I was heading west from Kigali to Virunga, taking a well-earned break from my work. The rains had come and gone, allowing the sun to bead my brow. My driver, Josef, had advised that the road was safe and the jungle, which he said he knew like his wife’s face, was safe also. But he was wrong. Just as we crossed the border into Congo we came across a government militia roadblock, where we were forced to show our papers. In French, I nervously explained what business I had there; that I was working in Rwanda and taking a day off to go in search of mountain gorillas – “aujourd’hui je suis touriste.” In Kinyarwanda, they told Josef that guerrillas of a different kind, the Interahamwe, were hiding somewhere on the jungle route and we’d be seriously advised (meaning ordered) to turn back. That morning, Josef later explained, eight park rangers had been butchered, just a hundred yards further on the road.
The above is an extract from diaries written during my eighteen-month project in Rwanda. I think of the experience often, and the other night when I thought of it I couldn’t believe it was twenty-five years ago. But last night, when I saw on the news that sixteen people had been killed, it was as if memory was turning real, as if the past was becoming now.
So it made me think, that in these dark days when we’re all working together, we’re all fighting together, to beat Coronavirus, it’s very easy to lose perspective. A quick look at the Worldometer website told me that so far, there have been 212,000 deaths to Covid-19. In 1994, during just 100 days of genocide, more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus lost their lives to machete-wielding Interahamwe geurrillas.
There will of course be more deaths to come from this disease and there will inevitably be all sorts of analysis and study when the global crisis is over, and far more academic minds than mine will be at work. But in my limited way of thinking, however potent, vile and deadly is Covid-19, there is no more potent, vile and deadly threat to man as the one posed by man himself.
I have always wanted to return to Rwanda one day and meet with those survivors of the genocide with whom I worked, and with those I trained to pioneer the nation’s first ever soap opera, Urunana (Hand in Hand). I fell in love with that beautiful country and every time I hear of unrest my heart goes out to those who showed such fortitude in times far more troubled and dangerous than we’re living in now, and where at the hands of human cruelty the ultimate sacrifice was made in far greater number than at the hands of something little understood yet seemingly greater feared.
It struck me as a sickening irony that tourist trips to the North Kivu province had been suspended to protect the gorillas from Coronavirus yet the park rangers were killed by humans, and it reminded me also that, some twenty-five years after I left the land of a thousand hills, the war in that land is still going on.
So when this “global pandemic” is over, let us remain hand in hand, and let us not forget there’ll still be problems in the world.