Forgiving genocide

Reverien Rurangwa, Genocide: My Stolen Rwanda. Reportage Press 2009. ISBN 9781906702021

GENOCIDE My Stolen RwandaRwanda, April 1994. Reverien Rurangwa was 15 when he was hunted down by Hutu neighbours and witnessed the massacre of 43 members of his family. Missing an eye and a hand, Rurangwa lived to write this memoir from exile in Switzerland, where he still lives.

If it were fiction it would be easier to hold the book steady and marvel at the prose, but it is not fiction. The descriptions of what Rurangwa endured when he was mutilated and his family slaughtered, are spare and visceral. Sometimes, in this genre, trauma undermines narrative capacity but, in the tradition of Primo Levi, Rurangwa conveys and contemplates the horror he experienced without faltering. It is remarkable writing from a remarkable individual; his voice, clarity and determination to tell his story fuse grace and terror.

Catholic faith writhes at the centre of this book. During the minute long massacre his grandmother was murdered mid-prayer, various family members called to god for help, while the killers, fellow parishioners of the local church, struck their machetes until faith fell with precious bodies into a pile. Using terms like 'church cum abattoir' this book confronts many beliefs: in God, in humanity, in the UN, in the state, in family and community, but equally ignites belief in evil.

In the aftermath Rurangwa was protected by other Christians such as a Belgian missionary, Rwandan nuns who sheltered him from assassins, and ultimately his adopted Swiss father Luc, who guided and challenged him during many a crisis. No matter how much he is cared for, no matter how much surgery he undergoes to repair his mutilated body, abandonment remains:

'Since the genocide, I feel abandoned. Abandoned by my family — not that they can help it — and by those who should have defended me and protected me: international leaders, my own country's judiciary. Abandoned by other people's opinions. It is about being alive but dead, a solitary zombie.'

One of the most harrowing moments is when Rurangwa, having lost an arm and suffering vicious machete wounds, crawls around his village begging for someone to finish him off and kill him. The cruelty of those who drank beer and laughed at the boy crawling at their feet conveys the depravity, and abandonment, of that hell time.

The pressure to forgive is put upon Rurangwa by those around him, often by those with no experience of violence. With no patience for quick fix notions of forgiveness, Rurangwa argues that forgiveness and questions of national reconciliation often come before authentic justice and seek to erase his family, his past, his people and his culture. As the sole surviving member of his family Rurangwa is suspicious that premature forgiveness is a political tool designed to deny the truth, and that the pragmatic thirst for national cohesion makes forgetting and forgiving the same thing. He passionately expresses the need to remember and advocate for the dead.

But this is no rant. Rurangwa shares intimate details of his search for understanding and peace, as well as his struggle with unanswerable mystical questions, and all the way it is tempered with his perfectly dry humour.

Ultimately this is a book about grief. Judith Butler in Precarious Life writes that 'one mourns when one accepts that by the loss one undergoes, one will be changed, possibly forever. Mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation.' Rurangwa's story is grief writ large; he undergoes transformation in body and spirit, confirming Butler's argument that grief is not a lineal process to be ticked off a list — it is not a project that can be set upon productively. Mainly it is experienced in waves, because although we may start out the day with fixed ideas about how we intend to deal with loss, by afternoon we are foiled, and we find ourselves fallen, just as Rurangwa did.

Although Rurangwa's story is not comparable with the experiences of the average person, his contemplation of loss: of his relations, his culture, his country, his trust in neighbours, remind us of the importance of the ties that bind. The great question Rurangwa's grief poses is, 'Who am I without you?' And without you, without our family and friends and neighbours, we are at a loss. And when we are at a loss, who are we?

More than a decade after the Rwandan genocide Rurangwa's story deserves to be widely read. In an age where suffering is objectified in quick news bites, his courage to face his horrific experience demands more than a polite shake of the head from the reader. It demands the kind of honest contemplation he himself has dared to share.

Bronwyn LayBronwyn Lay is an Australian writer living in France who has a background in law and political theory. 

Topic tags: Reverien Rurangwa, Genocide: My Stolen Rwanda. Reportage Press 2009. ISBN 9781906702021



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Existing comments

"He passionately expresses the need to remember and advocate for the dead."
This touches my heart and my lack of forgiveness. My daughter had schizophrenia, a diminishing disese. Her life was taken from her by psychosis and paranoia. She placed her head on railway line and found peace. She had been sent on leave from a psychiatric unit Her doctor would not listen, would not take note of my letter in her file and sent her on leave. The next day she was dead. I no longer want to stab him or kill him. But am still possessed of what I see as a righteous anger which, through my daughter, allows me to advocate for the seriously mentally ill.
I in no way see my situation as comparable to Rurangwa's, but the reaction is similar, we must be advocates by proxy for our beloved dead, so that their survivors are helped. I see the seriously mentally ill as Anne's legacy. As their condition deteriorates through further government neglect, my need to act is strengthened.
Thank you, Rurangwa. I don't want to read "Genocide". But as you lived it, I must read it.

Caroline Storm | 14 May 2010  

Thank you for bringing this powerful book to light. This story reminds me of Psalm 88, the darkest of the psalms of lament, where the only hope lies in a God who listens to the anguished cries of those who have been abandoned by everyone else. In having the courage to relive the trauma, in order to communicate his story to the world, Rurangwa invites us to connect with the deep sorrow that is evil, in the hope of finding the endless love that is God. May he find joy once more in the love and care of friends old and new.

Lauren Mosso | 14 May 2010  

Rurangwa I wish to hug you for your courage to tell your story. It is so important for we who live in our own secure and insulated world.

I'm not sure if you have visited Rwanda lately, because I have seen there a growing awareness of how complex and sensitive is the matter of forgiveness. 'Don't forgive too soon' is an important message for Rwandan urvivors.Gacaca, the grass roots justice process, has opened many wounds again and re-focussed the grief. But people have been trained to sit with the grieving ones and gently support them. Over 1000 young adults have been doing this under the auspices of the youth arm of the Catholic commission for Justice and Peace. It is an important statement to survivors that they do not always need to suffer on their own.
I'm glad that you have Luc.

I will consider your story carefully and seek to use it to educate young Australians about what human suffering can look like - and what you demonstrate, in your life, of resilience in the face of great horror.

John Steward | 14 May 2010  

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