They weren’t just shoemakers, farmers, doctors, drivers, sons, mothers, daughters, or whatever. First and foremost, you were either one of the Longs or one of the Shorts. Expats avoided these local terms–they were forbidden words, associated with calamity, with murder, expulsion, revolution, and war. And we never asked anyone their affiliation, as we called it, because we didn’t know what exactly these groups were, whether they were tribes, ethnicities, or castes. But Short or Long, they all spoke the same language and we didn’t have a foolproof way of telling them apart.
I’ve chosen Lucas Bärfuß, the 2019 winner of the Georg Büchner for my last book to be read for this year’s German lit month. With this his 2008 book about a young Swiss aid worker caught up in the Rwandan Genocide, David an idealistic young man, who four years previously has gone to Rwanda, The Switzerland of Africa, “not just because of the mountains and the cows, but also because of the discipline that ruled every aspect of daily life”, as part of The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. The intersection between David’s personal life, as he falls for an open, free young Rwandan, Agathe, who causes him to stay behind, hiding in his villa for one hundred days after the last Europeans leave the country, the duration of the Rwandan genocide.
As the opening quote leads us to believe, the Europeans in general but the Swiss agency in particular, who had been present since the independance in the 60’s, had no real window to or comprehension of the complex ethnic situation in this up to then well run country. Bärfuß, through David, tells us of the pressures on the country, first economic, as the Americans ended the international export agreement on coffee, the almost single export matter of Rwanda, putting a sharp slide on the price of coffee, then population, as there was no longer enough land to support an agricultural based society:
The country was overpopulated and the situation in Butare province was especially dire. For every dead person there were three newborns, more mouths that had to be fed somehow. If the country’s population continued to grow at the same rate, it would double in fifteen years. Already the demand for land could not be met. The hills were cultivated all the way to their summits. Even the dead were begrudged their graves. Since no one wanted the land to lie fallow, goats were allowed to graze in the graveyard. After ten years the graves were dug up….
Having told us of the pressures he then tells us of the two other necessary ingredients, firstly political historical, of the changes in the country when the Belgians took over the colony from the Germans at the end of the Great War and the subsequent decline of Kigali the erstwhile capital and the Belgian’s working with the Longs, of many of the Longs then being forced to flee to Uganda at the independance of Rwanda and of the subsequent instability caused by their being expelled from Uganda:
But then the monster rose again and repressed history rose again in the guise of the expelled Longs, returning home from their Ugandan exile, and because the Shorts had never allowed them to cross the border freely, the Longs sent their sons armed with rifles.
And secondly, organisational, as David explains that the relative stability of Rwanda up until this point can be linked to its organisation, where everyone knows his place in society, as in his own country Switzerland, but that here in Rwanda everything is controlled centrally, a prerequisite he surmises for a genocide:
Like all of Rwanda’s 840 mayors, he had been personally appointed to his office by the President. In theory, the local council held authority, but since most of the councilors had only gone to primary school, the mayor led the council like a bull with a nose ring. Each community was divided into ten sections, and these in turn were divided up into cells. The cells were not just administrative units, but were divisions of the political party. There were no independent structures and even the lowest-level leaders were controlled by the administration in Kigali. Each citizen knew his place and his superiors and followed orders that came directly from the capital.
As David lays out this backdrop he tells us his personal story, of his slowly losing his idealism in favour of the realism needed for his mission, epitomised by a story he tells of letting his house keeper, a Long, grow vegetables in his garden which helped to support her family of eight only to find that that the agencies project for a much needed orphanage was turned down because of this and that he then ripped out the garden. David tells us of how the people in Rwanda changed through the story of his girlfriend, Agathe, a Short and how she changes from a proud and independant woman to a rabble rouser and of his own confusion in his relationship with her, leading to his staying behind when the other Europeans fled in the hope of seeing her again even though he knew of her actions.
David tries to analyse the work carried out by his agency, for instance when they arranged for the radio broadcasters to be trained into making their programs more interesting:
They had learned the lesson. The broadcasts were entertaining. They played music, performed short sketches in which two shrewd farmers discussed the stupidity of the inkotanyi, as they called the members of the rebel army. Fine, it wasn’t our intention to teach the génocidaires how to do their work, and it was certainly not our fault if they used the radio as a murder weapon, but somehow I could never shake the feeling that I was observing one of the agency’s more successful projects.
Finally he tells us of the West’s missreading of the situation through the voice if Missland, an old hand aid worker who had long since come to terms with the situation:
This country’s history is one giant lie, Missland had said, and he made fun of the experts whose report demanded that the President take measures against the death squads. The man from whom they demand action is himself commanding the death squads..
This is a powerful story that I would recommend to anyone, my first encounter with Bärfuß’s work but certainly not my last.
First Published in German as “Hundert Tage” in 2008 by Wallstein.
Translated into English by Tess Lewis and published as “One Hundred Days” in 2013 by Granta Books