In 1994, the Hutu majority of Rwanda went about systematically wiping out the Tutsi minority. In just a hundred days, 800,000 people were massacred. The international community did nothing to intervene.
It was a cooler night, with clear skies and the moon peeking out from behind the neighbouring apartment block. The dishes had been piled in the sink and now cups of tea and half eaten cookies were resting by our elbows. Friends was on in the background, but neither Angus or myself had been paying it much attention. It was an episode we’d seen before, the pilot episode, the ‘one where it all began’.
“Angus. Do you think it’s possible to have survivor’s guilt just from existing?”
He looked up from what had been a long Instagram scroll. “Sorry, I was lurking this girl from high school. What about survivor’s guilt?”
“Well, we were discussing the Rwandan genocide in class today. All of these people massacred, and no one did anything to stop them. Our teacher told us that the Hutu’s would force families to rape each other, so in the middle of the night Tutsi neighbours would switch so that at least it wasn’t your own relative that you were forced to, you know…”
Joey: And you never knew she was a lesbian?
Ross: No, okay? Why does everyone keep on fixating on that? She didn’t know, how the hell should I know?
Joey: Alright Ross, look, you’re feeling a lot of pain right now. You’re angry, you’re hurting. Can I tell you what the answer is? [Ross nods] Strip joint!
“…I cried about it on the bus home.”
“That’s horrible. God, Til, that’s just, I mean, shit.”
“Yeah, that’s pretty much it.”
“Sometimes I don’t think those things are worth thinking about.”
The genocide began within the Hutu military. The soldiers and police encouraged the civilians to take part in the killings. Participants were given incentives, in the form of money, food, or land, to kill the Tutsis. The massacres were carried out mainly with machetes.
It was week eleven. The assessments were starting to pile up, and a lot of our time was being spent at the kitchen table, with the tap tap tapping of keyboards, surrounded by loose sheets of paper and textbooks and old teacups and new teacups.
“Lawrence utilises the two male characters in Lady Chatterley’s Lover to demonstrate man’s dichotomous nature, believing that full humanity is achieved when both the body and the spirit are in harmony. Clifford represents the intellectual husband whose impotence embodies the debilitating effects of a culture that values the spiritual or intellectual at the expense of the physical. Mellors, on the other hand, draws his energies from nature and physicality, mostly through sex. When Connie asks what he believes in, he replies, ‘I believe in being warm-hearted. I believe especially in being warm-hearted in love, in fucking with a warm heart’.”
I stopped typing and looked over at Angus. “I don’t know how you do that.”
He didn’t look up from his screen. “How I do what?”
“Just not think about things. Before, when we were talking about Rwanda. You said, ‘sometimes I don’t think those things are worth thinking about’.”
“Yeah, you know I don’t. They make me too sad. I get all depressed and mopey. What’s the point of that? It doesn’t change anything.”
The apartment across the way was lit up. They seemed to be having a party. I could hear an out-of-tune rendition of ‘Shallow’. It sounded like they were having a good time.
“Yeah, nah, I get that. Ever since doing the readings, I feel like I’ve had this physical pain; genuinely depressed. But I don’t know. It feels important too. This is the world we live in. I don’t think we can just plead ignorance. That’s how people get away with literal genocide, people burying their heads in the sand. I’m sitting here writing an essay on the symbolism of the phallus in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It just seems so bloody trivial in comparison.”
“Ooft, what an essay topic. Any saucy language?”
“I get to use the phrase, wait, let me find it so I can get it exactly right, ‘fine brown fleece of the mound of Venus’ in a third-year literary essay. I’m living the absolute dream right here.”
“But it just makes me mad, you know. This is a novel where the complication is that an upper-echelon white English woman … actually I think the white goes without saying. An upper-echelon English woman gets her best jollies from a lower-class white man, instead of someone on her ‘level’. I get that Lawrence wrote this really powerful book about the freedom of women and living your best life, but these colonial powers and what they deem to be important. This was released in 1928. England still had colonies in 1928. Not commonwealth nations or dominions or protectorates, of which there were a lot, but literal colonies. Nearly 30 of them. 30 countries that they’ve invaded and subjugated and they’re over here writing about the inter-class orgasms.”
Angus didn’t seem to be paying attention anymore.
Joey: Of course it was a line.
Monica: Why? Why would anybody do something like that?
Ross: I assume we’re looking for an answer more sophisticated than ‘to get you into bed’.
Monica: Is it me? Is it like I have some sort of beacon that only dogs and men with severe emotional problems can hear? I just, thought he was nice, you know?
Joey: [pause] I can’t believe you didn’t know it was a line.
“Friends isn’t at all like real life is it?”
“Um, okay, time for a new conversation I guess.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude, I just got distracted.”
I looked at Angus. He really didn’t seem to want to talk about it. And how hard do you force sobering reality down someone’s throat?
“The river Kagera flows into a steep ravine that forms the natural border between Tanzania and Rwanda. There is a small waterfall where the river narrows before entering the gorge. In the rainy season the river swells. As it sweeps down from the highlands, it gathers into its current’s huge clumps of elephant grass and numerous small trees. In the late spring of 1994 it was much the same with human corpses. They, too, twisted and turned, rose and dropped and came bouncing over the falls before they found the still water which would carry them down to Lake Victoria. They did not look dead. They looked like swimmers, because the strong currents invested them with powers of movement. So lifelike did they appear that for a few moments I winced as I watched them thrown against the rocks, imagining the pain they must be feeling. It was only beyond the falls, where they floated lifeless among the trees and grass, that one could accept the certainty of death. The border guards told me people had been floating through in their hundreds, every day for weeks. Many had their hands tied behind their backs. They had been shot, hacked, clubbed, burned, drowned.”
(Anonymous eyewitness, 1994)
“Growing up I thought mid-twenties would look exactly like this. Equal pairings of really good-looking friends, all with heaps of free time, at the same time, lounging around at coffee shops.” Angus was still looking at the TV, speaking almost absent-mindedly. “Then you actually get here and realise that your twenties are spent working 30hrs a week at a part time job that you don’t love, serving people coffee, but not in the casual way that Rachel does, but where you spend 8hrs run off your feet. And on the days that you’re not working you’re either at Uni or doing Uni work trying to maintain your grade average because you want to get into honours so that you can actually get a job because everyone has a Bachelor degree these days. And on the side of all that mowing lawns 5 to 8 hours a week for your Dad’s landscaping company just to have a little cash that isn’t going to bills. And then the absolute cherry on top is doing all of that while maintaining mental health and spending quality time with your significant other and keeping friendships alive and making time for social outings. If this wasn’t my life pretty much every damn week, I wouldn’t think it was possible.” He turned and looked at me. “And as if that wasn’t enough, every week there’s a new atrocity committed somewhere, or some devastating piece of history on the front page of newspapers. Don’t get me wrong, my heart breaks for Rwanda. But I honestly don’t know how much more reality I can take.”
Friends had set almost impossible standards to live by. It had made that kind of life seem attainable. That all it took was some elbow grease, a couple of epiphanies, but most importantly the company of five other humans who all had very similar time schedules, life plans, core beliefs, and never got on each other’s nerves. That life has a way of working out and while you’re juggling a career, you’ll also meet the perfect person and they’ll fit seamlessly into your life. All while being able to afford a nice apartment in the Village.
“I realised the other day that this first season of Friends was released only a couple of months after the genocide.”
“Please, Matilda, don’t.”
“I’m just pointing it out, that’s all. While this was being filmed, on the other side of the world thousands of people were dying. And you wouldn’t ever know from watching. From the looks of this, our number one issue or not is whether we’re getting laid or not.”
“It’s not, Gus. I’m sorry, but it’s not. It’s numbing ourselves to reality. Because what we do with our time and what we surround ourselves by affects us. It shapes who we are. It’s not escapism. It’s influence. I’m not against an episode of trashy tv here and there. But, there’s got to be some balance.”
He gave me a look that nearly broke my heart. “But what the can I do, Til? What about my life can I adjust to make it better for people thousands of kilometres away, who don’t know me, who I’ll never meet? I’m barely keeping my own life together. How can I fix theirs? Geez, you spend your whole life focused on the plight of others. And I love that about you. You believe so strongly in being aware and trying to fix these horrible things. But when will you fix what’s here?”
“Fix what here?”
“This. Us. You’re on this, I don’t even know what, mission to civilise? Which is marvellously ironic.”
“You can’t compare me trying to be aware and educate myself, about things that have occurred in our lifetime might I add, with the English settlers who forced their culture on indigenous people to ‘make them better’. It’s not at all the same.”
“Maybe it’s not. But it is you choosing what issues are most important to you. It’s you, putting them, over me.” He brought the fresh cup of tea over and switched it out for my cold one.
There are moments in life in which a monumental shift will occur, and you’ll hardly be aware of it. The day I impulsively quit my job to move three hours from home on a whim. It was a Monday, but that’s all I remember. The who’s and what’s and how’s haven’t stuck. And then there are other instances where time almost seems to stop. Maybe it’s life’s way of saying, “careful now. This matters. What you say or do next is important.”
“It’s not a competition. It’s not you or them. I don’t have to choose you and your way of going through life, or the people and issues I study and research, and how I process it. It can be both.”
“You don’t have to choose me?”
“Angus, you know that’s not what I mean. Of course I choose you. I have chosen you. I’m here, I’m with you. And I’m grateful for that.”
“But you’re not, are you. Not really, not anymore. I know because I remember what it was like when you were here. You thought I was funny and interesting and what I had to say was important. You cared about my opinions, my beliefs, where I stood on things. And now you’ve turned me into a freaking cliché.”
Roméo Dallaire was in charge of a UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda when the violence broke out. He did everything in his power to quell the initial violence, and put in multiple petitions for more personnel and weaponry. They were all denied. In 2000 he was found unconscious on a park bench, after consuming a bottle of scotch and his daily dose of pills for PTSD. He later sent a letter to the Canadian Broadcast Corporation thanking them for their sensitive coverage of this episode. He wrote, “There are times when the best medication and therapist simply can’t help a soldier suffering from this new generation of peacekeeping injury. The anger, the rage, the hurt, and the cold loneliness that separates you from your family, friends, and society’s normal daily routine are so powerful that the option of destroying yourself is both real and attractive. It appears, it grows, it invades, and it overpowers you.”
(Dallaire, quoted in Power, 2001)
We were both standing now. For some reason fights always end up in the upright position.
“Babe, I don’t mean to. I want to be here. I want to be with you. But always in the back of my head are these truths about the world we live in. Which sucks, I get it. But I’m not going to change it. It shouldn’t make you feel bad though. I don’t mean for it to.”
“Til, I know you don’t mean to. But that doesn’t make it better. God, one of the things I liked most about you when I met you was your passion for this. I wish I felt that strongly. But now all you seem to do is to spend your days with your head either in a book or reading some poignant article that makes you draw into yourself and barely even speak to me. And I tiptoe around wondering what the hell I’ve done wrong.” He put air quotes around poignant.
“You haven’t done anything wrong.”
“But I have, haven’t I. I haven’t felt as strongly as you do. And I see that look in your eyes. You think you care more than me. But you’re wrong. I just care about different things than you do. I care about the things that are here.”
“I care about things here.”
“I’m sure you do. We’re just different, that’s all.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I don’t know. I’m tired. I’m going to bed.” He started to switch off the lights. “Don’t stay up too late okay. You’ve got work in the morning remember. Oh, and I brought home my leftover Thai from lunch for you to take with you.”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
He smiled, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay. Oh, and before, when you asked if I get survivor’s guilt?”
I nodded, trying to coax him back to me.
“I do. But for different reasons.