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Authors: Elisabeth Combres

Broken Memory

BOOK: Broken Memory
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A Novel of Rwanda

Élisabeth Combres

Translated by Shelley Tanaka


First published as
La mémoire trouée
Élisabeth Combres

Copyright © Gallimard
Jeunesse 2007

First published in Canada
and the USA in 2009 by Groundwood Books

English translation
copyright © 2009 by Shelley Tanaka

All rights reserved. No part of this
publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means,
electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information
storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the

Distribution of this electronic edition via
the Internet or any other means without the permission of the publisher is
illegal. Please do not participate in electronic piracy of copyrighted material;
purchase only authorized electronic editions. We appreciate your support of the
author's rights.

This edition published in 2011
Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press Inc.
110 Spadina Avenue,
Suite 801
Toronto, ON, M5V 2K4
Tel. 416-363-4343

Ouvrage publié avec le
concours du Ministère français chargé de la culture – Centre national du
This work has been published with the assistance of the French
Ministry of Culture – National Book Center.

Library and Archives
Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Combres, Élisabeth
Broken memory
: a novel of Rwanda / Élisabeth Combres ; translated by Shelley Tanaka.
Translation of: La mémoire trouée.
1. Genocide–Rwanda–Juvenile fiction. 2. Hutu (African
people)–Juvenile fiction. 3. Tutsi (African people)–Juvenile fiction. 4.
Rwanda–History–Civil War, 1994–Juvenile fiction. I. Tanaka, Shelley II.
PQ2703.O53M4514 2009 j843'.92 C2009-901409-2

Cover photograph
copyright © by Robert Palumbo
Design by Michael

We acknowledge for their
financial support of our publishing program the Canada Council for the Arts,
the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) and the Ontario
Arts Council.

The author would
like to thank
Le centre régional des lettres de Midi-Pyrénées for its

À Manu
À mes parents
À Fabienne et Christine

“He did not only kill my
He killed humanity.”

— A survivor of the
Rwandan genocide


They are there.

Behind the door.

They are yelling, singing, banging, laughing.

Mama's eyes are wide with fear.

Soon she will be nothing more than suffering on the ground.

Cut up and bleeding.

Then, finally, set free by death.


Emma woke up with a start, exhausted by the same nightmare that she had almost every night. Ever since that day in April 1994, when the men burst into the house and murdered her mother.

She didn't see it happen, but she heard everything, huddled against the wall behind the old sofa, trembling with fear. To keep from screaming, she kept repeating to herself what her mother had ordered when the first blow of a club battered against the door — “Slide behind there, close your eyes, put your hands over your ears. Do not make the slightest move, not the slightest noise. Tell yourself that you are not in this room, that you see nothing, hear nothing, and that everything will soon be over. You must not die, Emma!”

Everything was over quickly after that, just as her mother had promised.

But for Emma the nightmare was just beginning.

She lay curled up in the empty house for a long time, until the ache in her limbs brought her back to reality. She peeled her hands from her ears and very, very slowly opened her eyes.

When she heard nothing but silence, she stood up stiffly and staggered out of her hiding place. She stumbled blindly around the lifeless body of her mother and stepped over the shattered door and through the curtain of rain that blocked the open doorway of the house.

In a daze, she joined the crowds of fleeing families. She slept in the bush, went for long days without eating, drank muddy water from the ditches beside the roads. She managed to dodge the many checkpoints that the murderers had set up to catch anyone who was too tired or careless to avoid them.

Soon she no longer saw many others trying to flee like her. She walked down her road, more and more alone, walking between the dead bodies that blackened the fields and the roads.

Until the day she knocked on the old woman's door.

She had watched her for two days from her hiding place in an empty old chicken coop. Finally, something about the woman's gentle movements made her cast caution aside and approach her.

Sitting on her bed, Emma listened now to the old woman sweeping on the other side of the wall. She got up, pulled on the skirt that lay on the small bench under the window and went to the door of the only bedroom in the house.

When she walked into the other room, the old woman turned toward her, one hand on her waist, the other holding the stiff tuft of straw that she used as a broom. She smiled softly at Emma, then bent over and returned to her work.

After nine years Emma was used to the old woman's silence. She had not said a word that day when she was faced with the terrified little girl asking for something to eat. So that she wouldn't die, the way her mother had told her.

“I must not die,” she had whispered in a weak voice, “but I'm hungry. And I am scared, too.”

The old woman reacted quickly. Without even thinking, she grabbed the child by the arm and pulled her into the house. Only when the door was closed again did she really consider what she had done.

This thin little girl with the big black eyes, no more than five years old, was one of those who must die.

For weeks the radio had been practically stuttering with rage that all Tutsis must be killed. The old woman was a Hutu peasant, so she was not in danger. But by protecting the little girl, she was condemning herself to death. If the killers found out she had the girl with her, they would both be slaughtered immediately.

So chance had brought them together, in a Rwanda torn apart in terror, fire and blood.

Emma had to hide in the field behind the house several times after that. It was easy to hole up in the mud behind the bank, where the grass had grown quickly since the first rains of April. Meanwhile the men searched, insulted, trampled — they had been told that a young girl was definitely hiding there — then they left.

They came back many times, full of hate and frustration, fraying the old woman's nerves, but they never found anything. The old woman was careful to make sure there wasn't the slightest evidence of Emma's presence.

So she existed without really being there, not really alive and not dead, though she would sometimes feel like a corpse herself, buried in the mud at the foot of the garden.

The old woman and the little girl grew used to each other. When the war ended, they just carried on, and over the years the calm routine of everyday life brought them close. They looked after each other through thick and thin, both simply determined to carry on living. Emma because it was the last wish of her dying mother. The old woman because she never considered doing anything else, not even during the worst moments of her life.

Emma turned toward the cooking area and made herself a bowl of porridge — the same mix of soy flour, sorghum and corn that was fed to babies. She moistened it with milk and swallowed in big spoonfuls. Then she splashed water on her face, washed quickly and set off for the market.


On the road, Emma passed boys and girls her age dressed in their school uniforms — the boys in pale beige, the girls in bright blue. It was time for classes to begin.

“We have to find the money so that you can go to school,” the old woman had said to her once. “So that you can be someone later.”

But for Emma, “later” meant nothing. Her life revolved around a nightmare. Like a broken record, she kept replaying that horrible night when time stood still. Since then there had been no before and no after. Just the difficult now, where she struggled with ghosts.

She couldn't remember the happy days any more — her aunts, her cousins, the grandfather she loved so much. They were all dead but not buried. She couldn't even remember the face of her mother, no matter how hard she tried. Sometimes she could see her brightly colored skirt, her outstretched hands, but never her eyes or her smile.

The only thing that remained was that one command: “You must not die, Emma.”

So she kept on living. Drifting. Carried by a whirlwind that spun around that night — the night that had taken away her mother and her past.

Two girls jostled against Emma and pulled her out of her daydream with their bright laughter. She sneaked glances at them. They looked alike. They were probably sisters. Their hair was cut short and their blue uniforms were faded, as if they had been worn by several big sisters or cousins who had grown out of them.

Emma looked into the sparkling eyes of the younger girl and suddenly wanted desperately to be like her.

Was it school that made her so happy? She had a hard time imagining herself sitting in a classroom, or even busy learning her lessons in the house in the evenings.

She couldn't even remember the face of her mother. How could she remember anything else? It would be as if someone asked her to bring in the vegetables without having any place to put them that would protect them from the wind, the rain and thieves.

Emma sighed and stared down at the pavement. Then she carried on to the market two kilometers away.


On Sundays the old woman got ready for mass. Emma never went with her. She couldn't understand about this God that people sang to in church. It was in those same churches that men, women and children had been beaten senseless, shot, hacked up, burned dead or alive.

How could everyone have forgotten all that? Had the entire country lost its memory?

“I'm going to see my husband after mass,” the old woman whispered, without looking up or waiting for an answer.

Emma left the house an hour after Mukecuru. Grandmother. That was what she had chosen to call her back in 1994, a few days after she arrived at the house.

This Sunday, as usual, Emma dressed up, too, putting on her white blouse and her nicest skirt. She almost smiled when she saw how her brown hand looked against the pale fabric splashed with green, orange and red. She thought she almost looked pretty, even though her body was beginning to feel like more and more of a burden. As a little girl she had been quietly invisible, but a few months ago she had turned thirteen, and now she was as tall as a woman.

She had seen the big change in how men looked at her, especially when she dressed like this. But it was important. It was for the visit. She never missed one.

She left the house, strolled down the dusty path, then turned onto the paved road. You didn't see many cars here, but the giant eucalyptus trees rustled like a crowd dressed up in their Sunday best.

Emma didn't like being out after mass. She ran into too many people. She was relieved when she finally reached the turnoff and practically ran down the grassy path that was almost hidden from the road.

A bit farther on, she slowed down. She didn't want to get there too early. It was Mukecuru's visit. Emma knew that Mukecuru didn't mind her coming, but she still couldn't get rid of the awkward feeling that she was in the way.

When she reached the end of the path, she was reassured to see the old woman in her usual spot, sitting on the rocky bench in the middle of the clearing. In front of her, wildflowers covered a mound about the length of a man — the grave of her husband. He had died thirty years ago and had been buried in the family compound. Not long after, his sister took charge of the property and chased Mukecuru away.

Today nothing was left of the house but ruins of dried earth worn down by rain and overrun by tall grasses. Only the grave remained, thanks to the old woman who dressed up and came every Sunday to look after it.

Emma sat quietly a short distance away. She liked to come to this place that took Mukecuru back to her past, back to the years when she lived with her husband.

For Emma, such a thing was impossible. Her mother and the rest of her murdered family had never been buried. She didn't even know where their bodies were.

In Rwanda, they said that when the dead were not buried, their spirits stayed around to haunt the living. They became the
, the bad spirits — sometimes even bad for those close to them.

Emma looked up when Mukecuru walked in front of her. She looked relaxed and peaceful, as if she were surrounded by people close to her. Emma could imagine them smiling and floating around the old woman.

“That's why she's always so calm,” Emma said to herself. “She's never alone. They are there, watching over her memories.

her memory,” she decided as she stood up. Then she fell in behind Mukecuru, staying a few paces back, and followed her home.

BOOK: Broken Memory
8.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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