Obadiah M | 'I want readers of this story to understand there is hope after hopelessness'

Obadiah M | 'I want readers of this story to understand there is hope after hopelessness'

Die Walking is the anonymous account of the Rwandan genocide, seen through the eyes of a child. Obadiah M was the 13-year-old son of a Hutu pastor in 1994, when his family was forced to flee Rwanda on foot, pursued by soldiers. Covering the reprisal killings that followed the genocide in the mid-1990s, of Rwandan refugees who had fled to Zaire, Die Walking presents a counter-narrative to that of the current Rwandan government, and so Obadiah M writes anonymously to protect himself and his family.

“We are living in a country that wants the world to think and believe that reconciliation has worked 100% while it really has not even started, except for a few initiatives that are minimal compared to the realities and magnitude of what needs to be done for sustainable healing,” he says. “The trauma every Rwandan lives with will only be healed by an eclectic approach using doses of truth and forgiveness. I know that I sound sceptical, but my rationale is twofold: first, the hunting down and the killing of Rwandan refugees who dared to initiate truthful reconciliation processes indicates the extent to which the current regime is not ready for a genuine reconciliation. Second, there is the paranoia we all live with as Rwandans. Having to publish my book under a pseudonym is an indication of such unsolved paradoxes.”

Obadiah’s family provided a sense of stability, even on the run, until gradually they got separated. “In Rwanda, family is the anchor of everything. Familyhood, if such a word exists, and these aspects are captured in different parts of the book,” the author says. “Having a family means having an early school where dos and don’ts are taught: what is taboo and what is not. For example, I vividly recall my mum’s stories told around the fire in the evening, stories full of mystery and awe that helped us appreciate what our cultures and traditions are. It was in these informal sessions that once my mum said: ‘Speak the truth, always. Better die by the sword rather than hiding the truth.’’’

The theme of resilience runs through the book, as the author loses family members, goes without food and escapes death himself several times. After walking through a valley strewn with corpses, he writes: “I was a zombie now. Each time I returned to the place of detachment, the feeling deepened and felt harder to get out of.” That particular experience had an enduring effect on him.

“In May 1997, we discovered that the waters we were drinking were running on thousands of decaying bodies that were dumped in the river by the then-rebels, my brain froze,” he says. Years later, when living in America, this experience still haunted him. “Everyone wondered why I was not drinking water—I told them that I did not like water. I told them about the story of those corpses, of the sickly refugees who were in the Biaro camp. They were pushed in the forest to be killed. After I told that story, my [adopted] grandmother said, ‘Don’t you think that is where your problem of hating water started?’ Then my eyes opened wide, and I realised that my subconscious had been telling me that all water is full of blood. Then and there, I was encouraged to drink water and the journey started again.

“Resilience, as the mechanism to cope with painful memories and a complex web of experiences and issues, means, in my understand- ing, the capacity to bounce back and allow oneself to live in spite of the past. Genocide survivors, for example, who have to live near memorial sites where their loved ones are laid; returning refugees who have to live under a regime that never admits having killed hundreds of thousands of fellow Rwandans... that is resilience.”

Years after his harrowing experience, the author learns the healing power of telling his story, leading to his arrest and subsequent fleeing of the country, separated from his wife and baby daughter. “Whispering truth to power is hard,” he says. “We live on the edge of life every day. I do not recall having a peaceful night while in Rwanda at all. It is such a relief that my story is finally out. That is healing. It feels like a huge burden fell off my chest.

“I want readers of this story to understand there is hope after hopelessness,” he says. “There is a need to keep moving despite the circumstances. Die Walking is a story of triumph over trials. As it is said, there is light at the end of the tunnel. May they keep walking. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, if they can’t walk, they can crawl, but whatever they do they need to keep moving. Resilience is a person refusing to sit down and accept his or her fate. That is what I hope my readers will take from this book."

Die Walking: A Child’s Journey Through Genocide by Obadiah M will be published in paperback by House of Anansi Press on 19th November (9781487009724)