What I don't know now
I've had more than a week to think about Charlie Hebdo, and I need more time.
A friend from Rwanda shared a cartoon from the magazine, originally published in April 2014, and which coincided with the 20th anniversary of the African country's genocide. It read: "Tutsi Crush: Le Genocide Rwandais enfin adapte en jeu sur smartphone." (Directly translated, "The Rwandan genocide finally adapted as a game on smartphone.") The candies were skulls.
The friend wrote: "Those skulls are not just skulls, they were people, they were our grandparents, our uncles, our brothers and sisters."
I remember, age 16, having a conversation with this friend in our dormitory. She had her bed lofted, and I was sitting on a beanbag beneath it. It was sometime in the winter and she sat with her back against the heater by the window. I had asked her how she could believe, logically and scientifically, in the existence of Jesus. She had told me she was Christian, not Catholic, because when she was four part of her family had hidden in a Catholic church, thinking it would be a safe haven. Instead they were massacred the next day.
As I write this, nearly a decade later, I cannot recall if she said it the other way around — perhaps she is Catholic, not Christian. I did not then understand the gravity of the conversation. I knew of the Rwandan genocide, in much the same way I knew about the Holocaust and the Nanking Massacre. I had read slave narratives and Conrad's Heart Of Darkness. I was in a student club that raised funds for Darfur, but I only knew the situation there was partly because South Sudan had oil, and not much more.
But even in direct conversation with a survivor of genocide, atrocities remained faraway occurrences, happenings of different realms — taking place in other times, in books, in films. I was not equipped with the resources; I neither knew the questions to ask nor how to ask them. I read Philip Gourevitch's We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories On Rwanda last year. In the opening chapter he writes: "I had never been among the dead before. What to do? Look? Yes. I wanted to see them, I supposed; I had come to see them — the dead had been left unburied at Nyarubuye for memorial purposes — and they were, so intimately exposed. I didn't need to see them. I already knew, and believed, what had happened in Rwanda. Yet looking at the buildings and the bodies and hearing the silence of the place, with the grand Italianate basilica standing there deserted, and beds of exquisite, decadent, death-fertilized flowers blooming over the corpses, it was still strangely unimaginable. I mean one still had to imagine it."
I lifted this paragraph because I have not yet made peace with the notion that one could only imagine, beyond seeing, the pain and suffering of others. Seeing Charlie Hebdo's cartoon had the opposite effect: I was disturbed, but not in the way Gourevitch's words and humanity had moved me.
I do not know the specifics of the cartoon. In my generous assessment, I assume it was criticising France for not owning up to its complicity in the genocide, and for being a country where genocidaires walk free. It did make me reflect, but I do not know how to find humour in it. I now possess deeper insight into the specific historical and social elements that had led up to the Rwandan genocide, but I still cannot comprehend, much less simplify, it.
Even to begin to understand the conflict in Rwanda necessitates time travel, back to the years before the country was colonised by Germany (and later Belgium). Where, then, should I begin in attempting to assign reason to the Charlie Hebdo attack — what led to it, its myriad implications. The birth of Mohammad? The widespread anti-Islam sentiment in Europe, which may be a problem more economic than cultural? The anti-immigration protests in Germany? The liberal ideals of France? How France stands to represent Europe and its ideals? Freedom of speech and democracy?
I'll take compassion over hateful free speech any day.
With people across the globe chomping at the bit for a chance to comment — both well-informed and ignorant — in an age when immediate responses are expected and premature opinions are dutifully formed, to say that the catastrophe isn't black and white doesn't come close to an accurate description.
I just cannot imagine.
Pimrapee Thungkasemvathana is a writer for the Bangkok Post's Life section.