This story is set against the horrific backdrop of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, when gangs of Hutus, sponsored by the government, murdered approximately 800,000 Tutsis (along with pro-peace Hutus labeled as traitors).
Rwanda had previously been a Belgian colony. While there were some differences between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes prior to that, the Belgians exacerbated them by insisting on separate ID cards and establishing a power divide between the Tutsi, who got most of the land and the power, and the Hutus, many of whom were forced laborers. The inequality and injustice helped create hatred between the tribes:
‘…before the Belgians,’ one of the characters in the book explains, ‘distinctions were as fluid as the rivers, determined by marriage convenience, and status. Names of rivers changed, but the water remained the same.’”
All of that ended with colonization. There had also been mass violence against the Hutu by the Tutsi in neighboring Burundi.
The author, in her meticulously accurate portrayal of the run-up to and perpetration of the genocide in Rwanda, records how the country’s media was critical in inciting ethnic hatred and the desire for revenge. The government itself organized neighborhood militias to carry out the killings, even importing a half a million machetes for the use of the Hutu. Youth and alcohol also contributed.
Rape was also used as a weapon in the attempt not only to punish and humiliate the Tutsis but to impregnate the women with Hutu children. To some extent the effort backfired, since some 70% of the assault victims were infected with HIV. (Estimates on the number of women raped ranged from 250,000 to half a million.) Hutu women who were considered “moderates” were also subject to rape.
The West did very little to respond to pleas for help, except to remove their own white citizens and take them to safety. One character, making calls to influential people he knew, found that:
In Europe, his contacts apologized and said there was nothing they could do. They would keep trying, but no one was listening. Rwanda had no oil or strategic interest, no diamonds or gold.”
In the U.S., the Secretary of State under President Clinton refused even to acknowledge that the systematic murder of the Tutsis constituted “genocide.” [In March 1998, on a visit to Rwanda, U.S. President Bill Clinton said: "We come here today partly in recognition of the fact that we in the United States and the world community did not do as much as we could have and should have done to try to limit what occurred" in Rwanda.” He later stated that the "biggest regret" of his presidency was not acting decisively to stop the Rwandan Genocide.]
In Running the Rift, all these facts are intimately interwoven with the story of a boy, Jean Patrick Nkuba, living in Cyangugu, Rwanda, who dreams of running in the Olympics one day. The story takes us from 1984, when he was 9, to 1998, when Rwanda is at relative peace.
Jean Patrick was a Tutsi, but had never really understood the significance of the difference until the day a brick came crashing through their window with the word “Tutsi” on it:
Since the start of the war, ethnicity grew around him like an extra layer of skin. No matter how he tried, he could not shed it.”
As time went on, during the buildup of ethnic hostilities, Jean Patrick’s dreams of Olympic glory were increasingly threatened by his Tutsi status. Hutus harassed him and even injured him. Jean Patrick never felt any hatred himself; his father had taught him all people were the same, that it was impossible to quantify or label distinctions:
Every morning, fishermen went out to the lake, and women and children went to the fields. Hutu or Tutsi, they fetched water, gathered firewood, balanced loads on their heads. In the evening, they padded along paths up the ridge or down into the valley with bare and dusty feet. They cooked, ate, drank beer, and scolded children. In the darkness, men and women lay together and created new life. This was the dance of Rwanda.”
And when Jean Patrick meets a Hutu girl, Bea Augustin, he falls deeply in love. You can feel his frustration and sadness as he contemplates a future with her:
Their lives were only starting. How could they be wrenched apart? How could any of them be picked up suddenly, cast down somewhere else, over mere nothings that had never before concerned them?”
But then the killing begins, and escape seems impossible. Jean Patrick and Bea both have to make choices, whether to make an improbable attempt at getting away, or to stay and share their fate with their families, with whom they were each so close. There was no way that anyone from Rwanda would survive unscathed, if they survived at all.
Evaluation: This is an excellent book and a very good way to learn about the Rwandan genocide from the point of view of innocent citizens who got caught up in the maelstrom.
Published by Algonquin Books, a division of Workman Publishing, 2011