Wednesday 15 August 2012

Cut The Tall Trees


When Jean-Claude returned to the shack after walking the doctor to his car, the old man was still alive. He wouldn’t last much longer though; it was obvious, even to Jean-Claude’s eye. The doctor had said as much to him. The old man’s family, however, hovered anxiously, still hoping. They crowded round him, silent, but asking questions with their very postures.

Jean-Claude looked round at them. They were tall, dark and fine-bodied, though their clothes were tattered and none of them wore any shoes. They stared back at him anxiously, as if he could make things happen just by saying them. He searched his mind for some acceptable euphemism.

“The doctor said he’s slipping away,” he said finally.

One of the women, either the old man’s daughter or his daughter in law, began to sob, quietly. The rest of them, men, women and children, kept looking at him with that vibrant tension in them. It was all too much to bear. Besides, he had not come here to watch an old man die.

“I should be going,” he said. “But first, I want to talk to you.” He nodded to the old man’s son, who was tall, very thin and already greying. He was the only one of the clan whom Jean-Claude knew personally; he worked as an odd job man and plumber in Jean-Claude’s former office.

The man followed him out. Jean-Claude stood, breathing deeply, for a moment before speaking. From the shack, an unpaved earthen track led down to the road at the bottom of the hillock. A small patch of garden on his left was full of straggling vines and some pumpkins, while a bicycle whose frame was fashioned out of wood leaned on the fence on the right. The doctor’s vehicle had vanished, and only Jean-Claude’s own car now stood at the bottom of the hill.

Jean-Claude felt the plumber standing at his shoulder, waiting. He spoke without turning his head. “He’s going to die.” It sounded abrupt and insensitive. “I’m sorry,” he added.

“We know.” The plumber’s voice was gentle. “He’s old. It’s hard on the younger ones, though.”

“Yes…the doctor said it’s too late to do anything. Even if you’d begun the medicines it’s too late now, but in any case we don’t have the medicines available.”

“It’s the war. The doctor did not take any money, sir.”

“No, that’s all right.” Jean-Claude had himself slipped the doctor his fees while accompanying him to his car. It was the least he could do, after summoning the man himself and persuading him to come. “He must be a kind man.”

“There are no kind men”, said the plumber. His voice was heavy with old knowledge. “What did you want to talk to me about?”

“This.” Jean-Claude turned to face the plumber. They stood close together, and although Jean-Claude was tall he had to tilt his head upward to look the other man in the face. “You need to get out of here.”

“I’m sorry,” said the man. “I don’t understand.”

“I just told you,” said Jean-Claude. “You and your family ought to leave the country, as soon as you can. It’s vital. At least go to the demilitarised area.”

“But why?”

“That I can’t tell you…but bad times are coming, times so bad what’s going on now will look like a picnic. Please, Henri,” he used the plumber’s given name for the first time ever, “get out now, while you still can.”

From the shack behind them came a thin cry of grief. The old man had just died.

“I have to be getting back inside,” said the plumber, and padded away.

Jean-Claude waited a minute more, hoping perhaps the man would come back, and then began trudging down the path to his car.

On the way back home Jean-Claude drove by the National Assembly, the CND. He did this every time these days, almost as an act of masochism. The CND had been occupied by the enemy for almost two weeks now, in accordance with the Arusha accord, and the enemy was here, in the heart of the capital, occupying the national assembly, no less. He saw them every time he drove by, in their entrenched positions, pointing machine guns at the people in the street. It hurt him physically to see those men in their German uniforms and their shiny new weaponry, sitting pointing their guns at him, and there was nothing he could do. It always put him in a bad mood, but he still couldn’t bypass the CND. Whenever he was anywhere near, he drove past it. It was compulsive.

He drove straight home. He had been scheduled to report to the MRND office, but the last thing he wanted at the moment was to go there. He felt tired and disheartened. One man could only do so much; and less, far less, if he had to watch his back at every moment.

His wife met him at the door. She held a finger to her lips. “DouDou’s ill,” she whispered. “She’s just fallen asleep. Don’t make any noise.”

“What’s the matter with her?” Jean-Claude felt fear shoot through him. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, nothing. It’s just flu. She got it from school. Don’t worry. It will be all right.”

It wouldn’t be all right, though, Jean-Claude thought as he sat back in his old easy chair and sipped a cup of black coffee. The chair had been his father’s, and normally he found it very relaxing, while black coffee helped him to think. Just now neither worked. He was tense and unhappy.

The night before last he had talked to the UNAMIR men, the Belgian colonel in the blue UN beret and his sidekick, the Belgian captain who was probably an intelligence operative. He had thought long and hard before deciding to go to them. If anyone, or anything, could stop the coming holocaust, it could only be the UN, however much he distrusted it. He had to depend on them, not just for the sake of the country, but for his family and himself.

He couldn’t go to them directly, of course. Being seen with the Belgians would be tantamount to signing his own death warrant. Instead he finally used the one politician among those to whom he had access whom he could reasonably trust, the man who would be Prime Minster if the transitional government was ever sworn in. He had met Felicien Twagiramungu in the patio of his house, where they could be taken to be free from eavesdroppers, and had told him what he wanted. The premier-in-waiting had said he would see what he could do.

So the evening before last the meeting had taken place, in a small room at the back of Twagiramungu’s house, with the curtains drawn and only one table lamp for illumination. Outside the night hung heavy and dark, the usual brilliant stars hidden by thick low clouds. Jean-Claude hated the Belgians, who had done so much harm to his country and who lay at the root of all the current troubles, but he swallowed his anger and talked quietly and slowly enough for them to take notes.

He had told them enough to let them know that he knew what he was talking about and that what he had to share was worth the effort. He had held back enough for them to get back to him again, because he wanted something from them in return.

“I want passports out of here, for my family and for myself,” he had said, “to Canada or France or the Netherlands. And I want my francs changed into US dollars. I don’t want any money from you, just my currency changed to dollars, and safety for me and mine. In return I’ll tell you everything I know, about the leadership, the financing, and the structure of the militia, and its links to the MRND. I’ll tell you everything you’ll need to know to stop what’s coming.” And, he added, they had better see to it soon if they wanted to stop it at all. The Belgians had seemed impressed. He waited now to find out if it had been worthwhile.

He sighed and turned on the radio, keeping the volume low so his sleeping daughter would not wake. The only station he listened to these days was RTLM, but his wife would always change the tuning to some other channel – any other channel, it didn’t matter which. She hated RTLM. He did too, but it was vital to listen to it. It was even compulsory.

“The people of this country think radio is god’s voice,” he had told the Belgians the previous night. “If the radio tells them something will happen, they take it as ordained that it will happen. If the radio tells them to do something, they will do it even if they don’t really want to, simply because they heard it on the radio. You have to understand this.” The Belgian colonel had nodded and scribbled in his notebook.

RTLM was playing music, rock with its own and unique African beat, and, as he anticipated, the lyrics had begun to turn ugly. “Hate the cockroaches,” sang the musician, “stamp them out and kill, kill, kill.” Any minute now the presenter would come on with some racially charged rhetoric. He winced.

“Why do you listen to that garbage?” he had been asked by his wife, many times.

“I have to,” he had said finally. “I don’t like it any more than you do, but I’m expected to listen because everything that’s happening, everything that’s planned to happen, is wrapped round that station. I have to know what it’s saying because Marcel might ask. Also I must know because I need to know what’s going to happen.”

“I wish you’d never left the army.”

“I wasn’t given a choice, ma cherie.” Whenever he thought she was being deliberately obtuse, he used the French phrase she had grown to dislike. “I was ordered to take over the training in the communes. You know that.”

The presenter came on with his usual inflammatory rhetoric against the Inyenzi, the “cockroaches.” Jean-Claude shut his eyes and held the radio up to his ear. His head was beginning to pound.

He wondered when the UN would act, and precisely how. He was supposed to meet the Belgians again tonight, in a couple of hours. Maybe they would do something after seeing what he intended to show them.

The telephone rang. “It’s for you,” his wife murmured. “It’s Marcel. He wants to see you right away.”

Marcel Ngirumpatse had a flat, shiny face. The president of the MRND was thick-bodied and greying slightly at the temples, and his expressive black eyes gleamed with barely suppressed anger.

“The UN knows,” he said. “They know the arms are being stockpiled for distribution. The bastards went to meet the President today, the Canadian general and the Secretary General’s representative. They told him they know arms are being stocked. Then they even came over here, and told me they knew I was stockpiling weapons. They said that to my face. Someone’s been talking.”

Jean-Claude felt the cold grip of fear in his bowels. “What do we do, then?” he asked.

“We must give out the arms,” Ngirumpatse said. “We can’t afford to wait. If the UN raids those caches it will be too late.”

“But our men can’t be seen with arms,” Jean-Claude pointed out. “It would be a ceasefire violation and then the bastards may simply call off the accord.”

“Big loss that will be,” Ngirumpatse said. “We want the accord to be called off, or don’t we? Do we or do we not want to wipe out the cockroaches?”

“We aren’t set up yet to wipe out the cockroaches, sir.” Jean-Claude’s brain was in overdrive. “Look, the UN mission is full of our spies. Even the Canadian general’s driver is our man. If they plan a raid we’ll know early enough to be able to move the caches.”

“And what if they raid the caches all together – what then?”

“Sir – the risks are greater if we hand the weapons out. Our men have clubs, machetes and spears. Everyone knows this. Now if someone sees them with AK-47s, what will they think? That weapons are being handed out, right? Until we’re ready, we can’t hand those weapons out.”

“All right,” Ngirumpatse said at last. “You keep the caches where they are, for the time being. But the slightest move from the UN and we hand the arms out.” He waited till Jean-Claude was almost out of the door and then called him back. “And step up the training at once, do you understand?”

It wasn’t our fault,” the Belgian captain said. “It was the UN in New York. They ordered the general to go and tell your President about the weapons. I was there. I know the general didn’t want to do it.”

“Yes, well, the arms are still where they were,” Jean-Claude said. “But they won’t be there much longer. I strongly suggest you people get a move on while you still can.” He looked out of the car window at the building. “The cache’s in the basement, but they have guards.” He looked at the Belgian. “I can’t take you in there.”

“No,” said the other one, the Senegalese in civvies. “I’ll go.”

When they came back out, Jean-Claude was satisfied at the deeply preoccupied expression on the Senegalese officer’s face. The man had seen and handled the stacks of rifles and boxes of grenades for himself. He couldn’t possibly have any further doubts as to the reality of the situation.

“There are three more caches in this city,” Jean-Claude told both of them in the car. “I’ll show you them all, as soon as you get me my passports and dollars.” He turned to look back at the building as they drove away. “And you know what that building is, don’t you? It’s MRND party headquarters. What more proof do you need that I know what I’m talking about?”

“We don’t need any proof,” said the Belgian. “It’s New York that’s the problem.” He sounded tired and depressed, and that worried Jean-Claude most of all.

Jean-Claude stood on the viewing platform and watched the young men from the village practice. They stood in the shade of the trees at the edge of the clearing, and one by one they would come out, grab a machete from a pile, and slash at a dummy tied to a pole. He noted with automatic approval that their earlier half-hearted hacking, delivered from the elbow with no real power, had given way already to genuinely devastating blows delivered from the shoulder. The dummy sagged from the pole; the stuffing had begun to leak from half a dozen rents at strategic points. If it had been a human, the dummy would have long since been in pieces.

Jean-Claude nodded as he watched the latest young man hit the dummy at the junction of neck and shoulder, precisely as instructed. It would have sent a man’s head bouncing off his shoulders like a rubber ball. So long as he kept the purpose of the training out of his thoughts, Jean-Claude felt only satisfaction at the progress his wards had made. He looked around. The soldiers of the camp sat a way off, near the rudimentary kitchen with its blackened cooking pots, chatting and playing cards. One or two looked over this way, then got back to their game. They were dishevelled and obviously demoralised. Jean-Claude shook his head in disgust. They wouldn’t be of any use against the Patriotic Front rebels, he was sure. He wondered who in the army’s top brass thought they could ever stand up to the enemy.

His deputy sat back against the wheel of one of the green buses that had brought the trainees from the city. Jean-Claude walked over to him. “They aren’t bad,” he said.

“No.” The deputy peered up at him, but made no move to get up. “They’re much better than the last lot. When do you think it’s going to begin?”

“What’s going to begin?”

“You know.” The deputy made a chopping motion with his hand. “Wiping the cockroaches out.”

“Is that what we’re preparing for?” asked Jean-Claude innocently. “I thought we were getting village defence committees set up in case the war started again.”

The deputy squinted up at him uncertainly. At last, he nodded. “You’re right,” he said. “There are spies everywhere. One can’t be too careful what one says.” He sat back and moodily began to toss a pebble up and down. “All the same,” he said, “I wish it would begin. We need to kill them all.”

Jean-Claude returned home one night after another meeting with the UN officers. He was exhausted and anxious. The UN wouldn’t ever promise anything, and the time was passing quickly by. He had no idea how much longer Ngirumpatse would wait to try and provoke another incident, but he didn’t think it would be too long. The last attempt to provoke the Belgian soldiers into a firefight had failed only by a whisker. He had warned the UN officers, but they had told him the Belgian troops weren’t really controllable. Any day now the whole thing might blow up in their faces.

He glanced at the newspaper he had bought. Kanguru was the print equivalent of RTLM, filled with screaming anti-UN headlines and exhortations to wipe out the Inyenzi. It called on all patriots to stop the transitional government from ever taking office – and so far there was no evidence the transitional government ever would.

“Where is DouDou?” he asked his wife. “Shouldn’t she be home by now?”

“She’s at her friend’s house,” Helene answered. “You know the one she’s always with? Diane Something? It’s just down the road.”

“I want her back home,” Jean-Claude said. “She shouldn’t be at that place, not now.”’

“Why? She’s been going there for ages. You know it. Why do you want her back all of a sudden?”

“You know why.” Jean-Claude felt his throat tighten. “They’re Tutsis.”

“So? I’m half-Tutsi. So what?”

“Don’t be stupid, Helene. You know what the times are like. Any bloody day this country is going to tear apart with a killing worse than you can ever imagine.” He threw the paper down on the table. “Take a look at that rag, see what it says about the Tutsis. It doesn’t even call them that. Inyenzi, it says, cockroaches. Insects to be stamped out. Why shouldn’t I be worried?”

“But what can you do?”

“Nothing. I tried, but they won’t be warned. They just won’t listen. And the UN’s useless.”

“You went to the UN?”

“Didn’t I just tell you? But they won’t even listen to me. I wanted us safe, you know. I wanted to take you and DouDou away from here at once, and with the money we have converted into hard currency, we could have had a life outside. But the UN won’t do a damned thing.” He turned away from her. “I’ve been talking to them for three weeks now, and nothing, just nothing, so far from them. They don’t even make promises any more. Well, I’ve had it with the UN. I’ll see if I can find some other way to get us out of here.”

“We could just leave. Walk across the border to Uganda or somewhere.”

“With what, our francs? I don’t want us to be destitute, Helene. And do you even know what they would do to us if they caught us?” He glowered. “And I’ve been trusting the damned UN. I risked our lives, yours and mine as well, to get the UN to do something before it’s too late. What did they do? Nothing, of course.”

“Why didn’t you tell me all this about the UN?”

“Why should I make you worry? Things are bad enough as it is. Every day I expect to hear that the crazy men have found some excuse to begin the killing. They’ve got a signal all set, do you know that? It’s ‘Cut the tall trees.’ If they hear that, they are to gather and begin to kill. And they’re good at killing, very good. I know. I trained many of them myself.”

“Why did you – you trained them? To kill?”
“Of course. That’s what I’m paid to do.” He paced back and forth. “Why doesn’t that girl come back? I thought at the beginning, you know, that I was training genuine defence units against the Patriotic Front traitors. I hate them, I told you that often enough. They’re not even Rwandans any more. They’re just Ugandan mercenaries who want to take this country over. So I was happy enough to start training Interahamwe defence units against them. But then I found it wasn’t fighting they were training for, it was killing.”

He turned to face her suddenly, took her by the arms and brought his face close to hers. “They’re training to kill all the Tutsis. Once the word’s given, they’ll take the Tutsis and butcher them like chickens, and kill any Hutu they don’t like into the bargain. It doesn’t matter to them the Tutsi’s a Rwandan just like them, as much a man or woman as they are. They’ve been indoctrinated. Brainwashed.”

“But how do they know whom to kill?”

“How do you think? They have a list of Tutsis, of course. They know who’s Tutsi and who’s a Hutu who doesn’t hate the Tutsis, and such Hutus are worse than Tutsis so far as they’re concerned. The schools in the villages have even begun seating the Hutu and Tutsi pupils separately to make the Tutsi kids easier to kill.” 

“I’ll get DouDou,” said Helene, going quickly to the door. ”I’ll bring her back home.”

“You do that…” Jean-Claude thought a moment. “Don’t tell her friend’s parents anything. Just tell DouDou she isn’t to go there again until we tell her she can.”

“And when will that be?”

Jean-Claude pretended not to have heard the question.

You heard what happened?” Jean-Claude’s deputy was on the phone, a high thin note of excitement in his voice. “The President’s dead!”
“What?” Jean-Claude shook his head to clear the mists of sleep from his mind. He had just returned from checking the militia groups in training. In the meantime, the situation in the city was going from bad to worse. “What do you mean, he’s dead? What happened?”

“The Belgians shot his plane down near the airport…he’s dead. The army chief’s dead too.”

“Hold on.” Jean-Claude sat bolt upright in bed. “What do you mean, the Belgians shot down his plane? How do you know that?”

“Everyone knows. RTLM says so.”

“RTLM. And what else does it say?”

“You just listen for yourself…this is it. The army’s forming a crisis committee to take over the country. You know what that means.”


“It’s time to get the Inyenzi,” said the deputy happily. “It’s time to wipe the cockroaches right out!”

When the deputy had rung off, Jean-Claude cursed bitterly, again and again. Just a couple of days earlier he had finally found an agent to convert his francs to dollars and he had been planning to take his family over the Zaire border before the month was out.

He got out of bed and walked over to the window. The city was dark and unnaturally calm. Most of the houses lay dark and still. A military truck raced by; from the window he could not tell whether it was army, or gendarmerie, or Presidential Guard. The phone rang again. It was Ngirumpatse.

“Get over here quick,” the MRND chief said. “We have to begin handing the weapons out. The brush must be cleared, Jean. It’s time to cut the tall trees down.”

Jean-Claude left without saying anything to his wife. She lay in bed, clutching DouDou, who squirmed in her sleep, uncomfortable in her mother’s grasp and wanting to be back in her own room. He paused at the gate, went back inside, and got his multicoloured baggy Interahamwe combat fatigues. He put them on before going out again. He was safer wearing the outfit, because it marked him out as being on the government’s side.

In the distance, near the CND, heavy firing had begun.

Jean-Claude stood at the roadblock, anger a bitter metallic taste in his mouth. Around him his men gathered, hefting clubs and machetes, a couple of Presidential Guardsmen armed with automatic rifles keeping them company. Almost all of his men were, like him, dressed in multicoloured Interahamwe combat fatigues. He had often thought it made them look like clowns.

Well, he thought, nobody was going to laugh at them now.

He hadn’t actually wanted to be standing here, but Ngirumpatse had been definite. “I want you to keep an eye on the men,” he had said, over the sound of RTLM spewing anti-Tutsi venom. “Make sure they maintain discipline. And Jean-Claude?” He had turned to find Ngirumpatse leaning over his desk towards him. “I’ll be keeping an eye on how you take care of things…” The threat had lain heavy in the air. “Don’t fail me.”

A crowd of people had appeared on the street, straggling towards the roadblock. Jean-Claude felt the tension around him rise. His anger was a real live thing now, mouthing and gibbering. He tried to fight it down.

“Ahhh…” said one of his Interahamwe as the crowd approached. Another bent quickly and ran his machete along the road surface to sharpen it. Scrape-scrape, the machete went. It was an enormously intimidating sound.

“Papers,” said Jean-Claude to the first members of the crowd to reach the roadblock. “Your identity cards, please.” The words were hardly out of his mouth before the crowd began to flow backwards, crumble at the edges, and groups of people tried to run. Jean-Claude’s men exploded then. There was no holding them back any more. Screaming, they hurled themselves at the crowd, which collapsed in on itself. Howling mad with bloodlust, the militiamen threw themselves on the people. Machetes flashed.

A terrified face rose before Jean-Claude, all glaring eyes and a red mouth opened wide. A shiny black arm tried to shield the head, and Jean-Claude’s machete slashed easily through muscle and bone. The man fell. Blood spurted in the air, and it was only from the rawness of his own throat that Jean-Claude realised he, too, was screaming.

Inyenzi,” he muttered savagely, not knowing of whom he spoke, and swung his machete again.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012

[Note to reader: According to Lt Gen Romeo Dallaire's masterly book on the Rwandan genocide, Shake Hands With The Devil, a Hutu officer responsible for training Interahamwe militia offered to disclose all details of the genocide in preparation and actually disclosed everything I talked about in this story, and even more. The UN did nothing, and the officer, who went by the code name Jean-Pierre, finally dropped out of view. Dallaire speculates about his fate; I've chosen the most intellectually satisfying of the three possibilities (escape and execution being the others) he suggests.

I changed a couple of names: Felicien (instead of Faustin) Twagiramungu, and Marcel (instead of Mathieu) Ngirumpatse. ]

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