His smiling face popped up on a faded, scanned-in picture on one of the millions of Facebook groups. The class photograph was taken in front of the building of Ecole Privée Belge in Gisenyi, Rwanda. It was 1986, the sky was blue, the rain season had finally come to an end and Rwanda’s future looked beyond promising.
Arnaud was the son of the neighbours of our neighbours, a bright fellow, one or two years older than me, tall, slender, slightly timid, fine features. I honestly never really paid attention to him. I was friends with his sister Emilie and our motto was that boys were “yucky”, “stupid” and “blegh”. I usually went over to their house as a result of Emilie’s eternal fear for our dog Floris, a super-friendly Labrador-like pavement special with the IQ of a small pea.
The birth of her little brother Cedric was an absolute highlight. I remember Emilie’s mom lying in bed with this tiny bundle, carefully wrapped in a light yellow blanket.
After we left Rwanda, Emilie and I kept in touch for a while, but the frequency of our letters diminished until our correspondence came to a complete standstill. It was only in April 1994 when I received an update.
Shortly after President Habyarimana was killed in a plane crash, which kicked off a killing frenzy that claimed almost a million lives in a 100 days, the parents of Arnaud and Emilie decided to flee with their three children. As the militias were around the corner, hacking their way through the green hills of the Kivu province, the decision was made to take refuge in one of the houses nearby. Our old house, my childhood home. The place where I spent seven years of my life being a child, where I learned to read, to speak French, where I did my homework, played with my dolls, climbed the old avo tree, and fell asleep with, in the background, the soothing sound of the waves of Lake Kivu.
They must have thought it was safe, as it was standing empty at the time. They were wrong, very wrong.
My world dissolved from underneath my feet when I heard the horrible news. In a scope of ten minutes the warm and fuzzy memories of my childhood years were painted black. The only way to deal with this news was to block it, to erase it from my own internal hard drive and to never ever think about it again. It worked quite nicely, up until today.
Dear Emilie, Arnaud, Cedric, and your parents … I know this letter is way overdue, but wherever you are — may you Rest In Peace.