During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, David Belton was working as a producer and director for the BBC’s Newsnight programme, for which he covered the genocide along with a reporter and small crew. He also co-wrote and produced the feature film Shooting Dogs, which was based on real events during the genocide. Twenty years later, he tells his story in When the Hills Ask for Your Blood, revisiting a country trying to recover from those horrific events. He also tells the stories of Jean-Pierre and Odette, a Rwandan couple fearing for their lives and those of their children, and Vjeko Curic, a Bosnian missionary who tried to save as many lives as he could.
The genocide in Rwanda is one of the most horrific periods in recent history, the pain of which Rwandans continue to live with. In a period of around 100 days, approximately 800,000 were murdered. It was largely ignored by the West, and in fact Bill Clinton stated that the USA’s lack of action during the crisis was one of his few regrets. I was only 11 at the time, and I can’t say if I was aware of it while it was happening, but it’s something I’ve been reading about for the last few years, and despite the fact I would have been powerless to help, I still feel shame that the West did not help. This is perhaps why I feel strongly that the story of the genocide must be told, that we must understand what Rwandans, whether Tutsi or Hutu, went through at that time. Such horror must not be allowed to happen again.
When the Hills Ask for Your Blood is one of the more personal books that I have read on the subject. Belton discusses the reasons for the genocide, what caused racial tension to boil over into massacre, going as far back as Belgian colonization, but his focus is mainly on the individuals in his story. Jean-Pierre Sagahutu and his wife Odette are separated during the genocide, with Jean-Pierre concealed in a cesspit for much of the time, while Odette travels the roads with her two daughters, always trying to reach a place of safety but always in doubt of what was going to happen. Vjeko Curic is comparable to the better known Paul Rusesabagina, who saved over a thousand people in the hotel he managed, with Curic protecting his parishioners, bringing food across the border from Burundi, and taking great risks in smuggling out friends and trainee priests.
Having not read the press release closely prior to reading When the Hills Ask for Your Blood, I wasn’t entirely certain who of the various “characters” was going to survive. I knew Jean-Pierre would survive, as Belton got to know him on later visits to Rwanda, but I didn’t know about Odette and Curic, or indeed the others involved in their stories. This added real tension to the book, and there were occasions when I held my breath, fearing the worst. These are but a fraction of the millions of people affected by the genocide, and each one of those has their own story of terror and suffering, but these three, and the others with them, give an individual perspective on what, as a bigger picture, can be hard to comprehend. Focusing on the individual offers a greater understanding of what the people of Rwanda went through than can be provided by a wider history of the period.
Belton’s story of his time in Rwanda is less emotional than those of Jean-Pierre, Odette and Curic, but effective nonetheless. It seemed to me like he and his crew took appalling risks while they were, asking questions which could have resulted in their deaths, and putting themselves in dangerous situations. But then any foreigner in Rwanda at the time would have been at risk just the same, and avoiding risk is no excuse. Curic took risks and saved lives, and perhaps more could have been saved if the West had acted, if the UN hadn’t pulled out most of its forces. Belton’s return to Rwanda is unsatisfactory – he tries to understand the steps being taken to recovery, but worries this will be hampered by denying their past (talking about “Hutu” or “Tutsi” is now banned). He believes that where a person comes from is integral to where they are going. I believe that he is right about that, but on the other hand, a new generation of Rwandans are growing up with knowledge of the genocide and its causes, and know themselves only as Rwandan.
Belton doesn’t seem to find much closure in his return to Rwanda, and his visits to places he saw during the genocide, along with visiting places connected with Jean-Pierre’s story. But perhaps this is representative of the country as a whole – millions of people coming to terms with what happened, with what they did or the fact that they must now live side-by-side with their family’s killers. The sheer number of génocidaires means that there is no hope of them all being taken to court – the country relies on its village court system (gacaca), allowing the perpetrators of the genocide to ask for forgiveness from the families of their victims. This is something which Jean-Pierre finds difficult to deal with in his case, and Belton does an excellent job of presenting the difficulties of this for the victims families.
When the Hills Ask for Your Blood is, on the whole, quite simply written. It is straightforward, with little flowery language, and in its style as well as its content, it is clearly a personal story, a retelling of individuals harrowing experiences. The stories themselves are tense and painful enough without using language to add anything.
Like any book about the Rwandan genocide, When the Hills Ask for Your Blood is not an enjoyable read. But it gives greater understanding of what happened there, and that is what any book about that time should do. It tells of how ordinary people suffered, and the risks they took to save others. There is a part of me that feels I should not compare this book to others – I don’t wish to review the content, given what it tells of. However I do feel that I prefer the presentation and style of Paul Rusesabagina’s An Ordinary Man, but that is not to say that When the Hills Ask for Your Blood is not a worthwhile read. It absolutely is, and it forms an important part of the story of Rwanda and her people, and the understanding of what they have suffered.
When the Hills Ask for Your Blood by David Belton
Published by Doubleday, January 2014
Many thanks to Doubleday for providing a review copy.
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