Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Traces of the Devil

Yesterday's events in Sudan gave me an eerie feeling of deja-vu: a suspicious helicopter accident, death of the rebel leader who just became part of the coalition government (the glue of a fragile peace), the rioting in the streets of Sudan. The death of Garang, the circumstances surrounding it and the reaction thereto, reminded me of the assassination of Rwanda's President Habyarimana eleven years ago. That event triggered a genocide, something that is already underway in Sudan.

The genocide in Darfur slides into a pit of amnesia even as it continues. The nascent African Union provides what forces it can. The UN and the US have shown that they can talk the talk, but won't walk the walk. Although Americans might approve of intervention, it seems that the current administration prefers to be less active than it claims to be.

What were the lessons of Rwanda? Has it been forgotten? The memories of genocides ought to put nations and peoples on guard, stopping atrocities as soon as possible. Memory, however, can be more finicky than we would want. It takes shape over decades, never in the forms that are expected, bringing with it a mix of emotions: bitterness, anger, confusion, and even nostalgia. Even the Holocaust is still taking shape as people revisit the places where it occurred. The response to Jan Gross' Neighbors reveals how the return of memory disturbs myths about heroism and victimhood.

Véronique Tadjo's L'Ombre D'Imana (In the Shadows of the Creator) reveals the problems of speaking about genocide so soon afterward. Tadjo, born in Cote d'Ivoire and living in South Africa, went to Rwanda to explore how narrative can be used to give life to memory and to explore the ruptures that have formed.

The Rwanda that she finds is plagued by ghosts; the experiences of the genocide have produced silences around people who must live with one another, who pretend that they cohabitate in a normal civil society.
When the war ended, we believed that everything would return to normal, that we could make a new and better start. And not make the same mistakes. But after several years, everything is as it was: corruption, impunity, uncertainty. Promises made have not been kept. They have disappeared along with the others.Reconciliationn? We need justice! ... everything is falling into oblivion. No one wants to carry this heavy memory.”
Because no one gives voice to memories, the society remains dysfunctional.

Tadjo's book is both a meditation on the possibilities of narrative as well as a telling of the stories of Rwandans after the genocide. I hesitate to call them "testimonies" because Tadjo is herself aware that memories must become more than something that passes from mouth to ear.
"Is the orality of Africa a handicap to collective memory? One must write to make information permanent. Writers force men to pay attention, to exorcise buried memories. It can put a salve on the ruptures, speaking of all carried a bit of hope."

The people whom Tadjo gives voice have different problems. They are businessmen who want stability to restart their enterprises. They are tens of thousands of men and women who wait in crowded prisons for justice. They are the daughters of the perpetrators. They are the wives who gave themselves to soldiers to save their children. They are the children who have experienced impromptu, and unhealthy, maturation. They are people who were simply afraid. They are the ghosts of those whose bodies cannot be identified. And of course, they are the Tutsi who pretend that they are now safe among the people who would eliminate them.

An urban legend explores the contradictions inherent in reconciliation without justice. It is a story about a woman who lives with the man who killed her husband. Does he know that she saw him in the act? Does he know that she has AIDS? How can a woman sleep with such a man? Her immediate needs take precedent: she has fallen ill, and it is he who takes care of her.

A pastor returned to Rwanda to face justice. He had been charged with the care of four children as the parents went into hiding. The militiamen found the children and killed them. The militiamen threatened the pastor if he did not participate. He struck a child with a single blow, then ran away. What did he hope to accomplish by returning, telling his story, and facing the tribunal? Is he not, in some sense, a victim as well? He tells the judge, "“Let me disappear." His example raises the question about what can be achieved with justice.

Another story looks at the victims of the discourse of racial purity. It is the backstory of a woman who fought and died protecting Tutsis. According to the people who knew her, she was already dead before the violence broke out: her brother, believing that she prostituted herself, raped her to punish her for defiling herself.

One victim, who survived the massacre at the Ntarama Church by hiding under corpses, watches the foreigners who file into the memorial.
He knows how to categorize them right away: those who turn their heads at the sight of death, those who revolt [against the sight], those who cry, those who remain silent, those who will still ask questions with pen in hand, those who try to rationalize, to comprehend, those who will give money and those who dare not, those who cry, “Never again!”
His classification bespeaks of the irony of his life. No one takes responsibility.

Tadjo does not identify the ethnicity of many of her subjects. They are the accused, bystanders, and sometimes victims; they are seldom called either Hutus or Tutsis. The silence that prevents reconciliation is not ethnic. Nonetheless, I wonder whether or not Tadjo has done a disservice not revealing up front who was the killer and who was the kill.

These stories reveal the precariousness of daily life. Everyone lives with fear, hopelessness and loss. Amnesia has become a malady. Five years after the publication of the book, these conditions hold in Rwanda. Tadjo's analysis, furthermore, applies to the world as well as Rwanda:
Forgetting Rwanda after the noise and fury mean to become one-eyed, voiceless, handicapped. It is to march into obscurity, to shoot oneself in the arm in order to avoid a collision with the future.
Biography of Tadjo


History : Africa

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