By Antony Altbeker for the Sunday Times
Antony Altbeker talks to Jacques Pauw, a finalist in the Alan Paton Awards, about a story that captures Africa’s conundrum
Jacques Pauw is head of investigation at Media24. The author of four previous books, he was the founding editor of Vrye Weekblad and produced the first documented evidence of apartheid-era death squads. Rat Roads: One man’s Incredible Journey is shortlisted for the Alan Paton Prize. The book chronicles the journey of Kennedy Gihana, a young Tutsi man who left Rwanda after the genocide in that country and walked across the continent to South Africa.
How did you find Kennedy and get to tell his story?
I had shot a documentary about the mountain gorillas whose habitat straddles Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, and I needed a KiRwanda translator. When I asked the embassy for help, they put me in touch with Kennedy who was working as a security guard at the time .
Ten years later, Kennedy, who’d kept my number, called to tell me that he had just graduated with a Masters in law. I didn’t remember him, but he told me this extraordinary story of having walked from Rwanda to South Africa to start his life again.
I asked him immediately whether he wanted to write a book. At the time, of course, he didn’t tell me that he had been a soldier during the war or that he had been involved in atrocities.
All he told me was that he had grown up in Uganda and walked to South Africa after the genocide. I had been in Rwanda during the genocide, and I always wanted to find a way to tell that story of what had happened.
What captured your imagination?
I’ve always thought that Africa gives us the very worst of mankind and the very best; that it gives us the best and worst of human experience. Kennedy’s story is the story of Africa.
The book describes horrific incidents that Kennedy was involved in. How did you get him to tell that part?
Kennedy is a lawyer, so when we started out we had a contract that said I was not writing an authorised biography, and that he could not tell me what to include and what to exclude. We agreed that he would see the manuscript, but that all he could do was correct factual errors.
We also agreed I would tape interviews, and anything he told me while the little red light was flashing would be considered on the record. If he wanted to tell me something off the record, he could ask me to stop the tape and we’d discuss it. But over the course of 65 hours of interviews, and many more hours of meetings and travelling together, the darker stuff started coming out.
But why did he tell you these things about himself?
When you start a biography of this kind, one of the things that happens is people tell you things they don’t necessarily want to see published. But being a journalist is all about getting people to tell you things. So in the end, he did tell me a whole lot of things that he probably didn’t expect to tell me when we started.
Does that create an ethical problem, the fact that you’re telling a story that your subject doesn’t want told?
It did create enormous difficulties during the writing. I didn’t realise how damaged he was, how close he was to the very edge of human experience. So it was difficult to know what to do with Kennedy’s confessions.
There were times when I thought about abandoning the project. But I also knew that the confessions were adding a whole new dimension to the story.
So I’d refrain from talking about them with Kennedy outside of the recorded interviews because I was concerned that he would become too conscious of what he was telling me. And even during the interviews, I sometimes wouldn’t push him beyond a point where I thought it might get too hard for him.
Give me an example.
He told me he had been involved in executing people who’d been arrested, and he said that the worst part for him was how the people were killed. I asked him how they were killed, and all he said was: “We didn’t shoot them.” I left it there.
Despite the atrocities, I didn’t come away from the book feeling he was a bad man … he was involved in a fight for his life and for the life of his people.
Often, Kennedy would ask me how I would write his story and what I thought readers would think about him. I told him I wouldn’t leave out the bad stuff, but promised I would put it in context. And I think the context makes all the difference.
We’re talking about a man fighting in a war that had no rules, where there was no real distinction between soldiers and civilians, where killing civilians was the objective. As Kennedy kept saying to me, at the time he had no idea about human rights law and the laws of war.
He’d never heard of them. So it’s very important to try to understand the events in context and to understand what this man went through.
When I read your other books, which are also about men who did awful things, people like Ferdi Barnard, Dirk Coetzee and Eugene de Kock, I didn’t end up feeling sympathy for them.
I think the difference is about choice. Ferdi had a choice. All those men made choices. Kennedy was never in a position to make a choice. That is the big difference between them. The men in the apartheid death squads were indoctrinated, for sure.
But they had gone to proper schools and lived in a very different world to Kennedy’s. So I think you have to judge them by different standards.
Maybe you can get a better measure of Kennedy by looking at the choices he made after the war?
That’s right. Kennedy left Rwanda when he might have stayed, when it was very inconvenient for him to leave – he had a job and some money and was reasonably comfortable. But he left with nothing and started walking.
What are the lessons of Kennedy’s story?
There’s one lesson: if Kennedy could do it, anyone can. We live in a country with vast desperation. Kennedy’s circumstances were terrible, yet he walked 5000km to get an education.
This is not to blame people. I understand that they face enormous obstacles. But there is real hope in Kennedy’s story, and the story of many people like him.
- Rat Roads is published by Zebra Press