In April of 1994, nearly a million Rwandans were killed in what would prove to be one of the swiftest, most terrifying killing sprees of the 20th century. In Murambi, The Book of Bones, Boubacar Boris Diop comes face to face with the chilling horror and overwhelming sadness of the tragedy. Here, the power of Diop’s acclaimed novel is available to English-speaking readers through Fiona Mc Laughlin’s crisp translation and a compelling afterword by Diop. The novel recounts the story of a Rwandan history teacher, Cornelius Uvimana, who was living and working in Djibouti at the time of the massacre. He returns to Rwanda to try to comprehend the death of his family and to write a play about the events that took place there. As the novel unfolds, Cornelius begins to understand that it is only our humanity that will save us, and that as a writer, he must bear witness to the atrocities of the genocide.
About the Author
Boubacar Boris Diop is a Senegalese novelist and screenwriter. Murambi, The Book of Bones was nominated by a jury to the Zimbabwe International Book Fair’s list of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century.
Fiona Mc Laughlin is Associate Professor of African Languages and Linguistics at the University of Florida, Gainesville.
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Murambi, The Book of Bones
By Boubacar Boris Diop, Fiona Me Laughlin
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2000 Boubacar Boris Diop/Editions Stock
All rights reserved.
Yesterday I stayed at the video shop a bit later than usual. Granted, there hadn't been many customers during the day, which is rather surprising for this time of month. To keep myself busy I set about organizing the films on the shelves in the hopes that someone would come and rent one at the last minute. Then I went and stood at the doorway to the shop for a few minutes. People were passing by without stopping.
This corner of the Kigali market where I set up shop nine years ago appeals to me less and less. Back then we all knew each other. Our shops formed a little circle near the crossroads. When customers were scarce, we could at least get together over a beer among friends to complain about the hard times. But unfortunately, over the course of several months, all sorts of people—tailors, vegetable and cloth sellers, butchers and barbers—had taken possession of the tiniest bit of sidewalk. The result was a colorful and friendly chaos, but it wasn't necessarily good for business.
By half past nine I really had to go home to Nyakabanda, almost without a penny in my pocket. On the way to the bus station I heard sirens roaring and I thought that there must have been another fire in one of the poorer neighborhoods of the city.
A tank from the presidential guard unit had taken up position at the entrance to the station. One of three soldiers in combat gear asked me politely for my identity card. While he was leaning over to read it I followed his gaze. Sure enough, the first thing they want to know is whether you're supposed to be Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa.
"Ah, Tutsi ..." he said, staring me in the eye.
"That's what it says, doesn't it?" I answered with a smirk.
He appeared to hesitate a bit, then gave me back my card, shaking his head. Just as I was about to leave, grumbling to myself, a second soldier called me back. He seemed to be much less accommodating than his colleague. He pointed to my trousers and said harshly:
"First, see to your fly, my friend."
I fixed it, smiling stupidly. I must have had a sly look.
"Oh! Thank you. I hadn't noticed."
"You work in this market?"
"What a moron!" I thought.
"If I didn't work in this market do you think I'd come here to get a bus?"
I had spoken curtly, to show him just how stupid I found his question.
"Where do you work then?"
This guy was too much. Why this "then"? I almost asked him, but he didn't seem to be joking at all.
"I am Michel Serumundo, owner of the Fontana video shop," I replied, trying to sound modest.
In spite of my visible irritation, my sense of business had quickly gotten the better of me. I told him that I specialized in renting out war films. After all, soldiers must love to watch bombings, ambushes, and all that kind of thing. Was I going to tell him about those special adult films too? I decided not to. He gave me back my identity card. It was clear something was eating him.
Patting me on the shoulder, he signaled to me to leave.
"That's fine, go on."
It dawned on me later that he had taken me for a madman. As I moved away I felt them staring at me, baffled. I wondered what they could be doing at the entrance to the market at this time of night. The question ran through my head for a few moments. It's true that this part of the Kigali market almost always draws a large crowd. So naturally it attracts bombers like those who made two attacks last March, one of which killed five people. But I don't remember having seen any soldiers in this place other than during rush hour. What could their presence mean? Maybe they had some other information. I thought again of the roaring sirens and started to feel slightly uneasy.
The market bus station was almost deserted. I climbed onto the only vehicle parked there. The atmosphere was heavy inside the bus, and the passengers sat in silence. After a few minutes, the driver called his apprentice.
"OK. Let's go."
It was only when a group of nervous soldiers stopped our bus from passing in front of Radio Rwanda that I started to suspect that this was a day unlike any other.
The driver, who was going at a very brisk pace, had to stop dead in front of the roadblock. Instantly, soldiers appeared from every direction with crazed eyes. The idiots were really ready to shoot at us. They asked the driver for his papers and one of them shone his flashlight in our faces. He lingered on mine for a long time and I thought he was going to make me get out.
The other one was harsh on the driver:
"Hey, didn't you see the roadblock?"
"I'm sorry, sir."
The driver was shitting in his pants. His voiced was trembling.
We made a U-turn and a big man with a mustache, wearing a blue jacket, blurted out in a loud and almost joyful voice:
"This time they're not joking, are they?"
I waited, but he didn't say anything else. "What's going on?" I asked.
The guy glared at me. All of a sudden he seemed to be furious with me.
"That's it," he said coldly without taking his eyes off me, "they're going to tell us again that it's an unfortunate accident."
I tried to look inconspicuous in my corner. Most of the passengers agreed with the man and repeated that this time it wasn't going to happen that way. They said it was going to be a field day for the militia. My blood froze. The Interahamwe militia, whose only purpose in life was to kill Tutsis. Someone announced that he had seen a ball of fire fall from the sky.
"It's a sign from God," the man in the blue suit assured us.
"Did you know that the plane fell on the lawn in his garden?"
"On the lawn?"
"In his garden?"
"Yes, in his house!"
"That's a sure sign from God."
"God loved that man! All the heads of state in the world respected him."
"They were jealous," added another. "President Mitterrand gave him a plane as a gift and they said: 'Since we can't have one of our own, we're going to destroy it!'"
I was apparently the only one who didn't know that our president Juvenal Habyarimana's plane had just been shot down in full flight by two missiles on that day, Wednesday, April 6th, 1994.
My heart began to beat very fast and I felt a mad desire to talk to someone. I turned toward my neighbor on the left who hadn't opened his mouth once. He held a young girl of five or six on his lap. She was lovely in her dress of scarlet flowers. The man was crying quietly. Was it Habyarimana's death that had made him so sad? It wasn't impossible, but then again, it would have surprised me. People don't generally cry for their president unless the television is there to film them. It's true, these African presidents give people such a hard time, they shouldn't delude themselves. It makes complete sense. Nevertheless, the unknown man had touched me enormously. While he was forcing himself in vain to hold back his tears the little girl played with him, sticking a bird feather in his ear, and her clear little laugh resounded through the bus.
When we had passed the dispensary—I think it's called the Good Samaritan—the driver took a right-hand turn and said sullenly as he was parking, "Everyone gets off here."
"What about my luggage?" protested a woman who had a heavy basket beside her.
"Motor's broken," said the driver curtly.
I called him a bastard, but he just kept staring straight ahead. He was lying through his teeth. Then, addressing his apprentice, he spat out grudgingly, "Hey, give them back their money."
He had been dying of fright ever since the incident in front of Radio Rwanda, and most likely he thought that the easiest thing to do was to go home. The presidential guard and the gendarmerie were all over the place with their cars and beacons and the screaming of their sirens. It was like a city under siege.
I had to do three kilometers on foot to get back to my house in Nyakabanda. Groups of young people bustled about, blocking the big avenues and the entrances to each neighborhood with tree trunks, tires, rocks, and burnt-out cars. You could also see some more ordinary barricades made from simple iron grating. They did things seriously, with a sinister concentration and without too much fuss, lit by the glow of their flashlights. Sometimes they argued heatedly about the placement of a barricade. Their leader would arrive quickly to give orders and everyone would go back to work.
In spite of the late hour, Séraphine was waiting for me at the doorway to the house, her face serious.
"Where are the children?" I said.
"Only Pierrot's missing."
Him again. There were always problems with that scatterbrain of a Jean-Pierre.
"I'm going to look for him."
"Where?" asked Seraphine. "The radio just announced that everyone should stay at home."
That didn't make any sense. I couldn't let my twelve-year-old son spend the night away from home at a time like this. Whoever knew Rwanda knew terrible things were going to happen.
"And is everything alright here?" I asked, gesturing toward the house with my chin.
We lived with a Hutu family. They were polite, but their son, a fanatical Interahamwe militiaman, was often nasty to us. One day I caught him going through our things. I closed the door and said, "Defend yourself, kid." He likes to play the tough guy to impress the girls in the neighborhood, but he doesn't know how to fight. He got a thrashing he'll never forget. Anyway, I supposed he must have been remembering all about it during these last few hours. Yes, the time has come for them to settle all those little scores. Every Interahamwe probably has his list of little Tutsi friends to get rid of.
"The neighbors? They haven't said a word to me all evening," said Séraphine.
"And our young imbecile, is he there?"
"Don't shout, Michel, please. He's disappeared."
My guess was that he was with the others, putting up barricades at all the crossroads in the city.
Séraphine wanted to say something, but she held back at the last moment.
The situation was becoming clearer and clearer, but I didn't want to make her any more worried.
"Don't worry, Séra, the entire world is watching them, they won't be able to do anything."
"You think so?"
In my heart of hearts I knew I was wrong. The World Cup was about to begin in the United States. The planet was interested in nothing else. And in any case, whatever happened in Rwanda, it would always be the same old story of blacks beating up on each other. Even Africans would say, during half-time of every match, "They're embarrassing us, they should stop killing each other like that." Then they'll go on to something else. "Did you see that acrobatic flip of Kluivert's?" What I'm saying is not a reproach. I've seen lots of scenes on television myself that were hard to take. Guys in slips and masks pulling bodies out of a mass grave. Newborns they toss, laughing, into bread ovens. Young women who coat their throats with oil before going to bed. "That way," they say, "when the throat-slitters come, the blades of their knives won't hurt as much." I suffered from these things without really feeling involved. I didn't realize that if the victims shouted loud enough, it was so I would hear them, myself and thousands of other people on earth, and so we would try to do everything we could so that their suffering might end. It always happened so far away, in countries on the other side of the world. But in these early days of April in 1994, the country on the other side of the world is mine.
My conversation with Seraphine took place in the street. "Go in for a few minutes at least," she said to me. "The children will be happy to see you."
"They haven't gone to bed yet? It's eleven o'clock at night."
"The teacher told them that there won't be any class tomorrow. So ..."
"OK, I'll go and tease them a bit."
I had just realized that our house now, all of a sudden, seemed to frighten us. I went inside. Our neighbors' shutters were hermetically sealed. They were listening to Radio Mille Collines, the station which for several months now has been issuing insane calls to murder. That was new. Up to now they had been listening to those stupid programs in secret. I found the children in the living room. While I was playing with them, I remembered the man crying silently on the bus. Then I sprang up to go in search of Jean-Pier re. I also intended to stop by the storage room to lock up some valuable things that people had given to me to look after. The looting could start at any moment. Looting, and one or two thousand dead, that would almost be the least evil. I'm not exaggerating. This country has been completely mad for a long time. In any case, this time the murderers had the perfect excuse: the death of the president. I didn't dare to hope that they would be satisfied with just a little blood.CHAPTER 2
I sat down beside the driver. He started the engine and asked in his usual laconic way:
"Where to, boss?"
"We'll stop by the house, Danny. The old man is anxious to talk to me."
He sets off in a cloud of dust. In normal times the traffic is very heavy in this part of Kibungo. This afternoon the streets are deserted. The inhabitants have been cloistered away at home for two days. The only people moving around are security forces and Interahamwe militia like me. I sense a discreet excitement in Danny. I haven't told him anything about it, but he knows that some very important events are going to take place. For twenty-four hours he's been driving me from one meeting to another. Besides, last night I had to tell him to go home without me since it was clear that our meeting with the prefects and mayors was not going to end before dawn.
I pushed open the door of the house. My sister Hortense is frying plantain bananas in the open-air kitchen, just to the left of the entranceway.
"Hello, little sister."
She comes toward me and whispers gaily into my ear with the face of a plotter:
"Go quickly and answer the old man. But I'm warning you: he's angry at you."
"I was very busy. Can't he understand that?"
"You know him. He says you're a bad son."
As soon as she hears my voice, Mother comes out of the old man's room. We run in to each other in the courtyard. She is holding a little tray. Some pieces of cotton float on a mixture of pus, blood, and alcohol.
"I've just changed his bandages," she says.
"Is the cut on his arm getting any better?"
Mother is quiet for a moment. She is not very talkative, and maybe she doesn't want to reply. Finally, she shakes her head, no.
"Come on." I said. "We're going to make him see a doctor."
"He chased me out of his room. He says you have to have a man-to-man talk."
I lower my eyes. The old man has always been very hard on her. Nevertheless, even if she suffers because of it, she never lets it show.
After pulling aside the curtain I have to wait for a few seconds at the threshold, just long enough for my eyes to get used to the darkness of the room. Like all old people's rooms, this one is cluttered with useless objects that make it even more cramped and stifling. Two photos are stuck on the wall, just above the headboard. In one of them, Grégoire Kayibanda, the first president of Rwanda, is shaking hands with King Baudouin of Belgium. Kayibanda seems very proud to be living this historic moment, and the king of the Belgians, white-gloved, seems a little distracted or disdainful. The other is the official portrait of Major-General Juvénal Habyarimana. The very man that our enemies have just murdered. He is smiling, and his eyes sparkle with intelligence.
My father is sitting in the middle of the bed. The transistor radio beside him exudes doleful music. His eyes can hardly see any more, but he senses my presence and holds out both his hands to me. I take them, trying to avoid reawakening his pain. The same yellowish liquid seeps out from the white bandage wound around his left arm. It stinks a bit. So robust only a few years ago, he is at present thin, fragile, and rather shriveled. He turns off the radio and has me sit down on the bed, almost completely against him. I am touched by this gesture of affectionate complicity.
Father asks me straight away:
"Do those people take us for real men or for women?"
Without leaving me the time to respond he adds that this time, "'They' have gone too far."
Politics has always been his favorite topic of conversation, but I have never heard him pronounce the word "Tutsi." He always calls them "them" or "Inyenzi," literally cockroaches.
"We'll teach them to respect us," I say after a moment of reflection. "We're ready."
"I know you're doing good things for your country. Friends have come to congratulate me. I'm pleased with you."
"Yes, I've done good work. I know. We have the situation well in hand in the hills and in all the big cities in the country, but in the north it will be more difficult."
"Because of the Mulindi-based guerrillas?"
"Yes. We've heard that they've been moving on Kigali since Friday."
"That's what I'm told too."
"You're decidedly well informed," I say, smiling.
Flattered, he smiles too, then, suddenly becoming serious again, "You cannot fail."
His comment makes me ill at ease. After all, he's right. Despite his physical decrepitude, the old man has kept an amazingly quick mind. It's true, if we don't succeed in eliminating all the Tutsi, we'll be considered the bad guys in this business. They'll trot out their sob stories before the entire world and things will get very complicated for us. Even the most reluctant among us know it: after the first machete blow, we'll have to see it through to the bitter end.
Excerpted from Murambi, The Book of Bones by Boubacar Boris Diop, Fiona Me Laughlin. Copyright © 2000 Boubacar Boris Diop/Editions Stock. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
Foreword: An Urn for the Dead, an Hourglass for the Living by Eileen Julien
Introduction: "To call a monster by its name" by Fiona Mc Laughlin
Part 1. Fear and Anger
Part 2. The Return of Cornelius
Part 3. Genocide
Doctor Joseph Karekezi
Colonel Etienne Perrin
Part 4. Murambi
What People are Saying About This
This novel is a miracle. Murambi, The Book of Bones verifies my conviction that art alone can handle the consequences of human destruction and translate these consequences into meaning. Boubacar Boris Diop, with a difficult beauty, has managed it. Powerfully.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Murambi is a novel produced as part of a Rwandan program to remember the genocide of 1994 - an event in which between 800,000 to 1,200,000 individuals were killed, most with weapons wielded by their neighbors. The book also makes an effort to capture the Rwandese desire to have the world see beyond the perception that the region is "cursed" by violence, rather than that violence being the result of several specific political actions. The book reproduces the key cultural conflicts by working on the individual level, placing novelist Cornelius Uvimana in a position as somewhat both a perpetrator and product of the murders. And rather than paint in broad strokes of violence, author Diop effectively uses one or two key images of its aftermath - a child's severed foot in a dog's mouth; a man hiding under the dead -- to make the murders personal, and somehow imaginable. Murambi is a challenging book, and an important story, that bumps against a great many stereotypes of the region and its people, and ultimately asks that we see not see the Rwandese as sculptures in misery, but as people struggling, continuing, and alive. (Originally published at Goodreads.)