help of a French man, the colonel Perrin. He who has killed his whole family now finds it terribly hard to abandon his dog!
I completely made up that passage. It was my way of contrasting the character, of showing his contradictions. But the difficulty he has in leaving his dog is directly related to the genocide. Monique Bernier recounts in her account « La Honte » (Shame), published by Editions Les Eperoniers in Brussels, that when the Belgians were being evacuated, one of her compatriots was complaining in body-strewn streets of Kigali because she was forced to abandon her dog. The American Philip Gourevitch speaks about the English woman working for a medical NGO who couldn’t bear seeing the FPR soldiers shoot at dogs to stop them from devouring the dying! A lot of other writers told of the efforts made to save Westerner’s pets during the evacuation. That was also part of the Hundred Days in Rwanda…
Why did you center your text on the paths of three childhood friends, Cornelius, Jessica and Stanley?
Many passages of the novel are a reference to the biography of a young woman who served as a model for the character Jessica. As for Cornelius, he is in a way each of the authors who discovered Rwanda after having only imagined it. We in fact met a lot of Rwandans who said to us: « We are like you, we have just arrived, we left this country at the age of two ». I can say, therefore, that Cornelius is sort of me. I only invented Stanley. Stanley is a man of duty. After having fought courageously when it was necessary, he now thinks that it is time to forget. These three paths show that all collective tragedies are experienced on an individual level.
You are both a novelist and an essayist. In the case of the Rwandan genocide, what advantage does the writer have over the historian or the journalist when writing about the genocide?
Fiction, in my opinion, is a lot more accessible, more flexible than the works written by specialists for other specialists. In an account or in historic reports, there is a very clear dividing line between the true and the false. In fiction, on the other hand, everything is both inexact and more true than the truth itself. But it is about a purely human truth here, which is in the realm of premonition. It is Barbey d’Aurevilly, I think, who said: « There where the historian stops, no longer knowing where to go, the poet appears and guesses… »
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