Finding the Bagezaho Family
April 4, 2007
Thirteen years ago, while scouring through the carnage of the Nyarubuye massacre site in eastern Rwanda, I picked up a scrap of yellowing paper bearing 12 names—a father, mother and 10 children. The youngest child was one, the eldest 23. It was some kind of parish record, torn at the edges, with what looked like a child’s doodle in the centre--a figure eight scratched with a ballpoint pen.
Sickened by the horror around me—decomposing bodies that the government had purposely left in place as a testament to the genocide—I assumed that I was holding a record of a family caught up in the violence. I told myself that if I took the time, I could probably match the names on the paper to the corpses of men, women and, yes, infants, around me. But I had other work to do. I carefully folded the paper into my notebook, continued filming for a Global TV series on the genocide that I was working on, and forgot about it.
Back home in Canada, I was going through my notes, when the Nyarubuye document fell out. I picked it up, and my mind was once again flooded by the images of the scene. I had the document mounted and framed, with an inscription “Recovered from Nyarubuye Parish, Rwanda, 1994” and hung it up on my bedroom wall. I resolved that one day I would return to the parish, to uncover the full story of how Stanislas Bagezaho, 53, and his family had perished. Why did they come to the parish grounds in the first place? Would I find any survivors? Had the killers been arrested, and convicted? Were relatives and friends of the family ready to forgive?
Over the years the framed document drew my mind back to the churchyard, and reminded me of the work I needed to finish. But I procrastinated. I returned to Rwanda in 1998, to produce a CBC documentary about the incredible challenges faced by the country’s justice system—130,000 suspects in detention facing charges of mass murder. It was absorbing work, and I was unable to get back to Nyarubuye.
The years passed. In 2003, I was teaching broadcast journalism at the University of British Columbia. I told my students about the massacre site, showed them graphic videotape, and related the story about the Bagezaho document. This, I told them, would be a powerful way to tell the story of the Rwandan atrocity: to gather the details of how an entire family disappeared, a microcosm of the larger story. This was important work, I said, especially now as memory of the genocide was beginning to fade in the West, and the inevitable historic revisionism began to set in. But when the students asked, I had to admit that I hadn’t gotten around to the story of Stanislas and Alvera. Yet.
Finally a month ago, I decided I couldn’t delay any longer. I contacted a Rwandan academic in Butare, wired him some money, and asked if he could make some inquiries on my behalf in Nyarubuye. He agreed to make the trip, and ask some questions. I emailed him a copy of the churchyard document, and waited anxiously. Two weeks later, came the reply: Yes, he had found the family. Yes, they were all alive. In fact, their family had grown by one child. Oh, and by the way, Stanislas and his wife Alvera were Hutus!
I was stunned. And a bit ashamed. How could this happen? Clearly, my state of emotional turmoil in the Nyarubuye churchyard, compounded by my ignorance of the reality in Rwanda, led me to construct an elaborate fantasy that I had fed over the intervening years. After all, it was the classic narrative, stark and irresistible and rich in human drama. It was the very stuff of human-interest journalism. The only problem is, it never happened.
I’m writing this blog in the Frankfurt airport terminal, on my way to Kigali via Addis Ababa. For the next three weeks, I will be working at TV Rwanda, as part of the media-training program of the Rwandan Initiative. I will be helping Rwanda TV journalists with things like story telling, story structure, interviewing and creating a purposeful news lineup.
It strikes me that the journalists I’ll be working with might learn something from my Nyarubuye anecdote, and what it says about our work: That in our probing of the Human Story, things are seldom as they first appear. Passion, and emotional engagement are good tools for a journalist, but they must be tempered by an inquisitiveness and skepticism: you need to look beneath the surface of things, to question your first impressions, to be ready to embrace complexity.
As journalists, especially in radio or television, we carry with us ready-to-use one-size-fits-all narratives, and our tendency is to squeeze all the stories we come across into one or another of these narratives. This is an especially common pitfall in television, the medium of simplification and the six-second sound bite, where our journalism is often constrained by impossible deadlines and a demand for “simple stories.” But to yield to this tendency is a mistake. We need to remain fully open to surprise, to the uniqueness of every human story. And then we must learn how to tell that story in a clear, honest and, if possible, original way. If that story includes ambiguities, or gaps, well, so be it. Life’s that way.
By the way, the story of Stanislas Bagezaho and his wife Alvera, and their 11 children, is still a good one. It should (and hopefully, will) be told. It will just have a different frame from the one I imagined. Meanwhile, that piece of paper is staying up on my bedroom wall.
In my April 4 blog entry, I talked about my search for the family of Stanislas and Alvera Bagezaho--father, mother and 10 children whose names and ages appeared on a scrap of paper I picked up at the Nyarubuye massacre site in 1994.
I had imagined them dead. But after some research, and help from a Rwandan professor and a genocide survivor named Solange Mukandayisabye, I found them, alive and well, and intact. In fact, the family had grown by one child. I found them living among banana trees, in a mud hut in the village of Ntaruka, about an hour’s rough drive from the infamous churchyard at Nyarubuye.
Alvera, who never went to school, was unable to read the writing on the scrap of paper. But Stanislas recognized it right away. The Bagezaho’s are Hutus, and very taciturn when questioned about the genocide. “We ran away when the RPF came,” Stanislas said, referring to the Rwandan Patriotic Front army of now-president Paul Kagame. Solange, who has vivid memories of the killings of April, 1994, attested to the fact that the Bagezaho parents were not among the killers.
As we prepared to leave, Florentia, one of the four children who is still living at home, cut a bunch of bananas for us as a gift.