When I was three I experienced exile for the first time. It was 1959: the year the first pogroms broke out against the Tutsi, which would culminate, after many massacres, in the genocide of 1994. If I close my eyes, I see those images flit by like a time-lapse movie. I’m in a field. I’m scampering behind my mother, who’s bent over her hoe. Suddenly, there’s this rumble, this hum coming from the hills. Smoke rises from the dense swell of the banana plantations. My mother grabs me. We go back up the slope to the path along the ridge. On the path, there’s a stampede, a crowd in panic, calls, cries, children wailing, cows mooing. My mother looks for my brothers, my sisters. And still in the distance, howls that I don’t want to hear…
At the edge of the path I see a big hut in flames, I don’t want to believe that it’s our house that’s burning. I hear the crackling of the flames, the calves mooing in the barn. I close my eyes, or maybe it’s my mother who covers my face with part of her pagne.
Tonight, I won’t sleep at home.
My first place of exile was the Mugombwa mission. The Tutsi found refuge there. In my book Cockroaches, I described this stay as being like a strange vacation. Of course, I didn’t know then what a vacation could be. But it was really strange: my brothers and sisters no longer went to school, the children all played together in the square of the mission church, I ate what I had never eaten at home—rice! I wasn’t old enough to worry about what might happen. I slept next to my mother, and I always had a little milk jug with me. My mother was able to salvage what was considered the family treasure: a metal cooking pot that our father had bought off a peddler supposedly from Zanzibar, a beloved piece of kitchenware we had given the pompous name Isafuriya ndende, “the cooking pot with the long neck.”
It all came to an abrupt end one evening, after nightfall. When I close my eyes, I see trucks with all their headlights illuminated; soldiers, white men who jostle us, rush us, force us into the trucks: “Quick, quick, get in!” I’ve lost my mother, my brothers, my sisters, my jug has slipped from my hands, it rolls under the feet of those being pushed into trucks; I’m truly alone, lost forever, I’m crying, it feels like those tears of exile are still flowing down my young cheeks.
The trucks full of Tutsi families drove all night on gravel paths. In the early morning we were unloaded in that unknown and sinister site on the border with Burundi that would henceforth be the place of our exile: Nyamata. For thirty-four years, the “refugees from the inside” who gathered in villages around the small center of Nyamata suffered bullying, persecution, and repeated massacres. All those who had been deported in 1960 and their children were massacred in 1994.
I can speak about all those who were murdered because I was no longer in Rwanda in 1994. For reasons I still don’t understand, I was among the 10 percent of Tutsi students who were allowed to attend secondary school. In 1973 I was in my second year of a social-work program in Butare. That year decided the course of my life—I won’t say of my destiny. Grégoire Kayibanda’s government thought it had found a solution to the widespread discontent in Rwanda: the age-old method of scapegoating. The targets were the few Tutsi still employed in administration and education, as well as the 10 percent. Girls’ schools were not spared.
It happened one afternoon, during a math class. A classmate suddenly opened the door: “Mukasonga, Mukasonga, quick, quick.” Outside, in the school hallway, I heard a great clamor, shouts. I didn’t stop to think. We knew it was the boys from the neighboring high school who were hunting down the Tutsi. Our Hutu classmates had fed them information and encouraged them.
It was fear that saved me, it was fear that allowed me to flee, to run wildly down the halls of the school, cross the barbed wire fence without a scratch, and hide myself in a small eucalyptus forest until nightfall. Yes, I thank my fear, which was for the Tutsi of Nyamata their most faithful companion, their shadow that never left them…not even in the dead of night.
I ended up returning to my family home hidden in the trunk of a Hutu deputy’s car. That’s when my parents made the decision: my brother André and I, who had both gone to secondary school and knew there was a world outside Rwanda, had to take the path of exile in Burundi.
Today I live in France, in a small coastal village near Ouistreham. Ouistreham is a beach frequented especially on weekends by the inhabitants of the city of Caen, which is only ten kilometers away, and by Parisians, who live a few hundred kilometers away. It’s a small fishing port. On the quay, there is the imposing white mass of the ferry that goes to England two or three times a day. This is the mirage that irresistibly attracts migrants: passage to England, where they have amassed all their dreams and hopes. It is nearly impossible to clandestinely board the boat, but their dream is stronger, they are young and nothing will discourage them, and if, according to the agreements between countries, they are sent back to Italy, where the largest population from Africa has ended up, they will come back.
How could I not identify with them? I who at their age wandered alone, lost in the unknown city of Bujumbura. In Burundi I was a minor, and the doors of the schools were not closed to me.
I go to Ouistreham to buy my fish. And I see them, the ones called migrants by the media. Shadows seemingly invisible to those who pass them, wandering in the parking lot behind the fish market, along the quays of the canal, near the dumpsters of the small grocery store in the city center. Others, in larger numbers, are in the ditches that border the road that leads to the port, waiting to grab onto the trucks passing at full speed. Under their hoods, we can make out Black faces, young, very young, and they walk in twos, in threes, never more, they walk, they walk.… They stare into the distance, far beyond the limited horizon of the Channel. What are they looking at?
I do not despair for them. I recognize in these young people—driven from their homes by war, famine, poverty—an unshakable energy called Hope. There is no hatred in them, no despair. They will do whatever it takes to obtain the life they consider worthy of what they are: human beings. For them, for now, hope is the other side of the Channel. No doubt it is a utopia, and some hardly seem to know the language. But this island, that of course cannot be seen from the Ouistreham beach but toward which they see, several times a day, the inaccessible ferry sail until it is swallowed up by the horizon, is the future, their future.
They may never reach this utopian England, but they will never go backward, they have nothing but Hope on their side, which leads them in a single direction: their future. “A bright future,” my brother would say as we wandered, lost, in the unknown city of Bujumbura, adrift in the empty days of exile. I listened to him, he had the same smile, the same look full of hope: “You’ll see,” he would say to me, “there is a brilliant future for us, too,” and he would repeat it, “yes, a brilliant future.”
I became a writer, known, recognized. My brother André became a great epidemiologist: he was part of the team combating Covid-19 in Rwanda.
Yes, on the quays of Ouistreham, I saw myself, just like forty years ago, walking, walking without knowing where to go in the unknown city. They are my companions, my brothers. They are Sudanese, Somali, Eritrean. How can I accompany them, walk alongside them?
I have hope for my brothers in exile in Ouistreham. They, too, have a future, it’s clear in their gazes. Between us exiles, the gaze cannot deceive, it is like a mirror.
Could man be defined as a being-for-exile? Certain religious texts would seem to suggest it. The biblical myth places the exile of man at its origin: it is God who drives Adam and Eve from Eden. It’s the same divinity who orders Abraham: “Leave your country, your relatives and your father’s house for the country that I will show you.” It was in exile from Egypt that the Hebrew people formed.
Chosen exile, forced exile, migrants, displaced persons, refugees, deportees; it is certainly not anger or divine will that decides the exodus of a man or an entire people, but rather the chaotic upheavals of history: wars, persecution, famines, economic crises, or else natural calamities, earthquakes, droughts, irreversible changes to the climate. The land where the exiles wind up is no longer the land they were promised. They will remain foreigners there for a long time, eaten up with nostalgia, and even if they manage to integrate, to construct a new life, they will sigh, like Odysseus, who would find his Ithaca again: “What good is the most luxurious home when you’re among strangers and far from family?”
There was once a beautiful word to welcome the stranger who knocks at your door, a word that would shame those who build walls, who proffer the insults to each their home, everyone for themselves. This word was Hospitality. Is it a utopia? An illusion? There was a time when in societies that were once said to be primitive or archaic, the guest was a sacred being. No one asked the guest where they came from, where they were going, why they were on the road, or how long they intended to stay with the people who had welcomed them. The stranger could ultimately be adopted as a family member. Did this tradition of hospitality really exist? Is it just a myth? It was at least an ideal.
My mother, like all my family condemned to exile, always saved two mats for the unexpected traveler who might ask for refuge. May each of us always have a small mat to welcome the stranger.