History and horror of Rwandan genocide

Friday May 20 2016

The Ghosts of 1894 by Oduor Jagero. PHOTO | WILLIAM OERI

Give a dog a bad name and hang it does not rank high up with the best first lines of a book review, just as the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi does not make for comfortable chitchat.

However, Oduor Jagero fuses the two concepts in his book, The Ghosts of 1894, and succeeds in telling the story of the Rwandan genocide in an absorbing albeit unsettling way.

The Ghosts of 1894 is as much a history of Rwanda as it is the story of Habineza, a Tutsi of means, who has never known stability and peace, his father having had to run away, first from Rwanda to Uganda during the Hutu revolution; and later from Uganda back to Rwanda at the height of Idi Amin’s madness.

Habineza, like his father did, has to run away from Rwanda when president Juvenal Habyarimana dies after his plane is shot down. He runs to the Goma refugee camp in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), and from there to Kenya. But the infamous 2007/2008 post-election violence pushes him from Eldoret back to Rwanda.

Though the book starts in 1894 (a few years after the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 — the Scramble for Africa), it is focused on Habineza’s flight from Kigali to Goma. The author, in a chilling yet meticulous manner, paints the life of Habineza with broad strokes of hate, love, despair, hope and resilience, on the canvas that is his Tutsi heritage in an environment dominated by the Hutu.

For example, like the character in James Clavell’s King Rat, Kabasoga — a Hutu who works on Habineza’s property for a living — deserts Habineza at the latter’s most vulnerable, denouncing him: “The sight of you and your fellow Inyenzis ... makes me so sick I want to throw up.”


Inyenzi is Kinyarwanda for cockroaches, and was the Hutu’s derogatory term for the Tutsi. Roaches were meant to be crushed; as the proverb goes, “When a hyena wants to eat its children, it first accuses them of smelling like goats.”

Habineza loses his wife, Rosy, to the Interahamwe, who rape then kill her, right in front of the children, Akamanzi and Nshuti. This is one of the many chilling episodes in the book. After his wife is killed, Habineza teams up with Vestine — a Tutsi woman previously married to a Hutu. Vestine has a daughter, Juliet.

Together, the two adults and their three children walk, run, and hide in the bush in their bid to reach Amahoro Stadium, an improvised internally displaced persons camp guarded by UN forces.

They are joined by Sandra Moore, a correspondent with the New York Times, who, while running away from the Interhahamwe, hid in Habineza’s house. Yes, during the genocide not even journalists were spared.

So begins a journey that will see them run from the army, get shot at (Nshuti dies from a bullet wound), live in the forest and, just before they are separated, be lured into an Interahamwe camp where both Sandra and Vestine are raped.

The three adults, after searching among the dead and not finding the children, assume they are dead. On their part, the children escape from the mayhem in the camp and assume their parents, too, are dead. The forests will be their homes, wild fruits their food, and death their constant shadow. It is their will to live that keeps them going until they meet again in Goma.

Throughout the book we are reminded of the destructive power of a rogue media, unfettered state-sanctioned propaganda, and the transient nature of the politics of exclusion. Those in power today, we are shown, could be out tomorrow, their military might notwithstanding.

At the height of the massacre, Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines, for example, when not playing the hate-filled songs of Simon Bikindi or setting Hutus against Tutsis, is alerting the marauding Interahamwe of the locations of the Tutsi.

As with testimonies from survivors of the genocide — or books and movies on the same, we are left asking: What happened in Rwanda? Is it the curse of ethnicity? Is it poverty? The colonialists?

The Ghosts of 1894 offers opportunities for candid self-examination. It is not just about Hutus versus Tutsis, but us versus them. For example, a French soldier is offended when he is called Frenchie in response to his comment, “Think of them [Africans] as flies. Who cares if one fly dies? Life goes on.”

“Where did you study journalism?” he asks Sandra.

“Columbia University. Where did you study racism?” she retorted.

How do we prevent future genocides? Do we resign ourselves to the weary wisdom of Habineza that, “The future is a terrible place to talk about… that listens to what you have to say about it only to prove you wrong?”

Or do we heed Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame: “It’s about doing the right thing and making sure that things like hate speech and other dangerous divisions in society are prevented.”

Jagero’s book, despite numerous lapses in editing, is a commendable effort at retelling the story of the Genocide against the Tutsi for posterity.

His choice of title and the cover design are a refreshing break from the available local books. It’s a must read.