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It Has Happened
There is an abandoned postal office that we use for our transactions. It is simple. There are three cots, a wash pan, and a bucket of water. Each night when we arrive, we sweep the floors and tidy the place. Only twice a week do we gather fresh water. Even two years after the killings we still struggle for such necessities. So tonight we simply stir it.
Next-door is the headquarters of where Mwajama’s young husband once worked as a trucking driver. She is one of the few, like myself, who are from the Kigali. My two brothers were drivers as well. They are not alive, just as Mwajama’s husband is not. We know such things of each other, but only from whispers.
“You must wear a condom”, Valentina yells to them. The soldiers laugh at her. They are Tutsi soldiers, the RPF. They are the soldiers that stopped the killings. Rescued us they say, from slaughter by the Hutu. But we are all dying Tutsi and Hutu alike. And the Hutu women who have stayed or come back to their homes have no men. No male family around, for the Hutu men have all feld. Off somewhere to Uganda, to a new home of innocence.
Valentina yells again that soldiers. Cursing them for being cowards, no where near men. She has taken beatings for saying such things before. Standing up, speaking to our own men. Once, we have all spoke up. Many of us will never speak such things again. Today is Valentina’s powerful day though. So she speaks. She speaks for all of us.
Outside the now vacant fabric store, four young women wait. Myself and Valentina are Tutsi, one Hutu, and Mwajama, whose father was Hutu, mother Tutsi. Her father was killed for marrying a Tutsi. A disgrace they say. So then against our culture, we say that Mwajama is Tutsi. Only now does such a name grant her a chance at survival.
We women have stood here many nights, over a year for some now. We four are not the only girls of night. Kigali is now full of them. Mostly Tutsi women, for the Hutu women know their patronage will be taken and never paid for. Many women have come to the city after the killings. My cousin in Burundi sent me a letter through a friend who has traveled and asks if what she read was true. The papers said that one in five of us had been , forced to marry or worse, sell ourselves. I told her months later it is more than that, for I had seen. But here, we women do not speak of it out of shame and fear. For what reason should we speak? No one is here to help.
How could I do such things? You are a Tutsi, she reminded me. You are better than that. But from far away she cannot understand. We must do this because our families, mothers and fathers, husbands and children were murdered. Our bloodlines watered. Alone we cannot lay claim to our land. It is only men that own the land. So some of the women have come to the city of Kigali to survive. More than many have come. It has happened that we our allowed to survive by such means. Two years after the killings stopped, everyone is attempting to survive. My cousin will never be able to understand such survival.
Men, even ones without uniforms, carry guns and knives. Machetes are still easy to come by. Machetes tucked away behind a shirt. Machetes that were used to kill our children, our husband. Now they are carried by the men who did survive. We do not touch such tools. For in our culture it is not of a woman to yield such metal. These men, these tortured soldiers are a continuous reminder of our country’s disease. Many of us have the disease. Most do not know it, not from a test anyway. But we feel it, felt it devour our body the first, second or third time we were taken by the Hutu soldiers. When the fighting began they pulled us from our homes. While hitting with guns and fists, they dragged us into our yards and streets. There our families were encircled. There they us. They us in front of our husbands, children and neighbors. Two and three at a time, while the surrounding muted screams burst our drums. They us with sticks and knives. Our wombs cut from inside. They us with guns. Guns that were not from our country. They us with their own children. I was taken by a thirteen-year-old boy. My son had gone to school with this boy. I remember his family.
We were four beautiful women. Now our souls are shaded grey. Bone by bone we stare into each other’s souls. We listen to its silent duty. Feel it flowing around each particle, our spirits attempting to revive the marrow. But the marrow sleeps, a thick grey, slow and scared. Our heavy keloid scars are painted with oil butter.
We women, in one night if fortunate, will make enough for a few vegetables and one-cup of rice. This is rare though, to find food for three days. So early as the sun rises we will return to our dwellings, readying our children for school, for work. Many of us have not seen our children in weeks. They have disappeared. We worry they have been recruited as RPF soldiers, or perhaps run away to try and care for themselves. May they not work like this we pray. If our daughters were untouched during the killings, they perhaps may still find a husband. We mothers pray for this. But if they were taken, no one need know. These secrets are new memories for our future.
Mwajama waits as they approach. Four drunken soldiers. The same soldiers that were part of our liberation. She pulls closer the arm of her friend. She whispers, “Pray for me tonight”. Prayers never work. As such Christian manner is not of our essence. We have always felt this. Still though, our souls kneel and accept foreign pain.
“You”, his yellow eyes demand.
“You will do, come with me. Let go of your friend”, his voice is hollow.
“You, I am speaking to you. Look at me whore. Look at me now”, his demands want more.
They treat us like dogs or oxen whipped to plow. We are no better than the Hutu killers. They wish us dead with their stares. Such looks feel damp. Stares from the marshland pull us down. The smell of dissolved flesh returns. We are a disgrace to our people, to everything the soldiers fought to reclaim. They need not say such; we feel it as their words wheeze into our ears. Such hate is new to us women. Before the killing began at least. And now that it is over, how can we not help but hate?
“If you want rescue, look at me.” He sees her face, and the eyes of Mwajama. He is calm for a moment.
We women carry names. Names that we never speak to each other. For the sounds and syllables only reminds us of who we once were. Never to be that name again. So we acknowledge with touch and pauses, plaiting and whispers to each others souls. Silence is our communication, our protection.
“Do you want food, money? I have lots of money, Kigali cash. In the truck, we have rations for you women. We are Tutsi just as you. We will take care of you, you know this. The UN has not seen you today? But us they have.”
This is part of their power. The constant highjacking of food convoys. The foreign troops can use no force.
So here we stand late into night. Secretly praying we starve. Praying this disgrace of labor will end. Or, that something change. That food appear. That suddenly we find life in our living death. We pray the UN trucks will stop. That our children be safe. That our husbands and family see us not like this in the afterlife. We pray that no more, really is not once more. Here we stand, holding some type of hope that tonight we will be paid in bread and dry fish, or even liquor we may sell.
“Do you not speak?”, says the soldier to Mwajama. “Do you not want money? Good then, I shall not have to waste. I will take you anyway. You are nothing, you know that. So what man will not take a whore and treat her as such?” His thumbs tuck into the front of his holster. He places himself at attention. “If I want, I will make you my wife.”
His and the other soldier’s chests vibrate with distinct laughter. It is not a laugh of our culture, not of our Rwandan being. Rather it is something they learned while in exile, in Uganda or while studying the European. If it were not for their English and pigmented skin, one could easily mistake them for Belgian and French rats. They run rampant these days. Just as before, when we were children, and Europeans held silent control. Rats die, and cockroaches feed on their carcasses.
Mwajama has let go of Valentina, scuffling her feet forward. She stares at the soldiers chest, his hand-me-down olive uniform. There on the pocket, a patch that once represented our freedom‒RPF. Rwandan Patriotic Force. She thinks, could this be her neighbor’s cousin, a family friend, a past friend of her dead husbands? We all think such things every time the soldiers appear.
We whisper from behind to her. “Go, take the money. Put on the condom. You tell him, no condom, no service. Now go, before he is mad. Hurry, be safe.”
Like the other women that stand with me at night, we are all unfortunate. The Hutu left us to live, left us to die. We watched while our families were cut and butchered before our once whole spirit. And then with one swing of a blade, our spirit is now empty. I once heard a Hutu command, bullets were not to be wasted on cockroaches. So we watched, as white sparks ricocheted. As machetes chopped through, hammering the concrete. There as we lay, the disease of our country cut through mercy. That day it penetrated our weakened cells. Our blood burned, battling cell against cell. All our peoples souls broke through like steel to bone. So there we all lay, Tutsi and Hutu, dead from soul to skin.
“I will go”, Mwajama says and straightens.
“Good, I am glad you made the choice,” says the soldier.
We breathe for her at this moment. Pray that she will be safe. We look at him and hope he will treat her as a woman. As a Tutsi.
But she knows there will be loss. He is mad on wine and looking through blood-soaked eyes. Blood will not cease to be in his vision. His hand pinches the skin of her arm, yanking her across the street. We all have felt that tight grip on the arm before. Just as Mwajama feels it now. The calloused, stained hands of this soldier. A man who hates us as much as the ones that killed him, whom he killed. There are nights, such as this, when we know we will be freely stolen. Nights when despite our prayers we will be beaten, spat on, taken and beaten again. Mwajama knows tonight is such a night.
“Hurry along”, as the soldier releases his grip and pushes her forward. He turns to his fellows and chuckles over his shoulder. Another of the soldiers has made his pick of the night. As Valentina and I watch as he marches her toward the back of a building. She will not return tonight; he has taken her as his servant wife. We should be happy for her.
The soldiers hate us because we are a constant reminder of what the Hutu has forever taken from them. One generation of women and children nearly extinct. No one to carry their blood. And if a womb is captured, their child will not live. It will kill itself with sorrow, choke on the steel of blades. Our children will bleed and bloat. They will be nourished by the tainted bile of our disease. The new disease of Rwanda.
In the threshold of our office the soldier turns her around, a palm to the back of her neck, pulling her to his face. “What is this talk of condom? A man will take and give as he pleases, as nature wants him to. You are a cockroach just as they called you.”
Mwajama thinks only of memory. The soldier smells of burnt kerosene and sour meat.
“But the difference between them and me is that I will cut you in two, sparing the world your disgraceful existence. You disgusting filth of an animal. You should call an end, snatch my knife and file away at your skeleton. You whore, you will find nothing there, no spirit of the Tutsi. Soulless bone, that is what is left of you. You are not a Tutsi woman. A Tutsi would not live like this.”
Mwajama stands there, head bowed, arms at side. A street lamp pushes light through the window and onto her red and gold dress. She remembers it as a gift for the birth of her second daughter. He peers down at her forehead, to her closed eye, a tear falls out. “Look at me!” In one motion he yanks her hair, throwing her toward the floor, and releasing a knee to her chin. We are whores.
She feels discomfort. We feel it with her. Discomfort not because of the pain and words, not even because of memory. She feels pain because she knows that he will not kill her. Instead he will slap her some more, make her bleed, and wait for her to cry mercy. And then he will take her on the floor, or against the wall, but never will our soldiers take us on the cot. A bed is for a wife. She will in whispers and gasps, beg him to stop, to not hurt her. She has children. She will reach about in her dress searching for the condom and beg again, “Please wear the condom, please. I have the disease.”
It will not matter to him, or any others that come after him. He will respond saying that the disease only kills the poor and weak-minded.
So we accept. Lying there again, hoping that he will not feel or recognize the small plastic bag. The one inserted at the beginning of the night. We fill it with any type of oil. We have all been taught this. It is a risk most take. Careful, we must be. For if he feels, it will only start again.