Monday 16 September 2019

Long after the horrors, I dream of the dead but wake to find a beautiful spring morning

REMEMBERING: Twenty-four years after the genocide in Rwanda, the kind of hateful, demagogic, deceitful voices that created the tragedy must still be resisted
REMEMBERING: Twenty-four years after the genocide in Rwanda, the kind of hateful, demagogic, deceitful voices that created the tragedy must still be resisted

Fergal Keane

It is always the same dream. The woman hovers at the end of the bed. She is wordless, motionless, a portrait from a quarter of a century ago whose only animation lies in her forever beseeching eyes. There is no need for her to say anything. I know well the message she is bearing. When I wake, it is with tears in my own eyes.

A few weeks back I picked up a virus while working in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It meant a spell in hospital and now a lengthy recuperation. I have more time on my hands than I am used to. Walking with the aid of a crutch, I have had to slow down. My habits of displacing emotion with movement have been curtailed.

This, I tell myself, is why the dreams have come back. But it also has something to do with the time of year. This is late spring, the season when the genocide began in Rwanda 24 years ago. It is always a hard time of year.

There was a time when I flailed in my sleep with dreams of those days. I would be woken in a cold sweat by unspeakable images ricocheting out of my subconscious. There would be face after face frozen in the last moment of life, all the contortions of the human body subjected to the extremities of violence, the mess made by machete, grenade and high-velocity rifles.

When I was younger and in the thick of the action, I did not think of where the images I was absorbing every day would end up. There was what I witnessed and what I then put away. I drank away the horror. In those days, that was what many war correspondents did. We anaesthetised and kept going. There was also a reluctance to reflect on the damage to our own psyche when we knew that we had a choice. Nobody forced us to go to the wars. And we could leave when we wanted.

The reasons many of us kept going back were complex and could vary from person to person. I've written before, that war felt like familiar ground to me, a fractured childhood gave me a capacity to read troubled individuals and negotiate precarious situations.

I didn't need the excitement of war but I did treasure the camaraderie of the field. And for a time I felt part of something bigger and more important than the trajectory of my own career. In those days - the mid to late 1990s - it seemed as if post Rwanda and the Yugoslav wars, the world was moving to a more determined application of human rights law. The great dream of protecting civilians from arbitrary violence was edging closer to realisation.

I was moved by a loathing of bullies and it struck that in many of the places where violence was being inflicted, an unequal struggle was being waged between the powerful and the weak. The arrival of the International Criminal Court and the successful intervention to stop massacres in Sierra Leone made me think that the reporting of atrocity was having a beneficial effect.

Then came 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and the end of the liberal interventionist project.

The wars keep happening, mostly the same kind of small wars that I covered in the early days of my career. Younger men and women are going to the battlefields to record and analyse.

They will bring home their store of memories. Some will medicate with booze and drugs. Some will get lost forever in one war after another haunted by their human kinship with killers as well as victims.

What I know is that with the passing of time my belief that reporting the world's horror might help change things has evaporated.

The vividness of the horror in my memory has eased. So too the fear. There are no more murderous phantoms with whom to struggle in the dark hours. In their stead has come this woman who never speaks. She is a woman of Africa. I met her in a town in central Africa where neighbour had turned on neighbour in a 100-day spasm of killing. But she also speaks in her wordless way for all those across the world whose stories I have taken and transmitted to the world.

Horror has been replaced by grief. I am reminded of William Golding's lines from the end of Lord of the Flies when poor, honest, decent Piggy has been murdered.

"Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart, and the fall through the air of a true, wise friend called Piggy." That darkness is universal as is its opposite - our capacity for love and tenderness.

I dream of the dead but wake to find a beautiful spring morning.

In writing a column, the demand to make an argument can sometimes be a burden. Worn out by a dream, I have no strong opinions this morning. I cannot try to wear you down with my certainty. There is the world of the night and the world of the day. I live in both. I have learned to accept both and I resist the urge to find purpose or meaning in returning dreams. There is what happened in the wars and nothing I can do or say will change that. I can only continue to resist the kind of voices - hateful, demagogic, deceitful - that created the great tragedy of the spring and summer of 1994 and live this day as happily as I can.

Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent and Africa Editor

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