History – Anyone who is at least forty today cannot fail to remember the words hutu e tutsi and of the blood that was shed in their name. The origins of the conflict are very complex but the trigger was the shooting down of the plane of the then president Juvénal Habyarimana in Kigali. Habyarimana was a Hutu leading the National Revolutionary Movement for Development who, in order to secure French support as well, was intent on widening the democratic arc of the country (he who took power with a coup d’etat in 1973). The antagonist was the Rwandan Patriotic Front, an armed organization also composed of Tutsi exiles, inspiration of local political movements. The attack took place April 6, 1994. Twenty-four hours later any male of Tutsi ethnicity on Rwandan soil was in danger of life. The manhunt – in the true sense of the word – had begun.
The manhunt – Habimana is certainly not the first to tell about that manhunt from within. That slaughter, with its 250,000 rapes, still weighs on the conscience of the international community. The author, now a religion teacher in Milan, recounts that escape for life with a meticulousness of details and feelings that catapult the reader back in time. It does so by declining fear in all its possible forms: that of ending up under a machete, that of dying of hunger, of not knowing anything about the family, of talking to a peer and discovering that he is a spy …
On April 8, 1994, when he was only ten years old, he saw his father for the last time. In the city of Gisuma that 8th of April, a dramatically clear word of mouth arrives: “The Hutus are slaughtering the Tutsis”. From that day on, Jean Paul Habimana became an adult and lived with fear. As a practicing Catholic, he sought Shangi parish as his first free zone. To get there you have to walk a lot and secretly to avoid running into hunters of men, le milizie Interahamwe. From that moment on, humanity in “In spite of fear” almost completely disappears. They cannot be defined as such soldiers who during the day exterminate men and women barricaded in a nearby parish and at night pretend to be rescuers to finish the job, killing anyone asking for help hidden for hours under a corpse. Likewise it is not definable human who frees the dogs in the middle of the fields to flush out Tutsis and shoot them like game. The same goes for those who go around with a rifle and machete to kill and dismember human beings equal to him but “guilty” of belonging to a different ethnic group (and the same fate befell Hutu opponents of the bloodthirsty regime).
“If they call you, go out and get killed” – “Despite the fear” is the detailed account of those three months lived by the author between journeys to less dangerous places and inhuman atrocities (“in case of retaliation we Tutsi males had a tacit agreement: come out into the open and get killed when the militiamen they called our name, saving the lives of others “). Between looking for relatives and friends and expedients to avoid starving (“we asked for alms disguised as females using the girls’ clothes in mass graves, clothes stained with blood and with shreds of limbs still inside “).
Jean Paul Habimana is a survivor. It is because he was lucky, let’s not hide it. It is because a dissident Hutu family hid him “in the banana pit” after a peer recognized and denounced him. It is because he managed to enter a Red Cross refugee camp with the rest of his family. A refugee camp that seemed like a mirage where cholera and malaria weren’t even scary, notwithstanding eight thousand displaced people and four water taps. And for water there was no respect for anyone, including women, children and the elderly.
Survivor among orphans, widows and faith – The author experienced firsthand the massacre and what came after. After a hundred days of murder and rape, he saw Hutus suddenly give importance to life (theirs) when up until 24 hours earlier they took away that of their neighbor. He has seen his neighborhood transformed into a shelter for widows and orphans, being generations of males passed to the machete. Then life and faith took over and Jean Paul entered the seminary. He studied side by side with young Hutus “who did not attribute the atrocities committed to their fathers but to uncles and cousins”. Jean Paul learned about the suffering and fear of the Hutus too, an ethnic group now canceled (like the Tutsi one) but marked forever.
“Despite the fear” tells all this and much more. In the book published by Middle Lands there are other incredible phases of the conflict and other credible ones in his life. Starting from his arrival in Italy to study theology and to the subsequent inner dilemma: priest or layman? But Jean Paul Habimana did it. He escaped the war, helped his family who remained in Africa and married a woman born Hutu. Despite his fear, he always looks forward so that no one forgets the hundred days and the million deaths in Rwanda.
In the photo Afp: the skulls of some of the victims of the massacre that took place in a parish. Today I’m in the Genocide Memorial.
A preview for Tgcom24 readers:
Despite the fear
Genocide of the Tutsis and reconciliation in Rwanda
at Jean Paul Habimana
Terre di mezzo publisher