In the summer of 1994 I watched BBC news reports of the horrors unfolding in Rwanda. A country I had never heard of, very far away. But day after day, the scenes of people pouring over the borders of neighbouring countries to flee the mass killings unfolded on the television screen.
I still vividly remember a particular image. It was burned into my brain. A girl aged around nine held hands with a toddler who cried desperately for her mother as they walked over the border into Zaire. That summer I was nearly ten. My baby sister was nearly one. I was stopped in my tracks imagining what they might have seen, imagining how terrified they must feel as they put one foot in front of the other into the great unknown. With no one to protect them. I remember crying and asking my parents why we couldn’t stop this, why was no one doing anything to help them?
As a teenager, I became more interested in what had happened in that tiny central African country. I read books like ‘We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families’ by Philip Gourevicth and watched films like ‘Hotel Rwanda’. It felt morbid, but I now realise I was looking for an answer as to how we (the ‘western world’, the powerful, the ones with the diplomatic organisations and the armies) had allowed such a thing to happen. One million people lost their lives in senseless violence of countryman against countryman for seemingly no reason at all? How do we stop that happening again? We must find out how it happened the first time.
Throughout, the image of that sibling pair crossing the border with nowhere to go refused to leave me. Traumatised, and with nothing in their hands but the other’s fingers. It’s what I think of when I hear the word ‘refugee’. It fills my heart with the desire to pick them up and take them home and welcome them, and show them love and help them put their lives back together.
But why Rwanda now? Because twenty years later, I met Beatrice. Like me, she was ten in the summer of 1994. Like me she had younger brothers and sisters. But most unlike me, she was the one crossing the border. On foot. Literally running for her life from the massacres happening in her homeland of Rwanda. First and foremost she is my friend, and I couldn’t care less where she comes from. Our friendship all these years on as thirty-something year old women with massive hopes and dreams for the future of Rwanda and for refugees the world over is certainly no mistake. But I must tell you about her now as a strong and brave Rwandan woman because she has just courageously written and published her story, ‘The Search for Home’. Like me, she was ten in the summer of 1994. Like me she had younger brothers and sisters. But most unlike me, she was the one crossing the border. On foot. Literally running for her life from the massacres happening in her homeland.
You’ll have to read the book to hear the details of her story. I read it cover to cover in less than 24 hours. I cried and laughed. But mostly I was impacted by the importance of identity. That in searching for home, Beatrice was actually searching for herself. Fleeing Rwanda involved time in makeshift refugee tents in Zaire, in a downtrodden area of Nairobi, in a middle class area of Nairobi, in poverty in Swaziland, and ultimately arriving in the UK. How do you know who you are when you are moving so often? When you have left a place where you had friends (who you have now seen murdered before your ten-year-old eyes) and family? Who are you when you used to be the best student in the class, but now you are not able to go to school? Who are you when you spoke one language, but now you have had to learn three more? Who are you when you have no passport and no way of obtaining one? Who are you when you finally get to a place where you think you’ll be safe and find that no one will befriend you because of where you came from in the first place?
Without knowing who we are we cannot ever be secure. We cannot plan or work towards a future. We cannot dream. Beatrice found her identity. She found her safety and security.
My teenage question remains – how do we stop this from happening again? But we haven’t found an answer yet, and more people suffering violence, petsecution and poverty are crossing into Europe than ever before. What do we have to offer? Yes, we have material goods that we can and should provide. But can we provide a safe place for people to build and rebuild their identity? Do we know who we are enough that we can show them who they are?
You can pre-order ‘The Search For Home’ (Available October 21st) here or obtain a copy in advance directly from the author.