SCHOLASTIQUE MUKASONGA, author of several acclaimed books of fiction and nonfiction, was one of two members of her large family to escape the 1994 Rwandan massacres that destroyed 20 percent of the country’s population — somewhere between a half million and a million people. Her new memoir, Cockroaches, written in France (where she now lives) and translated by Jordan Stump, begins like this:

Over and over I write and rewrite their names in the blue-covered notebook, trying to prove to myself that they existed: I speak their names one by one, in the dark and the silence. I have to fix a face on each name, hang some shred of a memory […] This will be another sleepless night. I have so many dead to sit up with.

Cockroaches is a work of consecration, dedicated “to everyone who died at Nyamata in the genocide.” Included on that list are the names of Mukasonga’s parents and her five massacred siblings, along with their many children. Altogether she lost 37 members of her family.

The events leading up to the 1994 massacre of Tutsis by Hutus (in which rape and sexual mutilation were an integral weapon) are a tangle of political and military maneuvers, including a civil war in the 1990s, several reorganizations of the government, a violated peace accord, and the assassination of the president in 1994, by which group is unclear. What is clear is that after the president’s plane was shot down, the ongoing violence culminated in mass murders between April and July, instigated and encouraged by the government (which imported and distributed quantities of machetes) and leaving the country in ruins, with 40 percent of the population either dead or in exile in neighboring Zaire and Burundi. The United Nations forces declined to assist the victims because of dubious bureaucratic rules, yet managed to evacuate Europeans from the mass chaos. Western powers, for various political reasons, did not intervene.

As in other recent civil conflicts (Iraq and the Balkans, which received more worldwide concern), the divisions between the groups go back several hundred years. Early Tutsis were landowners and cattle-raisers while the Hutus were farmers, reminiscent of the original fraternal murder, Cain and Abel, in reverse. The Tutsis, though a minority, were considered an elite class, whose chiefs often employed Hutus against their will. After World War I, the short-lived League of Nations passed control of Rwanda from Germany, the original colonizer, to Belgium, which proceeded to govern after the notorious fashion they did in the Belgian Congo. In fact, it was the Belgians in 1935 who instituted the practice of mandatory identification papers noting each citizen’s ethnicity, even though some historians claim there really is no racial difference between Hutu and Tutsi, but rather a distinction of social class.

This admittedly sketchy history is not what you will find in Mukasonga’s extraordinary, lyrical, and heartbreaking book, whose title translates the word “inyenzis,” the name given by the Hutus to taunt displaced Tutsis. It is history on the human scale, endured by a tight community in the grip of uncontrollable forces: a compelling story of what happened to the author, her parents, and six siblings beginning in 1963, a year after the country gained its independence from Belgium. For a start, their houses and those of their neighbors were burned and they were all herded into trucks:

[W]e were so tightly packed in, we crashed together with every bump in the road, we had to struggle not to suffocate, we were thirsty, there was no water. The children were crying. Whenever we drove by a river or lake, the men beat on the roof of the driver’s cab to ask him to stop. But the trucks kept on going. Night had fallen. No one knew where we were headed. I saw despair in my mother’s eyes. I was afraid.

They were taken to a bleak and unfamiliar part of southern Rwanda where they were forced to settle, build huts, farm, and organize a school, with barely any supplies or resources. Mukasonga was about three at the time. She has no recollection of her original home, only of the desolate place of exile where she lived until her adolescence.

Her memoir relates the remarkable ways her family and their fellow exiles made do from the 1960s on, creating a provisional life as close to normal as they could manage, while hostile soldiers threatened and attacked at random, periodically destroying their homes and crops and terrorizing girls fetching water at the lake.

The ever-present fear did not halt ordinary activities, described vividly — children dancing at celebrations; the competitive brewing of urwarwa, banana beer; the walks to school interrupted by elephants. Yet in the midst of life, the displaced Tutsis never forgot that they might be slaughtered, whether in a week or a year or in 30 years as it turned out. Meanwhile, they were determined to carry on. Mukasonga’s parents in particular made superhuman efforts to educate their children. Her father, a pious Catholic, was literate and had served as secretary to a sub-chief. Several of her siblings became teachers, and one a doctor.

More than a work of remembrance, the memoir is an account of how one unusual young girl survived, “to follow the long detour of exile for their sake […] and shoulder the memory of their sufferings and their deaths.” Her escape and exile were the result of a series of unexpected events.

Mukasonga was one of the very few Tutsi students who did well enough on the exams to be admitted to the national school system:

Finally the great day came, the first day of school. We had to set off early in the morning if we wanted to reach Kigali [the capital] before nightfall. Even for a good walker like me, forty-five kilometers was a serious hike. My father came with me. But first we had to say goodbye to the neighbors. This took a long time: so many greetings, so much advice to be given […] And then we were off, we crossed the big bridge over the Nyabarongo. I was on my way to another world.

In school, far from her family, she was isolated and reviled by many of her Hutu classmates and forced to take on housekeeping chores, but she persisted, studying all night and barely sleeping. In one unusual episode, taken under the wing of her single Hutu friend, she goes on an excursion with some classmates to a girl’s home and finds herself in the kitchen of the President of the Republic, a Hutu. “‘Whatever you do,’” she is told, “‘don’t go into the living room. The President mustn’t see you.’” She was safe, however, if the president’s wife was there: she was a Tutsi, too.

By dint of her intelligence and formidable efforts, she passed the next level of exams and was admitted to the four-year program in the School of Social Work in Butare. Here she finds relief and companionship, acceptance and dignity. Neither the nuns who ran the school nor the Canadian teachers paid any attention to “‘ethnic’ differences.” She credits this school with giving her the skills and confidence she would need for her career as a social worker in Burundi and later in France.

On a day off, she and a few of her Tutsi classmates visited Queen Gicanda, widow of the king “who died mysteriously” in 1959:

[S]he welcomed us like a good-hearted mother. She gave us milk to drink. It was like being transported to another world. The world we’d never known. In 1994, the old woman was viciously attacked. I won’t describe how she was humiliated, raped, tortured. I want to remember only the woman who gave us milk, Gicanda, the queen with the beautiful face.

In between terms came the periodic visits to her family, covering miles on foot, always terrified of the soldiers en route to whom she had to present her papers. Together with a few friends she took many detours and “a thousand precautions to avoid being seen.” But to no avail. “We held out our papers, and the humiliations began. Depending on their mood or their fancies, they might spit in our faces, or kick us with their heavy boots, or strike us with their rifle butts.”

The story is punctuated by alternations of hope and despair. At one point, the exiled community is persuaded by rumor that the ousted king will return with fresh forces to combat the oppressors. But this turns out to be a delusion. Instead a fleet of helicopters zooms in, hovering close to the ground, forcing everyone to run and hide while their homes are pillaged. Even at the benevolent School of Social Work the atmosphere changes and danger looms.

As extinction seems imminent, the family decides that Mukasonga and her brother André must flee to Burundi to find work and continue their schooling, a plan they managed to carry out. “And above all — my parents weren’t quite sure how to say it — at least some of us had to survive, to keep the memory alive, so the family could go on, somewhere else.” After a middle-of-the-night escape, threading their dark way through thickets for hours, they reach their destination. The friend who guided them “turned and went back the way he came. He wouldn’t be killed that morning. He would be killed twenty years later.”

Except for one brief visit in 1986, Mukasonga never saw her parents again. In a wrenching final section, she describes what happened to the various family members, that is, the circumstances of their murders, as far as she can ascertain. It is many years before she can bring herself to return to Rwanda, accompanied by her French husband and their children. Nothing is left of the area where they lived. She walks through the paths, the bushes, the thickets, even to the place where her house stood, and no trace remains. She can identify the site only by a familiar tree. She enumerates the neighbors by name, who they were, what they did, what traits they were known for. She spies a woman in the distance who runs away at the sight of her. A man whom she remembers approaches, and after some hesitation he acknowledges her:

“I never killed anyone,” he keeps repeating. “Have you ever heard anyone say I did?” I’m no longer listening. Was it him who murdered my parents, who’d at least played a part? Was it someone else? I’ll never know.

Cockroaches is not political history; that has been told in books by journalists and scholars. It is the truer history of individual lives. It is indispensable reading for anyone who cares about the endurance of the human spirit and who hopes for a better world. The conclusion is a stunning illustration of how precious little this courageous author has salvaged from tragedy.

The murderers tried to erase everything they were, even any memory of their existence, but, in the schoolchild’s notebook that I am now never without, I write down their names. I have nothing left of my family and all the others who died in Nyamata but that paper grave.

¤

Lynne Sharon Schwartz is the author of the novels Disturbances in the Field, Leaving Brooklyn, the memoir Ruined by Reading, and many other works of fiction and nonfiction. Her third collection of poetry, No Way Out But Through, will be published in 2017 by the University of Pittsburgh Press Poetry Series.