Letters & Essays

Together Again

Jean Hatzfeld

In Nyamata town, people were stupefied to learn of the prisoners’ release. Among them were the survivors of the genocide whom I had interviewed and reported on in Life Laid Bare, including Angélique Mukamanzi: “I heard the announcement on the radio. We had been growing used to our new life as survivors; household chores were sweeping bad thoughts into the hole of forgetfulness . . . We were rejoining life: time was coming around to our side. Suddenly, because of that bulletin, time switched camps. I felt my body shaking. Memories came crashing back pell-mell. We gathered in little groups of friends, wondering how the killers would arrive.

“The first prisoners I saw were coming up the path to their homes as I was going down toward Nyamata. They avoided everyone’s eyes. They tried to stay close together, in line, and crouched down along the path to greet us. Those men had cut so much with their machetes that they should well have died in their turn. That was my one and only thought.”

Janvier Munyaneza: “Everyone marveled at their good health. They were clean, neat, and seemed to have put on weight. And later, we noticed that work made them sweat in a strange way. You could tell that fear was making them behave nicely.

“The authorities had called us together to speak to us before the return of the prisoners—to keep us from harassing or attacking them, to make us keep our accusations to ourselves, to show no hostility until the gacaca trials [the communal court proceedings, where citizens testify for and against those accused of genocide]. When Tutsi boys spoke loudly of revenge, the authorities snapped back that they might well find themselves replacing the prisoners in Rilima.”

Claudine Kayitesi: “I went outside with the children to look at them; they were passing in single file with bundles on their heads. We exchanged no words. The children were scared, thinking that the prisoners would start plotting again. Personally, I was simply curious to see them. The first one I recognized was a neighbor named Cambarela—the very one who hacked up my big sister. As for them, their sheepish voices were saying, ‘Alleluia, alleluia! How are you? May God protect you! Love one another as yourselves. We shall pray for you: that’s definite from now on.’ We stared at them, gaping, without lifting a finger.”

The former prisoners had no time to unpack their bundles, because at home they found a summons waiting: they had to leave immediately for a course in “civic reconciliation” at a reeducation camp. This is how Alphonse describes that period: “They taught us how to conduct ourselves around the families who had suffered—to behave humbly, to appear timid in confrontations, to avoid provocation when facing distraught survivors. Also to avoid the disorders of AIDS and such illnesses. To learn how to bake bricks for grieving widows or abandoned children.

“But the number-one lesson was about our wives. The instructors warned us that all the prisoners would run into epidemics of adultery, kids born on the sly, fields sold behind our backs. They taught us that since the government had pardoned us, we in turn had to pardon our unfaithful wives, who’d had no way of knowing we’d ever leave prison alive, and who had taken up the hoe without a strong man to help shoulder their burdens.

“In prison, many detainees had been furious with their spendthrift or straying wives. They promised them the most dreadful fate, but the training personnel came down ferociously on this attitude. They drummed in the lesson: remain calm with your guilty spouse, be peaceable with your neighbor, patient with those who are traumatized, obedient with the authorities. And don’t delay in getting to work on clearing your overgrown fields.”

At the end of the reeducation period, the prisoners set out for the hills of home once again, this time for good. Alphonse continues his account: “I left the camp with my bundle on my head and walked with whoever came along. In Nyamata, I became embroiled in questions on the main street and hurried to get away, to avoid attracting the evil eye. My wife welcomed me in the proper way. My children had grown, and wore smiles. We didn’t celebrate with chicken, because of the neighbors—we didn’t want to appear too pleased, so we cooked potatoes instead.

“Before, I owned several houses as well as a cabaret—a bar—but my wife sold them. I had stocks of goods that time had cleaned out, obviously. Right away I went to visit my property. Once it was a glorious field with flourishing banana plants; when I got there, I mourned a wasteland as treeless as the pampas. I pruned a few surviving banana plants. I allowed myself two days of rest. Of course, I did have to wait nineteen days for the results of my AIDS test before taking my place as a husband.

“The center of town had lost its lively warmth and bustle. Poverty and discouragement had scoured all kind words from the little cabarets. Still, I could see that the two camps had been strictly disciplined. The Hutus had learned to curb their wickedness, the Tutsis to curb their resentment.”

Pancrace Hakizamungili: “Those without money for the truck walked off in a long line. Once in the bush, we sorted ourselves out by our hills. We held back on singing, but not on little yelps of high spirits. I hadn’t set foot in Nyamata for nine years. I noticed the advertisement photos, the new makes of taxi-bus, the charred walls . . . The town seemed chaotic. We didn’t stop for drinks so we could hurry on. I was eager to get home to put on nice-looking clothes. My sisters had bought urwagwa and special potato dishes—without meat, unfortunately. The family rejoiced. Still, I felt pangs of dismay at the dilapidation: holes in the metal roofing, the woodwork attacked by termites, the cracked cement. All the banana plants had perished.

“The next day, I sat in the courtyard to receive visits from acquaintances. They wanted to know about our prison life, hear news of those who had not confessed, and learn above all which names had been spoken at trial. Some people came to greet me in good faith, while others pretended to be pleasant, since they had really hoped I would stay in prison. That night, the darkness closed in on me with worries; I waited until daybreak to visit my field. On the second day, swamp malaria caught up with me. I went straight back to farming anyway: I dug up stumps, ripped out brush. The routine hadn’t changed, but my joints groaned with fatigue.

“At first, I hesitated to go up into town. I feared chance encounters, risky words. I waited a month, and then I had my first Primus beer, which a neighbor paid for. I’d been craving a beer; it was a most vexing longing in Rilima. I’d no longer dared imagine it because time had held no hope of rescue.

“In the gang, friendship has not faltered: we meet up often, except for Adalbert, who lives the bourgeois life in Kigali. When he comes back here, he shows up in crisply creased suits. He offers drinks with a glad hand in the cabaret, and we chat freely.

“In prison, we slept crowded on straw mattresses, with no room in our sleep for evil dreams. In prison, we had forgotten the killings—I mean their upsetting feelings; we dreamed only of childhood memories, or of painful moments in prison, like the brawls or sicknesses. Since our release, however, the killings have been cropping up in conversation, so dreams are coming back to gnaw at us. At home we sleep free, we sleep more truly, so the bad dreams reappear quite clearly: the house-burnings, the hunting chases through the swamps, the blood in the marsh ponds, and above all, the people we ran after.

“I have not visited any survivors; I’ve been afraid of their traumas. We’ve met in passing, we’ve managed to greet one another without being nasty, and that’s enough. I have not noticed anything dangerous in people’s eyes. Basically, I think we have been severely lectured on both sides.

“I was charged; I was convicted; I was pardoned. I didn’t ask to be forgiven. After all, it’s not worth asking for forgiveness if your plea cannot be accepted.”

 

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