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Essay: Murambi Genocide: De-Familiarizing Horror Through Disparate Perspectives

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  • Published: 6 December 2019*
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  • Tags: Genocide essays

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De-familiarizing Genocide in Murambi; The Book of Bones

“This country has been completely mad for a long time,” is a line from Boubacar Boris Diop’s The Book of Bones, published in the year 2000. The book’s setting is in Rwanda during the Rwandan Genocide, the mass killing of the Tutsis by the Hutus in April of 1994, after the alleged assassination of the Hutu president at the time (History.com Staff). The Hutus had been looking for a “good reason,” to kill Tutsis as there had been a long history of contempt and animosity between the two groups. These conflicts built up, and they led to a violent outburst. Diop presents a nuanced vision of the Rwandan Genocide by telling the story of eight people. Part one of the novel tells the story of three different perspectives right before the genocide truly began. This tactic resists the tendency authors and artists have to reduce Tutsis and Hutus into mere perpetrators and victims, and it also emphasizes the similarities between their pasts and futures.

The second part of the novel focuses on the perspectives of the other five people beginning with Cornelius who was not in Rwanda during the genocide. This outsider perspective contributes an additional layer to the types of trauma. Nicki Hitchcott, of the Indiana University Press, wrote an article in 2009 focusing on Cornelius’s essential role in telling the story of Rwanda. She says that by telling all the stories with Cornelius as a spectator, readers become more like witnesses than Cornelius could ever be. What Hitchcott fails to acknowledge is that Cornelius’s story is like that of the Doctor and Jessica. All three experience different situations that invoke different types of guilt in the three.

I will begin my expansion on Hitchcott’s idea by demonstrating how part one is essential to understand the three basic perspectives from the Rwandan Genocide. I will use that to then analyze the tone of the novel. I will end with idea that understanding different types of guilt, and learning from different perspectives is foundational to understanding the Rwandan genocide and history.

Diop chooses to begin with the perspectives of three very different individuals; First a Tutsi, Michel Seremundo, then a Hutu, Faustin Gasana, and finally a Tutsi posing as a Hutu, Jessica. Michel’s chapter is the first and it is a recount of, “yesterday’s,” events. He says, “This time the murderers had the perfect excuse.” Here, he is referencing the long past of turmoil in Rwanda. It’s important he does this because it connects the Rwandan Genocide to other human rights atrocities, like the Holocaust and the Dirty War in Argentina, through the universal idea Gloria Whelan has that genocides and tyrannies don’t just happen.

In deep contrast to Michel, Faustin is revealed to be a commander of a group of Hutus preparing for the coming genocide. Faustin has a conversation with his father about Faustin’s need to control his group of, “boys.” During this deep conversation, his father references the Hutu’s past of failed genocide at Gitarama. He tells the story of a family that was not killed, but, in the eyes of Hutus, should have been. The son of this family lived to seek vengeance on the Hutus by leading the guerillas of Rwanda. This piece of Hutu past is important because the world needs to be reminded that the Hutus weren’t strangers to genocide and targeted widespread violence. It also sets the hard boundary that Hutus were not going to be sympathetic to anyone this time.

As a blend of the two perspectives, and also in contrast as a woman, Jessica provides a unique perspective. Her story is the reminder that women will face the constant threat men, like Faustin, pose. She will know women who are raped, mutilated, and killed at the hands of Hutus. And as Tutsi woman with a false, Hutu ID, a common way to escape, she constantly feared discovery. One might think she abandons her people by disguising herself, but this shows how desperate Tutsis were to evade the impending doom that was to befall their people.

The idea of impending doom, or foreboding, is a theme that can be applied to Michel and Faustin as well, even if it is a different doom. Michel, Faustin, and Jessica all know what has happened in the past, and this they have in common. Their ancestors had to face colonization by Belgians, who created the initial divide in classes. Then their ancestors had to face decolonization when the Belgians abruptly left Rwanda without a sound government, further destabilizing the country. Together, the people of Rwanda all experience the pain of the genocide whether it be a Tutsi family being destroyed, a Tutsi woman being raped, or a Hutu mother having her son ripped from her to slaughter Tutsis out of fear of being killed (Tadjo, 22). Together they will also face the long road ahead of reconstruction. Tutsis and Hutus had to rebuild Rwanda with little help from the Gacaca Trials which failed to provide true justice to Tutsis, and even some Hutus, because of its purely retributive nature (Corey and Joireman, 73). Together, they all had to heal.

Cornelius is a part of this healing as well because he is impacted from the outside looking in, and can’t connect over this issue with his closest friends because as insiders, they had a different experience than he did. Hitchcott also says about Cornelius that giving him a short distant role in the story of the Rwandan genocide allows the reader to be, “more of a witness than Cornelius will ever be,” (Hitchcott, 54). To expand on this claim, Cornelius isn’t the only character that has a confusing position in relation to the genocide. Doctor Joseph Karekezi is a Hutu married to a Tutsi and readers watch him fail to protect his own flesh and blood. In marrying a Tutsi woman, he betrays the core values of the Hutu people. Cornelius and the Doctor are similar in the sense that they both feel like they wronged their people.

The Doctor calls his family a mistake and overcorrects by participating in their murder. Cornelius feels he has failed his friends by not being present for their trauma and experiencing it with them, so his fixes his mistake by listening to their stories. Doctor Karekezi, provides insight to the impersonality and emotional disconnect Hutus had when it came to Tutsis. Blending these perspectives in an essential part of understanding and structuring the way the Rwandan genocide should be taught and understood.

Alternating perspectives and stories are essential for understanding history and are a part of the de-familiarization of the Rwandan genocide. This is Diop’s way of contributing to another nuanced perspective, but this time, on guilt. Jessica feels guilt at the end of her first chapter when she leaves a Tutsi woman for dead as she escapes under the disguise of a Hutu Identification Card. While she may feel immense guilt that she’ll never be able to shake, her story illustrates how deep the fear ran in Tutsis; they would do anything to spare being raped and murdered by Hutus. This fear runs so deep because Hutus have been attempting to eliminate the Tutsis by whatever means possible for generations. Jessica is different from Cornelius because she got a sense of closure after the genocide; the hate had reached its peak and she watched it firsthand so she had no doubts. Cornelius searches for closure because he was absent for the height of the violence towards Tutsis, and he’s a Hutu.

If the Rwandan genocide is taught with the only perspective being the Hutus were bad for killing the Tutsis then the depth of the story is lost (Lawrence, 307). Everyone makes mistakes in Diop’s novel, and that is a reflection of real life. Guilt does not come in one flavor. Every character in The Book of Bones expresses that guilt of some sort weighs on their conscience.

Michel, Faustin, Jessica, Cornelius, and Karekezi may be fictional, but they represent the struggles of real people during the Rwandan genocide. Every story was different, and every story lends to the understanding of the genocide. Tutsis knew that based on Rwanda’s past, when the Hutu president was killed, the Tutsis would face the wrath of Hutus and Michel knows this at the very beginning of the novel. Hutus saw it as their responsibility, imposed on them by a century of suffering, to avenge their fallen president. Faustin saw leading Hutus to kill Tutsis as a rite of passage, and Karekezi led his own family to their death. Children of mixed Hutu and Tutsi parents were caught in the crossfire of a history that each side of their genealogy experienced. Real people disguised themselves as Hutus to save their lives like Jessica and the complex this created for her was common to other Tutsis who escaped. It’s also what makes her similar to Cornelius because even though leaving wasn’t his choice, he feels he betrayed his friends. This multiplicity of perspectives breaks the standard image of skulls and bones that represent the Rwandan Genocide and gives individuality and dignity back to each Tutsi victim, and each Hutu perpetrator.

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