I had to stop writing because I couldn’t hold back my tears any longer. I’ve been crying for a while now while reading Gaël Faye’s Small Country as his main character, Gabriel, was writing his letter for his late-cousin, Christian, who had become one of the many unfortunate victims of the Tutsi genocide. Faye’s eloquence in describing the lost innocence and childhood as Gabriel’s got slowly entangled in the Rwandan genocide, although far away in Burundi, from a privileged perspective as a mixed race kid with a French father and a Rwandan mother who was lucky enough to escape her homeland to Burundi and sought asylum.
Initially, of course, Gaby’s innocence is shown all over from his privilege and ignorance of the world and the people surrounding him, the privilege that makes me want to slap this kid for real if I ever encountered one. Then again, when we were kids, how could we not be ignorant? We were born ignorant in the first place–a blank piece of paper only to be written by the environment and the people we’re living in and with.
And even as Gabriel slowly realized the reality of the war entangling his mother’s homeland in Rwanda and his own in Burundi, he still somewhat insist on escaping it, finding refuge in Madame Economopoulos’ books he frequented more and more in the latter chapter.
From the very beginning, we already see and feel the stark contrast of what I, again, see as a privilege, in the background of Gabriel’s parents. His father, Michel, eager for more adventures in the exotic African continent he’s built his life on, and his mother, longing instead for a life free of fear, and home of safety, for herself and her children, in the utopian European continent.
Where you see gently undulating hills, I see the poverty of the people who live there. Where you marvel at the beautiful lakes, I’m already breathing in the methane that sleeps below those waters. You fled the peace and quiet of your France to seek out adventure in Africa.
You came here from Europe in search of a playground where you could eke out the dreams of your spoiled childhood in the West…
It wouldn’t be fair for me to overgeneralize, but I can relate as much as hearing the same things from Europeans coming over to my own country sometimes, which oftentimes puzzle me and my friends who mostly dream of leaving the country instead and build our future in the utopian America or Europe (well, not so much for the former anymore now…) Somehow in the midst of chaos that me and my friends usually try to escape and avoid, they see the beauty in it instead, and the chaos have given them the adrenaline rush they feel they need, something that seems to be lacking from their neatly ordered home country in the West.
Yet even his parents’ connections and wealth could not protect Gabriel forever from the turbulence coming to his neighborhood, and they seeped deep not only into his family, but also his childhood friends. Slowly his relatives are either killed or missing, even when initially things seemed to be looking up. The rift between his parents that was brought up in the earlier chapters now seemed like a trivial matter in comparison. The loss affected them, but especially his mother.
Genocide is an oil slick: those who don’t drown in it are polluted for life.
It broke up the brotherhood he’s built with his childhood friends and they slowly took side and forced him too as well. And when Gabriel chose the world inside his readings, he not only managed to tune out the disorder of his now broken world, but it disconnected him too from his friends.
I was from a place, surrounded by family, friends, acquaintances and by warmth. I have found that place again, but it is empty of those who populated it, who gave it life and body and flesh.
It’s a sad and heartbreaking recount of a lost childhood, in a very twisted turn of events because of the ethnic conflicts, and only because, as mentioned by Gabriel’s father: “Because they don’t have the same nose.”
And it is unfortunately true in other parts of the worlds, not only in Rwanda. When I think about what Faye had written there, my mind somehow jumped instead to the current mass protests in Hong Kong. Of course it is not a war, but the current political protest itself has divided the country and generations–putting it very generally: between deciding who started the violence and riots first, was it the protesters or the police? Parents fear for their kids’ safety (I believe the young protesters too), but at the same time worrying about their future. Or those who think that this protest simply causes more harm and that it should stop anyway.
Of course, this is a different level to the Rwandan genocide, but at its core, war itself is a conflict, and conflict is caused by many different reasons, sometimes something very trivial.
In Indonesia alone, many conflicts has risen due to the differences in ethnic or religion–oftentimes, these two causes are intertwined.
I ended up googling about the genocide itself (putting them on the list of place with museums I’d like to visit, of course, maybe in the next lifetime), and I don’t know which one kills me more: The recount of the genocide itself, the details of the atrocities happening, the sexual violence, or the fact that by now, the genocide is commemorated in the country, wept, and acknowledged. Yes, I am comparing to the massacres happening in my own country following the 30 September Movement, the anti-communist purge that took place between the course of 1965-1967, killing 800,000~2 million people, a figure that no one, until today could really put a pin on, because eventually there are just so many murders, mass graves, brothers killing each others, neighbors turned on one another, shifting allegiance, and killing under the pressure of you kill or be killed. In the Rwandan genocide, however, I read even in Faye’s book on killings that I’d perceive as revenge killings (this then brought to my mind Bersiap, of course, where prisoners of wars and people of Dutch origins in Indonesia, of Eurasian descents were killed in retaliation after Indonesia declared independence–and still not many Indonesians are even aware that this event ever took place).
The Nyamata Genocide Memorial Centre used a former church located south of Kigali to commemorate the genocide. Denying it is considered a crime in Rwanda.
How are the Indonesian governments still insist and successfully persist on denying the 1965 killings? How are we so far left behind, and are we ever going to be able to catch up?