The first time she knew that she was different was in primary school. One day, her teacher instructed the children to divide themselves by Tutsi and Hutu. Some children knew what this meant. Among those who did not, she hesitated. After pause, she made her own choice and simply sat in the front row. This is where the best students sat on any other day. She sat because that is where she wanted to be.
Pinching the sleeve of her shirt, the teacher lifted her up and pulled her all the way back–past the last row for the worst students–back to the wall where Tutsi children sat crouched next to mops and buckets. She was pushed down and made to sit in this place. She was made to understand that she was different than the others. This was in the early 1970s.
Twenty years later, this ongoing work of division and differentiation reached a dangerous culmination. In the early 1990s, those who wished to dehumanize the ones whom they viewed as intolerably different succeeded. Extremists urged Hutus to exterminate Tutsis. The extreme became ordinary. Many participated. When humans are likened to insects and alien invaders, evil things can happen. Evil things happened in Rwanda.
She fled evil when it ominously surrounded her parents’ home. She fled evil when it violently entered a neighbor’s home. She finally found refuge with many others of varying backgrounds at an international non-governmental building. They waited for death to come. People regularly said things like ‘We may die tonight. It is possible. Yes, we may die.’ They hoped for a swift end without torture.
After months of waiting, liberating soldiers arrived. The ones in hiding only knew that the good soldiers would be recognizable from the murderous ones. This is what they were told. ‘You will know who we are.‘
Surely, they knew. One day, she sat by the covered window with a small boy. They watched a lone soldier walk slowly, calmly along the road. Soldiers were seldom alone and rarely calm. This one was different, so they went out to him. Besides, they might die any time. Salvation and death had merged months prior. At least this soldier was alone and calm.
The liberating forces gathered dozens of people all together and asked them to surrender any weapons. People laid down knives and sharp tools they had been holding. As she watched, an elderly lady turned over a machete, dripping in fresh blood. The soldiers inquired, and the woman explained that it was for cutting wood. More directly, they addressed the blood a second time. Her answer, unaltered, was that it was for cutting wood.
She did not trust this situation, so she walked away.
She walked until an old acquaintance stopped her. This woman declared that they were heroes now. They survived! They were the same–no more division! This woman was one whom she knew to have outed Tutsis to the genocidaires. Despite–indeed, perhaps because of–this attitude, she could not trust that woman; so she walked away.
There was no innocent place. There was no trustworthy person. She walked away.
She walked until she found herself in the middle of the road, where white lines mark the two distinct sides of traffic. She lowered herself, and that is where she sat. She sat because that is where she wanted to be.