The high school was a large red-brick colonial building on a hill covered in scrawny pine trees at the edge of Bukavu. There were better schools in town, but you had to take an entrance exam and Elias realized that would reduce Zikiya's chances. He knew the headmaster and slipped him some money, so Zikiya was admitted without any problem. The boarders slept in bunk beds, wore a blue-and-white uniform, and had three meals a day—it would leave Zikiya with a profound hatred of cabbage.
There were several other boys from the high plains and they were instinctively drawn to each other. They spoke the same language, had the same worries, the same secrets. Most were married and responsible for cattle. They had a talent for math and chemistry but were bad at languages and social sciences, probably because of the isolation in which they'd grown up. They weren't very good pupils—the difference between the city and their own environment was too great for that—but they remembered the cows they'd sold to pay for their studies and were determined to succeed.
At high school Zikiya met Rwandans for the first time. Their parents had been forced to flee Rwanda in 1959, because they were Tutsi and on the eve of independence from the Belgians the Hutu had risen up against the dominant Tutsi minority. Some still lived in the Rwandan border city of Cyangugu a few miles away, but they couldn't go to school there because there was a quota for Tutsi.
Zikiya's Rwanda was a mythical, pre-colonial state with customs his ancestors had brought into the mountains along with their herds, where they'd become hopelessly outdated over the years. His Rwandan classmates laughed at the way boys from the high plains talked about their cows and the archaic language they spoke.
Up there they'd been Banyarwanda. Here, to distinguish themselves from the Rwandan refugees, they were Banyamulenge—people of Mulenge—one of the first villages in the central plateau where their ancestors had settled when they moved west out of Rwanda. But other pupils saw only their tall stature and narrow faces and couldn't tell the difference between them.
Zikiya studied hard. He ignored the letters from Irango telling him about mutinous herdsmen and missing cows. He didn't go home at Christmas or Easter for fear they'd keep him there.
Despite all his efforts he didn't pass his final exams.
When he got back to Irango he cried and was inconsolable for days. “You can try again, can't you?” his mother said. He looked at her in amazement. “And waste another cow?”
But the next time he passed.
He went home for the annual holiday with a light heart, taking the bus to Uvira via Rwanda, since that was the shortest route. On the Rwandan side of the border the bus was stopped and boarded by two Hutu immigration policemen, who plodded sluggishly down the aisle. “You there, Tutsi! Off the bus!” He looked round, but they meant him.
Outside they demanded his papers. He gave them the green identity card Elias had arranged for him. It was a bit tattered—he'd plasticized it meticulously. One of the policemen took a quick look, passed it to his colleague and grinned. “We know you. Your name isn't Zikiya. You're not a Zairean, you're a Rwandan, an Inyenzi.”
Zikiya was shocked. Inyenzi—Cockroaches—he'd heard the Rwandans at school whispering about them. They were Tutsi refugees who'd attempted to overthrow the Hutu regime in Rwanda in the 1960s, shortly after independence.
“You guys going to make up your minds?” the bus driver called out, keen to get going. Some of the passengers were mumbling that they didn't want to wait for a student whose papers weren't in order.
Zikiya felt the midday sun scorching his head. The river they'd just crossed gurgled in his ears. “I'm not a Rwandan,” he stammered. “I've just taken my final exams in Bukavu, I'm on my way to the high plains, my mother . . . ” He would have said more, but the policemen recognized his accent. “He's a Zairean,” they mumbled, disappointed. They handed Zikiya his papers and he was allowed back on the bus.
All the passengers were shouting at once. Some cursed the driver: if something like that happened to them, would he leave them behind too? Others urged him to get moving, to make up for lost time. Zikiya sat silently by the window. He would always remember the incident at the border in fine detail: the pitiless sun on his head, the peremptory voices of the bus driver and the passengers, the face of the policeman waving his green identity card, the sound of the river in the background. But above all he'd remember what the men had shouted as they ordered him off the bus: “You there, Tutsi!” It was the first time anyone had ever called him a Tutsi. It sounded like a curse.
Zikiya waited a year in the high plains for the results of his state exam, the national test every scholar had to take after gaining his high school diploma. Irango struck him as belonging to an old, stagnant world. Whenever he went into the hills with his cows he listened to the radio and obstinately read his chemistry textbook or studied the atlas he'd brought back from Bukavu.
He was twenty-three. When his wife gave birth to a son his mother was happy. By securing her husband's issue to the second generation she'd fulfilled her life's purpose. But Zikiya corresponded with his friends in the valley and could think only of how much he was falling behind.
In the summer of 1990 he arrived in Bukavu again. His atlas had given him an idea. He enrolled at the geography department of the ISP, the Institute of Higher Education.
Shockwaves from the collapse of communism in the Eastern Bloc were felt as far away as Zaire. Universities and colleges teemed with political resistance. In the west of the country, a thousand miles away, political leader Etienne Tshisekedi was fighting Mobutu's corrupt regime and gaining increasing popularity among students.
Feelings were stirring among the Tutsi at the ISP as well, but they were looking eastward. The Tutsi refugees of 1959 who lived in Uganda had united to form the Rwandan Patriotic Front and in October 1990 they invaded northern Rwanda. The offensive failed, but it caused great excitement among Tutsi throughout the region. They started collecting money for the RPF and from time to time a classmate would disappear. Later you'd hear he'd left for Uganda via Goma.
The rise of the RPF made the Tutsi around him more confident and Zikiya was drawn in against his will. At the end of the first term only two geography students had managed to pass their chemistry exam. The tutor, a Tutsi, was furious. He claimed the students were stupid because they ate cassava, which always contained traces of poison no matter how carefully you washed the tubers. He was certain the boys who'd passed the exam didn't eat cassava, he said, and he asked them to come to the front of the class.
Zikiya walked reluctantly down the aisle; he saw out of the corner of his eye that the other student was a Rwandan Tutsi. There they stood, two Tutsi, three if you counted the tutor, solving the question in front of the blackboard—living proof that maize-eaters were cleverer than cassava-eaters.
He felt the eyes of his fellow students burning into his back, and although some congratulated him afterward they were standoffish toward him from then on—as if that afternoon by the blackboard he'd taken sides.
One day Zikiya received a letter from his uncle Rutebuka. The men who looked after his cows had rebelled. It was fairly common for a herdsman to quit his job, since working for a year would earn him a calf and he could start his own herd after five years or so, but this time they'd all simply upped and left.
In no time Zikiya was back in Irango. He succeeded in finding new herdsmen but had to stick around to train them, a job it was impossible to delegate. Time was slipping through his fingers like sand once again. The academic year in Bukavu ended without him.
If he wanted to complete his studies he'd have to move further away, to Kisangani, for instance, where they'd be unable to reach him if there was a problem with the cows. His mother was distraught when she heard: Kisangani, that was on the equator, people died of malaria there! But he was no longer of an age when people could stop him doing as he liked.
Again he left. Meanwhile the fighters of the Patriotic Front had established themselves in the mountains of northern Rwanda and were waging a guerrilla war. Attacks by the RPF reawakened Hutu fears of the old feudal Tutsi regime. A myth began to haunt the Great Lakes Region: the Tutsi wanted to establish an empire that would extend far beyond the current borders of Rwanda. The Zaireans were afraid now as well.
On his way to Kisangani Zikiya stopped in Bukavu. He ran into a boy he'd known at the ISP. “Where have you been all this time?” he asked. What did people in the city know about troublesome herdsmen? “I was home, in the high plains,” Zikiya said hesitantly. “There were some problems in the family.”
“Yeah, yeah, that's what they all say,” the student answered. He told Zikiya about a mutual acquaintance, a Tutsi, who'd suddenly disappeared. “We won't be seeing him again. He was killed during an attack by the Patriotic Front.” Zikiya was shocked, but the student gave him a hostile look and said: “He's dead and you've all got it coming—you too.”
That boy pushed him into the arms of the RPF, he would later tell his second wife. He described to her how, at the start of his training, he'd been locked in a house for a week. “I had everything I needed,” he said. “A bed, TV, food, it was just that I couldn't go out.” Later he was given permission to drive around in a jeep, as long as he stuck to a certain route. His freedom of movement was increased step by step, his capacity for obedience tested.
It was a strange story that made her think of a scene from a film she'd once seen and not fully understood. But when she tried talking to him about it later, he seemed to have forgotten he'd ever told her and gave her an irritated look, as if she was making it all up.
A year after his meeting with the student, Zikiya turned up in Bukavu again. Instead of Kisangani he was on his way to Rutshuru, where a branch of the ISP had just opened at which he could continue his studies. Rutshuru lay near the border with Uganda and Rwanda. In the autumn of 1992 it was still peaceful there, but not for much longer. There had always been a large Hutu population in Rutshuru and a small number of Tutsi; they couldn't remain indifferent to the trial of strength their peoples were engaged in over in the mountains of northern Rwanda.
Again Zikiya registered as a first year geography student. He was no longer using his father's name and he'd taken a new forename, a common practice among members of the Patriotic Front. He now called himself Assani Zikiya.
The little clay house rented by Assani and his fellow student Pascal lay on the main road through Rutshuru: two rooms with small windows and a corrugated-iron roof. They cooked together and each contributed twenty-five dollars a month for food.
Traffic at the front, the landlord's crying children at the back, and in between the pair of them trying to study. Pascal belonged to the Nande, traders who lived to the north of Rutshuru. Assani told him about the tough life of the high plains, where his poor elderly mother still lived. He seemed very attached to her.
Sometimes Assani went to visit his sister, who lived in a densely populated neighborhood of Bukavu. He usually traveled on from there into Burundi. He confided in Pascal that he smuggled small amounts of gold across the border to earn his keep and once took him along to visit his sister. They would go to the high plains together one day, he promised.
Nothing ever came of that.
Pascal believed Assani wasn't interested in political or military affairs and only wanted to concentrate on his studies. He didn't know that Assani was married with two children.
By this time Assani's life was running on several tracks. He was capable of being close to people without letting them in on some of the most fundamental details of his life.
When Assani went home for the annual holiday his bus was again stopped on the Rwandan side of the border. The immigration police were tense. Guerrilla attacks by the Patriotic Front had increased in recent months and the Hutu regime responded each time by killing innocent Tutsi civilians in the interior. All the bus passengers paid them, but Assani had to stump up more than the rest, even though he was broke. The police searched his luggage and confiscated the sneakers he'd need for the climb to Irango.
In Uvira he got out and slung his bag and jacket over his shoulder. This time it was Zairean soldiers who stopped him. Looking the way he did, he must be a fighter with the Patriotic Front. He was in jail for three days. His fellow prisoners were kind to him, sharing their food and commiserating, but he felt the net closing. The Rwandan problem had crossed the border. He could no longer escape it.
Nevertheless he went back to Rutshuru after the holiday to start his second year of geography. The tension between Hutu and Tutsi in Rutshuru was mounting. The Hutu listened to the inflammatory Radio Mille Collines, while the Tutsi tuned in to a radio station run by the Patriotic Front that called on them to join its ranks. Pascal even began to feel uncomfortable as a Nande. The Hutu were in a majority in Rutshuru and regarded everyone else as “immigrants”. Armed with machetes, a group of Hutu students besieged two new tutors in their houses—a Tutsi and a Nande—and forced them to leave.
In April 1994 the Rwandan president's plane was shot down as it came in to land in the capital, Kigali. The president had been a Hutu. Within an hour there were roadblocks all over the city and Hutu massacres of Tutsi citizens and moderate Hutu began. Over the next few months they would spread across the whole country. Meanwhile the Patriotic Front was advancing on the capital from the north.
One night there was a power cut in the clay house Assani and Pascal shared. Assani went outside to a stall where a man sat peering across the dark street by the light of an oil lamp. He asked for a candle. The vendor turned his face away. Assani repeated his request. “I won't accept money from a Tutsi,” the man said in a monotone.
By the time he got back to the house the electricity was on again, but those words would stay with him.
On a hot June evening a crowd gathered outside the door of the ISP auditorium where a Hutu professor was due to hold a reading. “Interpretation of Events in the Great Lakes region in Light of the Document The Protocols of Zion”—the title had been reverberating through the corridors for days, adding to the general buzz that had held Rutshuru in its grip since the genocide in neighboring Rwanda began. The ISP was sheltering a Hutu soldier who'd fled Rwanda. The Tutsi students regarded him with suspicion—who could say what he had on his conscience? The Hutu for their part followed every move of a man who sometimes came from Uganda by bicycle. He looked like a Hutu but he was actually a Tutsi who belonged to the RPF, they said, recruiting soldiers and collecting information from RPF spies among the students. Nobody at the ISP was interested in science any longer; everything was political now.
Groups of students stood chatting in the warm evening, excited, looking around nervously to check no one was listening. The professor they'd come to hear was a militant close to the Hutu regime in Rwanda. Knives were being sharpened.
As soon as the local political, administrative, and religious authorities had taken their seats in the front rows, the students poured into the auditorium. It was stifling, the heat of the day trapped under the low corrugated-iron roof.
The professor mounted the podium, looked into the hall and began. “I realize that the topic I'm about to speak on is a sensitive one,” he said. “But I believe in freedom of expression and I hope we can have a fruitful discussion afterward.”
Before long there was total silence. The recent war in Rwanda, the professor said, was part of an attempt by the Tutsi to establish a new political order in the region. “For years Tutsi in Uganda, Burundi, and Zaire have been combining forces, capital, and manpower so they can take power in Rwanda again,” he declared. “Not because they're particularly interested in that small, poor country, but they need it as a base from which to dominate its neighbors.”
The Tutsi were exactly like the Jews, he went on, who had revealed their plans for world domination a century earlier in The Protocols of Zion. He was aware that the authenticity of the Protocols was disputed by the Jews themselves, but the document interested him because it corresponded with reality. The Jews didn't believe in borders in the modern sense of the word. Since establishing the state of Israel they hadn't only occupied part of the Arab world, they'd succeeded in infiltrating western governments. Not even the White House had been spared.
Assani stood at the back of the auditorium. His heart was thumping and his legs felt weak, but he managed to grin at Pascal, who was leaning against a wall and nodded toward the door. “The Tutsi have infiltrated the highest political, economic, and religious spheres in Mobutu's Zaire,” the professor was haranguing them. “Now they're trying to oppress the Hutu in the east.” He was no longer sticking to the text in front of him. He glanced up at his audience more and more frequently, seeking support.
The buzz of voices around Assani was growing louder. A student protested that there were Tutsi in the hall. Someone pointed in his direction and some Tutsi students began to stir, but all sounds were drowned out by the Hutu students, who demonstrated their support by stamping their feet and chanting “Move the mountains, kill them! The only good Tutsi is a dead Tutsi!”
Pascal pushed the door open and slipped outside. Others followed. The smell of sweat around him made Assani feel nauseous, but he controlled himself. Out of the corner of his eye he took note of who was provoking the audience. He stayed to the end, when the professor's cry of “Long live academic freedom!” was met with thunderous applause and he was swept outside by the crowd. A group of Tutsi students was waiting for him. What should they do? They were no longer safe here. One of them tore up his workbook demonstratively. “I've had enough,” he said. “I didn't come here to learn this sort of thing.”
Next morning they went to the office of the security service to report that they felt threatened. The security men sided with the Hutu and weren't willing to protect them.
Many students didn't make it to the end of that year. The Tutsi left in small groups for Uganda. Assani wanted to sit his exams first, but his results were worse than last time and he needed to retake various tests. Pascal was apprehensive about what might happen if all the Tutsi left town. The Nande would be next. But he was even more worried about his friend's fate. Assani with his tall, slim build and narrow face had the typical look of a Patriotic Front fighter. Why didn't he leave?
“Get out of here,” an older Rutshuru Tutsi said to Assani. “What do you think you are, a man or a ghost? You're not immortal. What's the point in studying if you don't survive this?”
It was August 1994. The Patriotic Front had reached Kigali. In the aftermath of the genocide, a great flood of Hutu had poured across the border into Zaire, terrified of the victor's fury. They'd set up camp in the desolate volcanic landscape north of Goma, hundreds of thousands of wretched people, a mixture of fear, hatred, and death in their eyes.
Assani rode in a minibus right through the throng, heading south for Goma. A truck with bodies wrapped in gray blankets went past, presumably victims of the cholera epidemic the radio had been reporting on for several days. He turned away and found himself eye to eye with a Hutu woman sitting beside the road staring at him in terror.
“Stop!” Two Zairean soldiers brazenly stuck their heads through the window. When they spotted Assani they did a double take. “Papers!” He said he was going home for the holiday and showed them a copy of his ISP report, but they didn't believe him. The driver, a Tutsi, managed to talk them round; three times on that journey he had to give soldiers money. By the time they arrived in Goma, Assani knew it was dangerous to go any further.
When everyone had gotten out he asked the driver if he could sleep in the minibus and travel back north with him the next morning. The man gave him some food and found him a place to sleep. They left early. The driver had bought bread to help bribe the soldiers. Every time they were stopped Assani stuck bread through the open window, several loaves at once. When they reached the turning for Uganda he asked the driver to stop.
He was wearing jeans and a shirt, his jacket slung over his shoulder. He didn't have any luggage—that would have looked suspicious. The man drove on, but suddenly he threw the bus into reverse, came back, took the money the passengers had paid him out of his breast pocket and gave it to Assani, zaires and dollars jumbled together.
Assani adopted a nonchalant stride, as if out for a stroll in the fields. Over the past few months he'd gradually broken loose from the landscape that produced him. He'd become so light that he blew across the border like a feather.
From The Rebels' Hour. © 2006 by Lieve Joris. Translation © 2008 by Liz Waters. Published 2008 by Atlantic Monthly Press. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.