The Sword Knows No Face

“He was such a smart boy. He promised to always look after me and make my life better. He was too good for this world.” – Anne-Marie Uwimana, Rwandan Genocide Survivor, speaking of her son who was one of the 800,000 souls lost in the genocide of 1994.

This woman, Anne-Marie, lost four children and her husband during the genocide. Even now, typing this, I can see her face in that BBC interview; the redness of her eyes and the brokenness that can be seen in it. I can see the many tales of time that the skin of her hands have to tell – tales of a pain so deep, there will never be words enough to put the right inflection on it.

Do you know who killed 2 of her children? Her neighbour, Celestin Habinshuti. According to her, Celestin came in with the attackers and killed two of her children. “They broke into the house. We tried to run away. The attackers had clubs and machetes. Celestin pulled out his machete and he cut the necks of two of my children.”

If the dynamics of being neighbors in Rwanda is anything like the Nigeria of our childhood, then it is safe to assume that her family and Celestin’s had familial interactions; ones that involved food, laughter, joy and that sense of community that are so ingrained in traditional African societies.

It thus seems implausible that a person like that would come into your home and kill 2 of your children. But that’s the story of not just Anne-Marie, but many other families who lived through the genocide.

It was their neighbors, their friends, the people they worshiped with, colleagues at work – those were the people who forgot their unifying humanity and killed and maimed based on the answer to one question – Hutu or Tutsi? Because hate is illogical and it blinds you to the things that you swore you would never forget.

Make no mistake; under the right conditions, anyone can be a monster. Even you and I. And once we cross those lines that tether us to our human self, it can be difficult to think rationally and act accordingly. It is why we must never cross those lines, or even tease the vagaries of fate by dancing at their edges.

Over 2 decades after the genocide and after 10 years in prison, here are some of Celestin’s words; “A child is an angel with no sin. Their death was an injustice because of bad ideology and bad leadership at the time. Those children suffered an injustice and I’m filled with self-loathing.”

But those children are dead. And they cannot be made ‘undead’.

I looked closely at Celestin’s face in that interview. He looks normal, you know? That’s because he is. It is humans who commit genocide, who kill with no remorse, who get so caught up in the ‘othering’ of humans like them to the extent that nothing else matters except deep-seated feelings of hatred allowed to thrive in a mind that has managed to convince itself that everything else, including our shared humanity, pales in comparison.

Okechukwu in Yaba market is a potential Celestin. Abdul in Mile 12 is Celestin with another identity. So is Olamide in Balogun. Look around you; in your home, at school, where you work, the markets you frequent, the gyms you exercise at, the salons you frequent, among friends – there is Celestin everywhere, just with different faces.

Are you afraid yet? Because I am. Afraid of this world where we constantly immerse in the lie that there has to be a superior, whether that classification is by tribe or religion.

We are all endangered, even if we don’t know it yet.

I create worlds with words. I think the universe is a canvass, and I want to paint it with the color of my dreams.


  • T

    This is a clear scenario of “what they did with different” in Rwanda.
    It is scary to know that even the most trusted neighbors could switch to malignancy at any moment if the status of their “identity” is threatened. Hate stems from anger which in turn originates from fear. Usually, it’s fear of the truth.
    It is why we always need to preach peace and educate others to not fear the truth.

    Great post, Lara!

  • Lara

    There is a monster in all of us…I felt that.
    I have seen people argue against this simple fact, as if ignoring that other side of you completely eradicates it’s existence.
    But, isn’t it better knowing you’re capable of evil, and then doing everything you can to make sure you never shed your human skin?

    I am afraid, very afraid of where this world is going. Of how “correctness” as defined by religion or tradition is more important than being human.
    Thank you for talking about this. It is sad, but it had to be said.

    • Jade

      I mean, I’d like to believe that I am made up of only flowers and sunshine, but the irrefutable truth is, we are all capable of evil.

      And somehow, the world that we have created seems to move us more to that other self.

    • Jade

      You’re thinking ahead, Deborah. Because peer influence is a very real thing, especially when it’s subtle and seen as “just” conversation.

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