Voices of the victims:
Narrating the genocide in Rwanda
Gil Courtemanche. A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali. Translated by Patricia Claxton. Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2003. 258 pages.
Peter Harrell. Rwanda’s Gamble: Gacaca
and a New Model of Transitional Justice.
In May 2003, I rode a bus from Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, to Gashora, a village two hours south, with 70 men who had committed genocide or crimes against humanity nine years earlier, when between 500,000 and 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were systematically killed in rapid and barbaric waves of ethnic violence. The men on the bus – some as young as 19, meaning they had committed genocide crimes when they were 10 – had, along with 20,000 other detainees across Rwanda, confessed to participating in the killing spree. In return for their confessions, the prisoners were being released provisionally from the country’s sordid, overcrowded jails and transported back to their home communities. Waving, cheering locals – mostly Hutus – lined the streets to welcome the returning genocidaires as if they were a liberation army.
Onboard the detainees danced and sang as they watched the prison camp recede in the rear window and the red dirt roads wind homeward before them. Soon their ecstasy turned to frustration at the slowness of the bus as it bounced along the rutted, dusty tracks out of Kigali, then to fatigue and finally to uncertainty and fear at the realities of their situation. They had confessed to some of the worst crimes imaginable and now they were returning to the same communities where they had committed those crimes. What reception awaited them? After nine years, would their overjoyed friends and families, or the friends and families of their victims, be there when they got off the bus?
Gil Courtemanche’s novel, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, and Peter Harrell’s academic text, Rwanda’s Gamble: Gacaca and a New Model of Transitional Justice, offer complementary accounts of both the situation that saw the dancing genocidaires imprisoned in the first place and the situation into which they have been released. Courtemanche offers a fictional description of the genocide and the lives of those who experienced it firsthand, while Harrell examines what should be done to bring genocide suspects to justice. Both of these books are firsts. A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is the first fictional account of the Rwandan genocide published in English (and, to my knowledge, only the second fictional work ever based on this subject, after Jean-Pierre Campagne’s little-known 1997 novella Les Vacances de Dieu). Rwanda’s Gamble constitutes the first lengthy scholarly examination by a Western academic of “gacaca” (pronounced ga-CHA-cha and derived from the Kinyarwanda word meaning “on the grass”), a traditional Rwandan form of communal conflict resolution that has been controversially revitalised and reformed to handle cases related to the genocide. The suspects who were recently released from jail are slated to appear before gacaca in late 2003 or early 2004, with the prospect that many will return to prison if their involvement in the genocide is deemed serious enough.
In the preface to A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, which was originally published in French in 2000 and won the Canadian Prix des Libraires in 2001, Courtemanche says that the novel is intended as ‘a chronicle and eye-witness report. The characters all existed in reality, and in almost every case I have used their real names’. The author, a French Canadian, worked as a journalist in Rwanda before and during the genocide and this novel draws on his personal observations from that period. This is a strident, furious, at times shocking novel, full of brutal imagery of mass murder and sexual violence. In telling the story of those who experienced the genocide directly, Courtemanche also points the finger at those responsible for the killings: the Hutu elite who planned the genocide and incited the population to do their bidding, the Catholic Church in Rwanda that not only turned away from the carnage unfolding before its eyes but whose own hierarchy was in many cases complicit in the violence, and the United Nations and the expatriate community as a whole that fled the country or – if it was mandated to stay - stood by and did nothing as innocent civilians were hacked to death.
Courtemanche tells the story of the genocide through his alter-ego, Bernard Valcourt, a Canadian journalist, who has come to Kigali to make a film and to set up a television station designed to educate Rwandans about AIDS. Valcourt is a fictional archetype, a burnt-out case who has been in the country too long and seen too much. As small massacres of Tutsis, ‘rehearsals for genocide’, occur around Rwanda, Valcourt spends his days beside the pool at the Hotel des Mille Collines in Kigali, from which the novel draws its title, observing the privileged classes – the bureaucrats who hassle the Government ministers, the expatriate workers and French paratroopers who flock to the hotel to escape the heat and violence - and the local prostitutes who service them all. Valcourt sits alone and jots on his notepad, writing only ‘to put in time between mouthfuls of beer….waiting for a scrap of life to excite him and make him unfold his wings’.
What makes Valcourt unfold his wings, however gradually, is the presence of Gentille, a beautiful Hutu waitress at the hotel, who has the fine, slender features of a Tutsi, ‘a mysterious mix of all the seeds and all the toil of this country’, the offspring of a Hutu ancestor who slept with a Tutsi because the latter was politically favoured in colonial times. To survive in the modern environment where Hutus have the ascendancy, Gentille carries a black market Hutu identity card. Valcourt and Gentille fall in love, with Gentille begging Valcourt to ‘teach me about desire’ as she willingly learns to ‘die with ecstasy’ in their sexual ‘mutual suicide’. Gentille wants to be treated as more than a body abused by the patrons of the hotel. Valcourt wants a deeper connection both to another human being and to a country he is beginning to call home, in short an end to the journalist’s transitory, parasitic existence.
This cross-cultural romance in the midst of ethnic violence opens up the two recurring themes of the novel – death and sex – that form a barbed double-helix so tightly entwined that it is often difficult to tell where sex ends and death begins. In the foreground is the increasing violence, as stories of the killing and rape of Tutsis reach Kigali from the surrounding hills and people disappear in the night from their homes in the capital. In the background is the slow-motion death of AIDS, the plague that gnaws away at the nation’s marrow. As the relationship between Valcourt and Gentille develops - described in florid passages, strewn with the verse of Paul Eluard, the only time in the novel that sex occurs with any gentleness or meaning – death and sex continue to blur in the outside world. Rape and AIDS are the killers, accelerating as everyone tries to “live and fuck and have a good time” in an attempt to forget the violence gathering at their doorstep.
The Rwanda that Courtemanche paints is a country teetering on the edge of the abyss of AIDS and genocide. Death awaits everyone; the only question is whether death will come as a result of the ‘cock or the machete’. In the swirl of violence, Valcourt and Gentille travel south to Gentille’s village to ask her family’s blessing of their marriage. Gentille’s father welcomes Valcourt as a son but warns him that he is ‘marrying a country they want to kill’. Gentille begs Valcourt to take her to Canada and her father implores Valcourt to ‘flee the madness that invents peoples and tribes’. But Valcourt refuses to leave and in one of the book’s most memorable passages he and Gentille are married in a surreal ceremony around the same hotel swimming pool where they first met. Leaving the hotel after the wedding, Valcourt and Gentille are stopped at a roadblock by Hutu militiamen. When the soldiers spy Gentille, the Hutu with the features of a Tutsi, Valcourt learns the tragic truth of what it means to marry a country that the extremists want to kill.
In contrast to the frantic energy of the Rwandans in the novel, Courtemanche gives us the weary, disengaged whites who flood the ranks of aid and development agencies across Rwanda. Africa is awash with the suit-and-tie, Ivy League-trained consultants that Courtemanche describes: the World Bank experts and human rights monitors who arrive in conflict-ridden countries armed with their global templates and juvenile comprehension of local conditions. This is the whitewashed army of proceduralists that believes the world behaves – or, more crucially, it should behave - according to finely-understood rules that are finely-understood only by those who have walked the corridors of Yale or Harvard. This is the army that values objective detachment above all else, that stays in hotels like the Mille Collines, far from the mess, from the same choked streets and squalid markets that it squeezes into its ten-point plans for development. The proceduralists who linger in countries like Rwanda grow tired and cynical when their templates fail to produce the desired results. Most, however, do not stay long enough to weary of Africa’s perceived intransigence – like televangelists, they flit on the screen, read their sermon and vanish with their wallets and their CVs bloated at the expense of wracked and desperate individuals.
In A Sunday at the Pool, Courtemanche’s home country of Canada - usually the darling of the humanitarian community that is so often populated by more brutish types lugging colonial baggage – comes in for pointed criticism. There is the quisling Jean Lamarre, the rookie Canadian consular official who, even when he knows he should speak out about injustice, keeps his head down in order to crawl up the bureaucratic ranks. Courtemanche’s Kigali is flooded with these naïve expatriate types. ‘The Canadians are nice,’ says one of the prostitutes at the Mille Collines. ‘They tend to tell us what’s good for us…. They try to disguise a fuck as a love story…and even drunk, they’re reasonable.’
Courtemanche’s most startling portrayal of a Western official working in Rwanda, though, is that of the nameless Canadian general, who we assume represents Major-General Romeo Dallaire, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) in 1994. It is interesting that the author refers to him only as ‘the Canadian general’ when in the preface he tells us that all the characters in the book existed in reality and, in most cases, are referred to by their real names. Perhaps the publisher’s legal advisers recommended vagueness because Courtemanche describes the general as ‘unassuming, apprehensive, ineloquent and naïve, like Canada’, ‘an imitation Swiss, a civil servant who follows procedure to the letter,’ adding, ‘here, if you follow procedure, you’re a hundred corpses late.’
Dallaire has become an infamous, tragic figure in the historical record of the genocide in Rwanda. As head of UNAMIR, Dallaire sent a telegram to UN headquarters in New York three months before the genocide started, arguing that mass violence was imminent and a major bolstering of the peacekeeping ranks was necessary in order to protect the civilian population. UN heads refused Dallaire’s request, much to his disgust. Dallaire petitioned constantly for more troops, even after the murder of ten Belgian peacekeepers in the first week of the genocide resulted in Belgium’s withdrawal of all its UNAMIR forces and in the United States’ call for a complete abandonment of the mission. Soon after the genocide ended in July 1994, Dallaire returned to Canada where the press reported that he was suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder and had on several occasions attempted suicide.
For the last nine years, Dallaire has given few interviews but the majority of commentators on the genocide have lauded him for his role in saving thousands of Rwandan civilians. While Courtemanche, in his guise as novelist, is free to create fictional characters such as the Canadian general in any fashion he chooses, the stakes are higher in this book because of its moral tenor and the author’s contention that it be treated as an eyewitness account. Targeting the Dallaire figure obviously serves Courtemanche’s aim of criticising the UN for its proceduralism and inaction during the genocide, but to lay the blame at the feet of the Canadian general – who in real life constantly disobeyed orders in his attempt to protect civilians – seems unfair in the extreme. Dallaire himself has now written a book, entitled Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, about his experiences during and after the genocide. In recent interviews, he has said that the main aim of the book, due to be published by Random House in November 2003, is to set the record straight about his personal efforts in 1994 and about how much the UN and the US Government knew about the impending genocide in Rwanda and how little they did to stop it.
Courtemanche covers wide and rocky terrain in A Sunday at the Pool and the great success of the novel is its ability to reproduce the sweeping horror of the genocide. The descriptions of tens of thousands of corpses rotting in the streets, the ever-present birds of prey, and the deceptive beauty of the green hills of coffee and banana palms that form the backdrop to the violence paint a vivid picture of the menace and fear that pervaded Rwanda in 1994. Courtemanche also succeeds in painting an illuminating tableau of the various strata of Rwandan society and their different roles in the genocide. The opening chapter, in particular, with its array of wheelers and dealers, soldiers, whores and bedraggled onlookers produces a convincing snapshot of the background players who are so instrumental in the deadly drama unfolding beyond the hotel walls.
Despite these successes, A Sunday at the Pool is nonetheless an ultimately unfulfilling novel. Its main shortcoming is that we could glean most of its insights from any of the key historical texts already written on the Rwandan genocide. We expect more from a work of fiction and Courtemanche promises us more. We want to hear the characters speak in their own voices, to tell us what the historical texts cannot tell us, that is, what it was like to live through the terror of 1994. A Sunday at the Pool succeeds at the broad level of describing the genocide and of making a compelling political case, but it breaks down at the level that matters most, that of individual characters. Courtemanche falls into the trap of many a journalist-cum-novelist in that he reports rather than tells a story, dictates rather than leaves us free to discover for ourselves. Courtemanche’s characters make plenty of speeches sounding too much like those of the detached Western experts Courtemanche would have us distrust. At times the dialogue becomes farcical, for example when Gentille’s peasant father insists on giving Valcourt an impromptu lesson in Rwandan history before blessing the couple’s marriage:
[After 1959], the Belgians, who were a bit lost in an Africa that was shaking free of the colonial mould, and probably a bit tired of this unprofitable country, discovered as if by magic the virtues of democracy and the law of majority rule. Overnight, the shiftless Hutu became an incarnation of modern progress, and the shapeless mass of ignorant peasants a legitimate democratic majority.
The characters in A Sunday at the Pool are rarely more than caricatures: Valcourt, the cynical, brooding journalist turning his hard nose up at the naïve development agency types; Gentille, the oppressed indigène, uninitiated in the ways of love and life and awaiting the redemption that Valcourt brings. All we know about Gentille – all we know about most of the women in the novel, in fact – is that her name ‘is as lovely as her breasts…[her] ass more disturbing in its impudent adolescence than anything else about her’. We never understand what brings Valcourt and Gentille together, why they fall in love, nor why Valcourt, who appears so jaded by the country, claims that Rwanda holds him in such thrall that he cannot drag himself away, even when the violence escalates. For all these reasons, it is hard to be concerned with his quandary about fleeing Rwanda or with the perilous fate that eventually overtakes him and Gentille. The greater problem is that, in failing to make us believe in the tragedy that overwhelms his characters, Courtemanche precludes us from more fully understanding the genocide.
Courtemanche should be praised for bringing a subject as perplexing and politically charged as the Rwandan genocide to a literary audience. Sadly A Sunday at the Pool hovers in a no man’s land between personal testimony and outright polemic, never completely convincing in either. More angry, shattered voices are needed to tell us what it was like to live through, and beyond, the 100 hellish days in 1994 when the world abandoned a people on the brink of annihilation. Perhaps this sort of testimony will come from Western journalists such as Courtemanche who were brave enough to stay and bear witness. But what is really needed are the angry, shattered voices of those who have been silenced for too long – those of the Rwandans themselves.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series. The second part will focus on Peter Harrell’s study of Gacaca and transnational justice.