Saturday, July 07, 2012

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali - Gil Courtemanche

".. talked without stopping, about AIDS, about corruption and about massacres. He repeated what (he) had said a thousand times before...."

The story of every genocide takes the same often narrated path of violence and massacre. The second World War, the balkan conflict or what the world witnessed in Africa. The story of molestation, violence, rape and massacre repeat itself, by merely changing the country or continent. Canadian journalist and writer, Gil courtemanche, brings the world attention again to the gruesome history of the 1994 Rwandan genocide with a powerful, violent and often angry portrayal of the war time Kigali. The writing is hard hitting, it is upsetting and he uses extreme graphic images be its the effect of AIDS, the massacre or the rape of women.

Hotel des Mille-Collins, at the centre of Kigali is the nerve-centre of the actions in Rwanda. Apart from hosting the UN peace keeping soldiers, it is also the point of action for various Global organisations, working in Rwanda, like the UNICEF, Red Cross, French and Belgian embassies, the rich expatriates and the high class prostitutes. Bernard Valcourt, a Canadian journalist ( an alter ego of the writer), comes to Kigali to set up the television station in Rwanda with the help of Canada. Widowed, and his daughter now married and settled, he accepted the assignment to escape his boring life. The telecast project is perpetually delayed, and he and his crew are now opened to the world of another epidemic that is creating havoc in Africa - AIDS. Focussing his camera and his journalistic intuition, he and his team set about filming some of the victims and their last days. Though he made several friends amongst the victims and was able to film some of the touching scenes of their last breath, his documentary did not receive the attention neither in Rwanda, nor to the rest of the world.

Death and sex are two companions in the street. Scores are dying of AIDS, and the rest are victims of the violence. Machette clad predators on prowl for their victims, so are the prostitutes carrying deadly HIV virus.

The build up for a potential show down between Tutsis and Hutus were already evident. There are sporadic incidents of violence and arson. With most of his friends belongs to the minority Tutsi community, his attempt to bring justice to those affected were received with no enthusiasm from the ruling majority, and he was often warned with dire consequences. His diplomatic immunity , being a Canadian did not help him, and his attempts to get the international attention to the crisis, about to explode had no success, barring a small publication based out of Belgium. As one after other of his friends being killed by a meticulous planned genocide by the Hutu majority ( a plan very similar to what we had seen in the extermination of Jews in the first half of last century), Valcourt continue to work on his capacity.

The crisis blow up with a full scale action of murder and mass migration of Tutsis after a political crisis resulted in the murder of the President, the country goes into chaos. Anarchy rules and the foreigners are rescued to the nearby countries. Valcourt, now in love with a local girl Gentille, a Hutu with the physical features of Tutsi, refuses to leave and plans for his wedding. The Rwandan crisis now turns into a war after the Tutsi rebel regroup (with the help of Uganda) and return the favour. Now the exodus is from the Hutu quarters and no one is safe in the streets any more. In an attempt to flea , Valcourt and his wife was stopped and she was detained for not having the valid identity papers. Few pages of notebook, reveals the fate of her post separation.

"This novel is a novel. But it is also a chronicle and eye witness report." asserts the writer. Most of the characters and places are real and their 'real names' are used confirms the preface. While the theme is the genocide, he turns the mirror to the world community at large. Rwandan history until the second half of 20th century marred by Belgian rule , who spread the seed of hatred among the Tutsis and Hutus. They continue to supply arms to the warring factions ( Machettes from China the granades and firearms from French continue to enter the country by dubious means). Even at the height of the sectarian conflict, the UN peace keepers, the French or the arrogant Belgian soldiers refused to intervene. To the western world it was a news in the inner pages of the newspaper. The cry for help fallen into deaf ears, until late into the conflict. Though the peace was restored after a long time, the scars remain intact, albeit subdued and hidden.

Immediately after reading the book I watched the movie 'Hotel Rwanda' again the same night. Incidentally both claims to be based on real characters. Events in both, the book and the movie are happening at Hotel des Mille - Collins. Both happening at the same time and through two different perspective. While the movie, restricts its focus on the 1994 genocide ( a week to 10 days probably), the book has larger canvas, including the AIDS epidemic and the initial build up of the violence. Movie appealed in the visual sense, but the book seems to have been much more deep into the conflict, through the personal experience.

Very disturbing and haunting tale of violence with some graphic description of the rape, violence and death. It is difficult not to get carried away in such a tale, and he maintain a commendable restrain in his narrative. Anger, frustration, helplessness and cynicism influences the writing, despite his attempt to be im-passionate. The thin line between fiction and non-fiction often smudge. A very important recount of one of the dirtiest events of human history and not necessarily a literary phenomenon.
A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali (2000)

Gil Courtemanche ( translated from French by Patricia Claxton 2003)


258 Pages
Guardian Review, Montreal Mirror, Mostly Fiction, Good Reports

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