Genocide by Abigail George

“What distinguishes genocide from murder, and even from acts of political murder that claim as many victims, is the intent. The crime is wanting to make a people extinct. The idea is the crime.”
― Philip Gourevitch,

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families

“Do not tell me that it is not God-like to get angry or go into a fit of rage. God himself when enraged will grasp a star and hurl it through the heavens. And at night, you can see bits of the star flashing through the sky, fallen apart merely by the sheer force of which it was thrown. Know when He is angry and stay out of His way… And the same holds true for my grandson.” Yervant Yacoubian.”
― Keri Topouzian, A Perfect Armenian

“It wasn’t my choice to write this story…it was my responsibility.”
― Rhonda Fink-Whitman, 94 Maidens

It was the year of literature for me but you, Rwanda no longer have any kind of album.

You Africa saturate me. Has Africa not only experienced genocide? I have seen glimpses of your trauma. As I progress towards you, towards possession with an almost criminal intent, carrion and Kevin Carter on my mind
Moses Molelekwa, Dulcie September, George Botha, Dennis Brutus, Arthur Nortje and Biko, including Lumumba this is my story, suffering in silence is not unique. Making it is, making it through to the other side perhaps this is why communities are afraid of speaking about it.

Soloists everyone!

Some say there is such a violent intent on this planet to destroy, to sabotage but there are still ways of finding peace, of finding yourself amidst sanctuary. Inviting people to your sanctuary is out of the question. Everyone must journey and find their feet on their own pilgrimage. I am still revisiting the past, still rewriting history and I guess I always will. I talk to the dead. I will always talk to the dead as if they are walking amongst us. They govern me like the wreck of the sea. I have never seen such a saint. It washes away all of our sins. I think that is what was meant by Noah’s ark.
Your suffering, the genocide, civil war, unrest, refugee camps, the slave trade. I have seen glimpses of the brown colour of your children’s skin. Albino, white, colored, black, mixed race, and everyone is as precious as porcelain. Under our sky, even the soft and hard Lolita, the promiscuous, the prostitute. Young men with that arrogant filter from their heads to their mouths. Our gathering of musicians and poets are like the circle of the golden sun. I do not care for the ego, for these things anymore – the paraphernalia of violence. And for the discontent for so many is a permanent assignment for them.
You who have survived genocide and migration. It was the year of picking out books that would make me feel glorious and unique for being a female writing in an age of iron still dominated by males. It was the year of missing people from childhood, from high school, an aunt who was so far away from me who died from cancer, another family member who I regarded as my second mother who passed on after a short illness. It was the year I first spoke those words. She did not have to go, I said. Her death was untimely, I said.

These days I am catching up on my reading. Reading all those books, I should have read in high school and university. I am reading The Waves by Virginia Woolf. Have yet to finish Mrs Dalloway. I can write about genocide from looking inside the glass walls that separate us but I have never experienced it. It is hideous to think that we are the cause of our own oblivion. Humanity is the cause of killing humanity. We know how to manifest, manifest, and to manifest the ‘glories of war’. We know how to kill but half the time we do not know how to live.

Welcome to Darfur. Genocide is a cancerous growth. When you confront that evil, death of the muscle of the ancients, that bloodbath you not only confront conflict, war, hatred, loathing of the worst kind and prejudice. You also happen to confront child soldiers, rape and sexual violence of the worst kind. At the end of the day, the women and the girls of Darfur are like falling rain. There is beauty in that picture if you make contact with them but if you look closely enough you will see that there is something destroyed. They are no longer among the living.

Their survival means that they have to create a new identity, psyche, intellect, mental faculties for themselves if they wish to exist. From the beginning of time, there has been genocide. I cannot say you who are damaged and scarred let it feed you, let it nourish you if you are a refugee. It is not my place to tell you anything. The psychologically depressed. Let us call the victims and the survivors of genocide the psychologically depressed. The suicide of history is there. All I can see is a hopelessness and a terror. Falling and falling down. Dumbed down.

I mean, is that not the best way to describe them? Genocide teaches you to talk to the dead. Most importantly, your dead. It is a disease. This longing. This is how we live now. Girls, young boys and women living alongside men with guns, war, a slaughterhouse and no girl, woman and young boy. There was blood in the mud. Journalists stood on bones and their words became the words of prophets in a wilderness history. This is what pain (the bleeding lion) and insanity (the handsome tigers parading at the zoo) are at the same time. They have to meet somewhere.

Genocide meets many more witnesses than celebrities will ever meet. Genocide will meet watchers, dancers in the dark, sabotage, destruction and in the end destroys that word ‘stigma’. In the end, it builds the word ‘community’. You remember pain in childhood but there is a long-suffering ahead for someone who has experienced and lived through genocide that I cannot even begin to fathom. I write in long intervals of mourning. That is the name of the game.

Here in my hot bedroom that in post-apartheid South Africa I have yet to start on The Voyage Out and Virginia Woolf, her essays and lectures. I am feeling gloriously in tune with stream of
consciousness writing. I am positively glowing with it. I write best in that niche but was told to explore other avenues as well. The year is ending but a writer and a poet’s work is never done. I am more tired in the evenings now. The more I think of the ‘ballad of Sylvia and Ted’, the more I think of the ballad of my own parents, of my own failing health problems.

How they do not fit anymore into that otherworldly wheel of perfectly matched individuals who get married fit into it. How my father is not a repair type of person or a repairperson. I think of waves. Their ghost stories haunt me. I do not know what happens to families when they lose their families to the horror of genocide. I only know that I am one of the privileged few. Educated and so forth. The ancestors are not responsible for the genocide in Africa. I think of waves. Woolf’s waves.

From childhood to growing, becoming more set in your ways, becoming elderly. I think of the waves breaking against Sylvia Plath’s adolescent shoreline and her years at Smith. My Hiroshima. The Hiroshima of my parents’ own making. When you write you have to get used to the solitude. It almost pains me to say this. You take all your wounds, all your walking ‘woundedness’, all your scar tissues, all your emotions, you spread them all out in front of you, and then you begin to put everything in mental boxes.

Make arrangements out of them and label them all with ‘Pandora’. Only if you feel like it. Treasure your thoughts because they are precious. As precious as Rwandan ephemera, the miracles of glaciers on the opposite side of the world and Eastern Cape butterflies. There it was. The Rwandan genocide, hell on earth and the international community turned their heads and looked away. Remember, I tell myself there are also treasures, so treasure them. You believe in a God. For centuries men, women and children have believed in a God.

When genocide strikes a country or humanity, there is no God. Somebody should have said that already in every war that was ever fought that there is a genocide. On both sides. On all sides. Every human life that comes back in a body bag is not a conquest for the other side but it is a measure of loss on how that person could have shaped history either themselves or by their progeny. They say that the winner takes it all but instead it is the legacy of the history that remains of that fate of that person who was the victim of the genocide.

Instead of talking about genocide let us do this instead and talk about the milk of kindness of humanity. It seems as if only women think that way. A grandmother’s love will ravish you. For you as a child there are terrors. The terror of losing the mother figures in your life. Your mother, your grandmothers and other female mentors. You will know nothing of German revenge and Nazism, Auschwitz and SS soldiers. You will know nothing of Hitler and Mussolini. When you grow up you will see genocide everywhere you look. You will not be able to escape it.

I know you ethnic cleansing, Bosnia. You will say. Men worship war and the famine of it while women worship their children. I have come to this understanding that I must only see the insulation between the dead and the living, the savage that shatters and damages every living thing. Creation can heal itself but this only comes in the hereafter of the personal effects of death and the horrors of war. There is nothing magical about it but there is everything magical about the petulance, innocence, the irritation and the annoyance of a child. Do not forget their obedience.

War comes with papers held together terrifyingly with paper clips. First, put on paper. First, discussed, debated into the early hours of the morning upon before it is set into motion. I think that here is where genocide, trauma, propaganda ends and begins. In the minds of men before the word genocide is even mentioned they do think they are being set up to murder millions of people. For some men there will be an infinite freedom in war. They will raise up their rifles. They will kill not knowing for whom or what they are killing. Some men say they are doing it for their country. I think most of us can live with the threat of genocide hanging over us but in the end when it comes for all of us, the involved or the uninvolved, it serves its purpose.

Self-injury!

Homes lost. Children neglected. Nations abandoned. There is still the flood of a symphony in genocide. A grand piano. You have to have the necessary strength of the classical pianist to survive in the silence and when you are murdering millions of people, you face the same silence in other ways. I have died a succession of deaths and it has changed my genetic makeup repeatedly. I live on one side of the world in relative comfort, bliss while other women are uneducated refugees, and will remain so for the rest of their lives.

Xenophobia is a kind of genocide too. Anyone who undermines anyone is part of that system, is part of that establishment’s lungs. That anyone has a psychopathic identity. The bystander, the journalist, the child who witness’s xenophobia gets a satisfaction and so does a politician and for them the meaning of that is social cohesion. They become comrades then, friends even, Emancipation of the soul is forgotten, and the spirit is withered away. All the operations of a genocide are organised. There is a chain of events in a hierarchy and that hierarchy is not going away anytime soon.

I am just a bystander and while I write this, I continue to be a bystander. These are just words. They say the pen is mightier than the sword. Can anything be mightier than the gun, than war, than conflict, than mass graves, than concentration camps and the people who are in government now? People who have died in genocide are lifeless. Once upon a time, they had struggles and hopes just like any other daughter, mother, son and father had so why should we forget them.

What I have learned from all the slaughter in Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, Tibet, and Burma is that people are eager for murder to take place. People are eager to destroy life by any means necessary. If they are not talking about it, they are certainly thinking about it. A life for a life. The people who survived those forgotten ghost trains to the concentration camps in Germany never forgot the sweetness of life although Hitler’s politics may have disgusted them as it should disgust the world. Life is unfair. That is the first lesson they should teach us as children.

If you talk about the concentration camps then you must talk about the mass starvation. If you talk about mass graves, you must talk about ethnic cleansing. If you talk about Bosnia and Rwanda, you must talk about rape. There are doors to the bloodlines of mad lands, and we keep on telling ourselves that it will never happen again in our lifetime yet it does happen from time to time that humanity’s violent nature gets the better of us. I am an earthling and what I know is that, as long as there is a political climate that cries out for us to carry guns and tanks man will go to war.

Genocide is diabolical. It is a ruse. It is pure evil. Humanity is making people not to exist anymore. In raping women, they do away and sabotage the female of the species. In killing men, they initiate child soldiers. I do not know which one is worse. Getting a handle on the diabolical or getting a handle on what is evil. The two sound the same to me. For a man to submit to both, his entire psychological and physiological framework will be destroyed. In the end, the introverted man will have claw marks on him. The extrovert will exploit with intent and at will anything and everything that he can lay his hands on until there is nothing left of the sharpness of his intellect.

I am angry. In writing these words, it is my intellect, half-knowledge and half-intelligence talking. There are parts of me that wishes we could turn back the clock but men want to go to war and it seems they have always wanted to go to war. They want to come home to their wives and their children with limbs missing. They come home not because they want to and I am writing very bravely, very boldly here but because they fought for their country. They do not know it yet but something within them has already been destroyed.

The picture of innocence that they had before they left would have been destroyed. I want to do good in the culture, this modern society that I live in now but everything is telling me to ‘go back’. To go back to the innocence of my childhood, the rules of my mother’s house, my father’s half-adoration and half-admiration and leave it to the boys, the Achilles’s, looking for signs. War is meant for the snipers, the ruling classes, for parliament, for shooting guns and accidentally killing civilians and so many more things. War does not taste like ice cream.

I can write a thesis on genocide but I know that it will not get me anywhere. Genocide is like visiting a museum. It is filled with beautiful things. Most of them dead beautiful things. War is you playing at Scouts when you were young. You with the Swiss Army knife in your other hand. I am a woman so I can be found lying on the couch reading Austen and thinking about desire instead or in front of a bathroom mirror brushing my hair. I have no other place in the world.

Learning from Genocide (Part II)

Her soap, undergarments, silk stockings, strands of hair lay everywhere for-the-world-to-see.

Her perfume, cooking-skills and incense fill my head. She is preparing a roast, mapping it out with delightfully-nutritious-perfection-in-the-kitchen. We will all sit down to eat. With-the-family-life we’ve-been-storing-it-up. We are all starving with hunger. Pouring-the-stealing beauty-of-the-kitchen-table-and-the-lust-for-the-feast-in-front-of-us-into-all. Her eye is a map, her hands smell like jasmine, her hair like gossamer and she is his dream come true. Her laughter is a custard apple, a cabbage rose, never-ending. We drink tea for hours confiding in each other insanely hypomanic as we discuss men and the objects of her affection, her children, and her lover.

Bellies full of a pretty food chain, a location for a nurturing position, prep, even grief we tell each other comes with gifts (endurance and forgiveness, a reason to validate, to forget, have an opinion whether it be relevant or irrelevant), future leaders leaning towards being proactive. Even in a war, in Nazi Germany there are whores of Babylon, stockings, a Hitler with a moustache, a world where Mussolini an ally and propaganda, where all the dead can’t be remembered, names forgotten everyone but once there was a pianist according to Polanski.

My head is lost in films, the opposite of the dark, a woman reading in a library, our South Africa, the Group Areas Act, my violent home, the brutality of man against man in my country. Yellow stars once upon a time marked a Jew’s coat, their lovers and their spirits, scorched them, and burned their intellect, their talent, mocking seduction and betrayal, mocking a syndrome. Listen. Listen as it settles like violence, the sea. The mocking sea. One day it will say remember me like Ingrid Jonker’s (my superior older sister) black butterflies inside her either head or wash away your sins. I wonder about her contemporaries, her lovers, her Brink, her Andre. The sea is mocking me. This great event that lies before me dying and living, giving away and receiving, nurturing schools, shark teeth, and a feast of eyes. In front of the poet lies the landscape, the hill, the valley, the mountain, and the playing fields. The needle and the knife appall the intelligent mind.

There is a heavy sensation at play, a freeze and an arrangement of sorts that pales in comparison to anything else that life seems to offer, an appealing curation. It chills me to the bone that I am not wearing that white wedding lace, that ring and there is gossamer fairy thread in the clouds above and a silver lining in every one. I am a shell. Shadows lurk under the bed, in the closet. He does not turn back. I am falling (an antique). I am an old soul that no one can understand, fathom, explain love, passion, having a spouse and companion too. She is old before her time. They all say that whoever they, they might be.

The community, estranged and immediate family, the stigma, the neighbours. It is not normal not to have a child, children, drive a car (my mother is superior to me in every way but I know that a long time ago over a decade this was not the case). It is not normal to live in the reality that I live in with recovery after recovery after suicidal illness and how disability has become familiar to me. First in my father’s life and now in mine. I am left to dream. I am left to dream of a Saviour who will rescue me on this ghost planet. Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation. I find sanctuary, peace of mind reading in a sofa. I find myself amongst my books and writing grants. South Africa can learn from Germany.

South Africa can learn from Sarajevo. South Africa can learn from genocide, the holocaust, and the rest of the African continent. Her beautiful people, their diamond smiles, creamy-velvet skin and their bravery, their bold survival, their sensuality, how they have managed being silenced about slavery, their footsteps in the dark, the beating of the drums, watermelons and mangoes, donkeys and carts. The enemy is the thief, the man and the woman, the German who causes heartache, what was really behind the Nazi vision? Hitler and his moustache? Was it an altered state of mind and separation anxiety? The rat’s spine is broken. It is a bleeding mass on the concrete. The dog has got to it first before the glued mousetrap. People who are hungry enough eat rats, squirrels too. Rats can be people too. If children are lucky enough they only learn that later in life after layers and layers of experience.

Germany was like South Africa a time out of place for some time, walls were built brick by brick literally and figuratively amongst the different race groups. It is still not forgotten. The people here have a long memory. The haves and the have-nots in a time not of their own making, an identity theory that is misplaced yet idolised at the same time, represented as the highest ideal and idea to live for and we believe that there is no revolution, no personal space for it, it’s evaporated like smoke. Where do the moths go when daylight comes if they are so attracted to the light? Do they come and go like an angel comes and goes.

It leaves a white feather as a reminder to tell us, ‘I have been here watching over you, watching over your household, your garden, your memories of the people in your life who have passed on to the hereafter. I see you in the kitchen preparing meals for your family. I see your love, affection and adoration for the little ones, for the big ones, for the giants and the greats that have lived and struggled, who were valiant. I see you when you are working, when you are fighting with something deep within yourself, your hurt, your ego and how you pray and meditate for yourself and for the young people around you, for their intellect.’ So angels come and angels go like sadness and suffering and ritual and ceremony, thanksgiving and pilgrimages and the theory of identity in a time that is not fluent but sometimes fluent in energy and variety. In South Africa the Jews are a minority group like those of us who wear white masks and go by the name of Coconut.

I have been shamed, have felt ashamed, humiliated by the colour of my skin, the sound of my posh voice that bounced off walls sounding like a sonnet, British-English from Speech and Drama lessons, sounding so articulate for a mixed race young girl (how I remember how other girls made me cry in the school bathroom during lunch break until I could no longer hold my breath, called me ‘Alice why do you talk that way funny little thing’ as I walked past them in the hallways, and in the street when I walked home after school. They called me other names, bullied me senseless until I became a mute like Princess Diana and Maya Angelou when they were children, lost myself, lost my voice only to find it on a stage, in the spotlight, in plays, rehearsals, reciting, reciting, learning lines parrot-fashion, garnered lead and supporting roles at the Opera House in Port Elizabeth and a house play, a school play).

I only found my voice when I discovered other poets and poetry. Home wasn’t so great. Now I know all Southern Africans have accents. The margin is there in Southern Africa between the fortunate and brave and those who have no skills and are unemployed. Black faces, chocolate, white faces, vanilla and those of mixed heritage, Cape Malay, Muslim, coloured, Rastafarian. We’re all living together and not together in a scorched climate, a summer and a winter, rain pouring down which some of us receive with joy as we curl up with wine, olives and cheese and pasta and others, the invisible others whose homes are flooded, whose little food is washed away, wasted away. It’s still the same for them. Has always been for years, the Rainbow Nation and the African Renaissance has come and gone but they come to me in dreams. I see them in front of me. I feel what they feel. I see what they see and it isn’t pretty, dignified or nice in any way. Their suffering tears into me. I flinch.

And it’s always their hunger that is never diminished, that fact is not wasted on me. Their children do their homework by candlelight or not at all. What do they eat? Is it any wonder that they do not grow normally, tall, dark and handsome, and why is it only the younger children that smile and play. Toys are not enough for their world. They need to eat, bread and milk and sandwiches (no eggs and bacon for the poor, fried mushrooms that taste as slimy as snails are for the rich, as is shellfish). Where is the birthday cake with balloons the colours of crayons? And every day they remember when it rained? How do they sleep, at school?

How do they keep their wide eyes open with their long lashes when there is a gust of wind through a broken window, when the rain is also an element on the Periodic Table, when there is no roof over their heads in the classroom, when there is a protest march in the community over service delivery? Why do the rich get richer in South Africa and the poor get poorer in South Africa on a daily basis? Children need people, adults to believe in them, have faith in them. All I see now on television, in the newspaper before I turn to read the comics is violence and guns like the night there were police and plainclothes detectives in our house confronting my brother. It was almost as if it was Warsaw, Poland and we were playing dress-up. As if, we all were in futuristic costume. But I promised to look after him and they brought him back from the police station that night because he had promised to make no more trouble. No more trouble for my father who he had beaten up.

My father in his threadbare white vest, (no mistaking a potbelly) stained thick with blood, and sweat wearing a shorts showing his skinny legs. He’d smashed the windows with a brick scaring us all half-to-death like a tik-addict looking for a fix, an upper or a downer. And then he broke down, cried like a baby. The vulnerable part inside of him was shattered. I was shattered. They took him away but brought him back again. Jews. Jews. Jews. Yes, I believed in the inherent goodness of people (but then a genocide took place in Africa in front of the world’s eyes documented in the film Hotel Rwanda). Just like a serving dish of sky, the blades of Whitman’s grass, autumn leaves, trees almost-conjured-up-out-of-the-ground, youth-not-yet-cuckoo-in-the-bird’s-nests-of-their-brains you will never forget the films you see that changes you for life. The films of war-torn Germany, genocide and the fact that there isn’t a film or a documentary about the forced removals.

Oh, there’re museums but do they talk about the memory of that time’s frustration, ‘the struggle’, political activists that were recruited like my father when he was just seventeen years old along with his best friend and his brother. George Botha. Arthur Nortje. Dennis Brutus. Richard Rive. I want them to live forever like my ‘wild Sargasso’ sea. The District Six Museum, The South End Museum, The Red Location Museum, The George Botha Memorial Lecture by storyteller and Professor Cornelius Thomas of Rhodes University in Grahamstown who studied at Notre Dame University in North America.

The world does not promise everyone a rose garden, that you will be born with a silver spoon in your mouth, that the world will be your oyster. I think of Virginia Woolf ‘Her black butterflies’ and that fateful day of how if I had been there, a witness I would have said to her, ‘Turn back. Turn back because you are surely going to hell. You cannot take your own life. It is not your time.’ But I was not there. Faces of every hue, hair of every texture, here now in this South Africa surround me. Violence does not seem to fade into the night, the moonlight, gunshots ring out, and there are ganglands even as I write this.

Even as I speak to my father in the morning over mugs of lukewarm coffee filled with powdered cream, no sugar because he is a diabetic as he rests, does his exercises-and-recovers-from-them but are we as far away from the ‘war zone’ on the streets of Gelvandale, Port Elizabeth as we think we are? The sexual, physical, and domestic violence? The prostitutes in their flats in Central with their stiletto heels, boots, their lipstick, wigs, cheap perfume, powders and ointments to make their partner’s ‘experience’ more pleasurable.

And I remember the face of this girl. Her name long forgotten but not her dark mane. Jewess. And I think of Otto and his daughter’s diary.

Let Africa and the international community not forget about the genocides committed on this continent.

This article was previously published online in Modern Diplomacy on the 30 April 2015.

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