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Reading ‘Shake Hands with the Devil’ in Kigali

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The book: Shake Hands with the Devil, Roméo Dallaire

The place: Kigali

I only got the idea to come to Rwanda about a week ago. I knew I was leaving Mogadishu on 1 May; I’d booked a flight back to the UK for 5 May as at the time of booking I thought I’d be making a work trip to South Sudan after Somalia; then that didn’t end up happening, I didn’t want to change my flight, I did want to take advantage of the fact that this is a long weekend to which I am entitled, and so I plumped on Rwanda as easily visitable from Nairobi, somewhere I’d never been before, and small enough (and easy enough, from a travelling point of view) that I could see a reasonable amount in a very short amount of time. And so I booked some flights and some airbnb accommodation, and here I am.

On my last night in Mogadishu, when I was looking for a book that would pique my interest, having finished the awesome Cuckoo Song, I remembered that I’d bought Shake Hands with the Devil a few month ago, and thought that I probably should read it, to coincide with my Rwanda trip. I started it properly yesterday morning, while waiting for my flight to leave Mogadishu, and have burned through nearly three quarters of it in the intervening 36 hours. I was expecting the book to be fairly dry, with a military focus, but that’s not at all the case: Dallaire comes across as passionate, heartbroken, so honest that it’s often painful reading. Almost the worst parts of the narrative are the parts where Dallaire is hopeful or optimistic: these little flares sent up from the darkness which the reader knows, with the benefit of hindsight, came to nothing, and less than nothing.

There’s always something a little odd and unbalancing about reading about a place while visiting it for the first time, but that sense of imbalance is much, much more intense in this case, because of what Kigali is like now versus what Kigali was like then. I can’t claim to know anything at all about Rwanda, having been here for only 24 hours, but first impressions mean something: the pristine streets, the obedient traffic, the feeling of utter safety (in terms of petty crime) when walking around the city, the fact that the motorcycle taxis wear an identifying tabard and are mandated to carry an extra helmet for their passengers. I’d developed a bit of a chip on my shoulder about Rwanda in the past, after one too many ex-Rwanda residents turned up in South Sudan, looked around in disdain and started to wax lyrical about how glorious Rwanda is in comparison – but I can see what they were talking about. This is a beautiful, friendly, well-run little country.

The state of Rwanda in 2015 is even more impressive when you recall the state of Rwanda in 1994, just 21 years ago. When I look up from my book, I have to keep reminding myself that this is the same Kigali: the Kigali whose roads were clogged with corpses, where death squads went from house to house, where children were hacked to pieces with machetes. This afternoon I walked past the Hotel Mille Collines and had to really force myself to understand that this neat, 1970s-style hotel with a sumptuous view over Kigali’s hills and valleys was the same place that sheltered hundreds of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994, because if they went out on the streets they would be slaughtered. Afterwards I took a moto to the Genocide Memorial: as I arrived, around 3.30pm, a great silent procession was walking downhill, young Rwandans in white t-shirts carrying banners, flanked by marshalls in reflective vests. When I asked the guides at the Memorial what was going on, they told me that they were students, and once I was inside the Memorial, moving from room to room, looking at horrifying photographs and watching recorded testimony from survivors, in they all came to look at the exhibits. I have been to a number of museums and memorials before, but never one that felt as much as this one that it was intended for the residents of the country – tourists were welcome, but they were very much beside the point – and that was almost more moving than the exhibits themselves, the number of young Rwandans who were there, reading every word of the placards, scrutinising the images, some of them in tears. The most affecting part of the memorial for me was right at the end, when you are led through a series of rooms: one filled with photographs of the dead, donated by their families; one with human bones in glass cases; one displaying some of the clothes that had been found in mass graves: a strip of yellow cloth patterned with blue birds; a Superman sheet. In the room full of photographs, many of the Rwandans seemed to go straight to a particular wall, squatting down or reaching up to look at the photographs, and I wondered if they were looking for someone in particular.

When you start thinking about the history of this country, it’s impossible to stop. I find myself guessing the ages of the people I see in the street, trying to work out how old they would have been in 1994, and what they might have been doing – crossing the border into DRC or Tanzania; fighting in the bush with the RPF; going house to house with the Interahamwe? For most of the people I know who do the sort of work I do, we have a clear memory of what pushed us in this direction, often a news story we encountered during childhood or adolescence that made us aware of how badly the world needs fixing, and how (arrogantly) we might be able to help fix it. (Disillusionment and awareness of one’s own impotence comes later.) For me, this was the Rwandan Genocide, and its aftermath: in particular, I remember a story on the news, about a year after the Genocide, about the appalling conditions of genocidaires in prison. It made me conscious of how easy it can be to accept a one-sided view of a particular event – and how beguilingly easy it can be to put oneself in the shoes of a victim rather than a perpetrator.

It’s easy, too, to turn history into narrative. Dallaire’s narrative is about how terribly, criminally wrong the international community was about the approach to the Genocide and the Genocide itself – it’s a very compelling narrative, and my gut tells me that it’s a correct one, but I’m trying, also, while reading, to imagine what it would have been like to be some of the other actors in the story, how and why they may have made some of the choices they did: to tread lightly, not to go after arms caches, to pull back. Rwanda’s narrative, from the perspective of 2015, is a much more positive one: it’s the story of a country that took responsibility, that rebuilt itself, that faced up to the worst of humanity and is still facing up to it. Having spent so much of the past several years in countries that seem to be trying their best to destroy themselves – Sudan, South Sudan, Egypt, Somalia – it does often feel that the whole world is in a state of dissolution: things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. And yet: Rwanda; the Former Yugoslavia; Lebanon – all places that were bywords for horror and misery while I was growing up, and now they’re peaceful enough that I have holidayed in all of them. It is possible for things to get better.

(No photos due to phone loss. Wah.)

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Written by Jess

May 2, 2015 at 4:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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