Every night the same nightmare interrupts my sleep. I’m being chased … I don’t look back. There’s no need. I know who’s chasing me … I know they have machetes…. I know I’m going to fall, I’m going to be trampled, I don’t want to feel the cold blade on my neck ….
So begins Cockroaches, the harrowing memoir by Scholastique Mukasonga. Mukasonga tells of growing up Tutsi in Hutu dominated Rwanda. She documents her family’s initial displacement in the early 60s from to Nyamata and then to Gitwe, and the ongoing terrorism against her people.
Mukasonga retells the story of the horror of her daily life, of the regular raids of her village, attacks on children on their way to school, of the men kidnapped and never heard from again. She tells of children maimed, girls raped, of the bodies of fathers and brothers found by the side of the road. Of the skin and rotting pieces of the dead floating in their drinking water.
She tells of her parents doing the best they can for their children. Her mother creating a garden of hard-to-find crops that were plentiful in their old home, so the children can understand the way of life they left behind. Her father working hard to put together enough money to send at least a few of the children away to school. Of her parents doing their best to maintain some of their tradtions.
Mukasonga is essentially saved by her father’s efforts. It is “understood” without so many words that she and her brother are to be sent away in order that the family might survive elsewhere. She manages to pass the national test and gains a place in a prestigious school. The entire community assists with money to send her away. There she is one of few Tutsis amongst the Hutu majority, and the Tutsi girls work hard at their studies to ensure their grades are impeccable.
Mukasonga had settled in France with her husband and children by the time the massacre of 1994 occurred. She speaks of her guilt of not being there, of not knowing what happened to her family, or where their bodies are. She lost 37 members of her family in the atrocity. She recounts the stories she has from the few survivors.
In 2004, Mukasonga makes a pilgrimage back to the site of the massacre – and finds her parent’s Hutu neighbours living in their house. How many of these people – who brutally murdered families – are still living in the area, amongst the blood and bones of their victims? No one talks about the massacre, and those who are asked have seen nothing and weren’t there. A population of genocide deniers.
This is not a fun read – it is sad, harrowing, disturbing and so incredibly necessary. Cockroaches is a story for the dead a documentation of their lives and worth, and an acknowledgement of the sorrow of those who survived the horrors.
5 out of 5 wishes for peace.