Impossible to Stay Neutral

In a powerful first novel, Swiss writer Lukas Baerfuss questions the culpability of his country in the 1994 genocide.

Avner Shapira
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Avner Shapira

"The serenity that used to prevail in the country is gone, but at least the boredom dissipated and the danger breathed life into me. I slept less, drank more coffee, and was restless in general, but I'm not sure if it was because of the war or because of my story with Agathe" (from "One Hundred Days" by Lukas Baerfuss).

Lukas Baerfuss' first introduction to Rwanda came in his childhood, when he was attending primary school in his native Switzerland. "In third grade, when I was 9 years old, we had a week where we focused on Rwanda," writes Baerfuss, in an interview conducted by e-mail. "We learned everything about this small, mountainous country in the heart of Africa. It was a very bright, idyllic image that we were shown. And during my childhood, whenever I heard a story about Africa, this image came to my mind - for me, in a way, it was the image of Africa as a whole."

Only as an adult was he exposed to other aspects of Rwanda's image, especially the 1994 civil war and genocide carried out by the Hutus against the Tutsis. "I wondered why I had carried such an incomplete, soothing image in my mind, and how come I learned nothing in school about the problems of Rwanda: A country under a dictatorship, torn apart by a very strict apartheid, suffering under an ancient history of violence. So I wanted to know more about the circumstances. And I learned about the role of my own country, which was very important."

The historical background served Baerfuss as a basis for his first novel, "One Hundred Days," which appeared in Switzerland three years ago and is now being published in Hebrew. The book's main character, David, looks back at the period when he was living in Rwanda as an employee of a Swiss organization for development and humanitarian aid. After he arrives in Kigali, the capital, in 1990, he learns about Rwanda and its problems, and in the end he decides to stay there during the bloodbath, which began in April 1994 .

One reason for staying is the somewhat romantic relationship that he forms with Agathe, a young local Hutu girl and the daughter of a senior government official. As opposed to the other European aid workers, who fled from the country, David hides in his home for the 100 days of the massacre, living off of food supplies he is brought by his gardener. He follows events from the sidelines, until violence appears on his doorstep in a manner that prevents him from continuing to maintain neutrality, an approach that is generally attributed to his country.

Baerfuss says he tried to shed light in the book on Switzerland's role in the developments leading to the genocide: "For many years, Switzerland supported Rwanda with millions and millions [of Swiss francs]; in fact, it was the most important sponsor among the international community. The personal advisor to Juvenal Habyarimana, the Rwandan dictator, was a Swiss economist, paid for by the [Swiss] Department of Foreign Affairs. The role of this man has been the subject of many rumors, but it seems quite clear that he was a key person in the system. It has been said that he wrote the president's speeches, and it was he who led the negotiations with the World Bank.

"Despite all of these Swiss influences, there weren't any books about the relationship of these two countries - which is quite remarkable considering the vast amount of literature on the history of the genocide. And if you want to read a book that hasn't been written yet, you have to write it yourself."

Baerfuss' research before he sat down to write the book included interviews with eyewitnesses to the genocide that he conducted during visits to Rwanda and Congo, and burrowing through documents in the government archive in Switzerland. Upon its publication, the book aroused a public discussion about Switzerland's support for the dictatorship of Habyarimana, and the fact that European aid organizations had turned a blind eye to the preparations for genocide - not to mention the silence and lack of intervention on the part of the United Nations and the international powers during the short period when almost a million Tutsi, and hundreds of thousands of Hutu who opposed the murders, were massacred in the country. The weapons used by the Hutu militias were not especially sophisticated - mainly rifles, machetes and nail-studded cudgels - but the extermination was conducted very efficiently: The pace of the murders was faster than in the Holocaust.

A humanitarian question

"We gave them the pencil with which they later wrote the death lists, we installed the phone connection for them which they used to issue the orders to massacre, and we built them the roads on which the murderers drove to their victims" ("One Hundred Days" ).

Baerfuss was born on December 30, 1971 in the Swiss city of Thun, where he also grew up. In his youth he worked as a bookseller in Bern, and after several years began to write skits and plays. He became a successful playwright, both locally and abroad; his plays have been translated into 18 languages. Since 2009, he has been working as the house dramaturge and playwright of the Schauspielhaus theater in Zurich, where he lives with his wife and their two children.

The novel, for which Baerfuss received the Anna Seghers Prize, an international prize awarded in Berlin, and the Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize, manages to demonstrate the conditions that made the genocide possible, precisely because it focuses on a personal story, and combines the outsider's perspective of an aid organization worker with the various points of view of local residents - including, for example, David's housekeeper, who is a Tutsi, and his gardener, who is a Hutu.

At the same time, the book sheds light on the legacy left behind by European colonialism in Africa, and raises questions as to whether humanitarian assistance to the continent is only a continuation of repression, patronization and humiliation by other means. "Maybe you colonized our country," Agathe complains to David during one of their conversations, "but I won't let you colonize my body."

In the book, Agathe is transformed from a woman lacking political awareness, who is indifferent to what is happening in her country and even displays alienation from it, to a very involved woman who becomes a supporter of the waves of incitement against the Tutsis. What is the explanation for the process she undergoes?

"The question I tried to deal with, among other things through the figure of Agathe, is: How is it possible that a reasonable person can turn into someone who sees mass murder as a solution for a political problem? The propaganda in Rwanda was total. It came together with the history of violence not only of this country, but of the whole region.

"The Hutu in Rwanda noticed the oppression of the Hutus in the neighboring country of Burundi. A year before the genocide, the first Hutu president of Burundi, Melchior Ndadaye, was overthrown and later killed by the Tutsi militia. Massacres followed and hundreds of thousands of Hutu fled to Rwanda. Many Rwandan Hutus were anxious that the same was going to happen after a Tutsi invasion. The excuse for them to begin with a wave of killings in their country was self-defense - kill or you will be killed. It's ironic how the extremists on both sides provided arguments to each other."

The public discussion that ensued in his country in the wake of the publication of Baerfuss' novel focused on the question of the involvement of Swiss aid organizations in Rwanda throughout the years, involvement that prepared the ground for the violent outbreak - with the order, discipline and efficiency that characterized it. But Baerfuss explains: "It wasn't my main intention to criticize Swiss development aid. I wanted to dig deeper. What drove me was a more human question. The aid workers had great ideals, such solidarity, charity and justice. They were not cynics. But they accepted that the prerequisite for their good work was bad politics.

"The aid workers depended on the security that was provided by a totalitarian regime. You just can't dig a well when you are in danger of getting killed, which was highly likely in Burundi or in Zaire, but not in Rwanda. So almost none of the development agencies went to Burundi or Zaire - where their work was needed the most - but they all wanted to work in Rwanda, where their work would be successful.

"But how can you manage this contradiction between your ideals and the reality? What are you going to change: The things you have in mind, or the things you have before your eyes? My entire work as a writer - not just the novel - is about this question."

The book criticizes the "organized" Swiss mentality, which under specific conditions can support horrible crimes. Do you think this mentality has changed during the last few years, or could be changed?

"I really don't know. Things have changed a lot, as far as I know, but I am not in the position to judge whether these changes are good or not. But there is one thing that hasn't changed, for sure: The idea that being well-organized is a cultural value, or that the progress of any society can be judged by its tidiness.

"But that isn't the case. Every genocide - the Shoah, as well the genocides of Armenians and in Rwanda - depends on a very well-organized bureaucracy. To kill such large numbers of people in such a short time is an immense logistical problem. You need weapons to kill, you need to feed and transport the killers, you need equipment to burn or bury the bodies, you need propaganda that stifles questions in your own country and abroad. Only a very efficient bureaucracy can manage all this.

"To build a society doesn't mean just to build the houses, the roads. The political and cultural processes need to accompany the development of infrastructure. But that means that every form of development aid is political, which is something that has been denied for a very long time."

A gloomy message

"There's a proverb that says the Imana, the creator of the world, spends the day elsewhere but comes back to spend the night in Rwanda. Here that day has lasted for 100 days already, and we wonder when God will return home and whether evening will ever descend. God has forgotten us and until he returns we must do the work. It's hard, but you get used to it. You only have to be careful and not look them in the eye when you harm them. These are black eyes, monsieur, and their gaze is our punishment" ("One Hundred Days" ).

Do you think international interest in expressions of mass political violence, like the Holocaust and incidents of genocide, has increased?

"I wish I could be more optimistic about the lessons we learn from history. But the killings in Darfur, and the fact that Eastern Congo is still a slaughterhouse, just don't support such a view.

"Of course we have to go on and tell the shameful and disgraceful history of mankind, although we can't be sure if it changes anything. I think it's very possible that this history would be even more shameful and disgraceful if we forgot the shame and disgrace."

In your eyes, should literature suggest political insights? As a playwright and an author, is it important for you to deal with political issues?

"I have been asked this question so many times, but I am still not sure what to answer. Maybe it's because I can't draw a sharp line between the so-called private and the political. In every moment we live in both worlds. And I don't like how this question implies that it's possible for anyone to be let off the hook: If a playwright should deal with political issues - and I think he should - the same goes for a nurse or an engineer. We all live in the same world, don't we?"

Lukas BaerfussCredit: Vogler



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