Sunday, March 6, 2011

Conversational Russian in Central Africa with an Accused Genocidaire

The recent focus on racism in Russia has provoked a high level of debate, but not all the arguments make sense. I had BBC World on background for an entire day last week as I was writing my second book. I watch about an hour's television and get my news through the Internet, but it is refreshing to hear the dulcet tones of the Beeb entering the living room from time to time.

I probably heard the report passively five or six times throughout the afternoon, as it was repeated in each bulletin. The only thing that stays with me is the compelling statistic that seemed to prove that racism in Russian sport was rife by the fact that of the 418 players currently playing in Russia's top league, 'only 30 were black.'

While I found the logic of the argument lacking, I thought the number was exceptionally high for a country with no indigenous black community. Russia is a player in European football terms, no doubt, but I can't see the appeal of a Russian winter to African footballers and besides, one in twelve struck me as high. I would wager that there are a lot less pro rata Russians plying their trade in any of the major leagues. However, it was the thought of the African speaking Russian which took me back in time, to a surreal time of vodka and prisons in post-genocide Rwanda.

Not for the first time in my life, I was out of my depth, both linguistically and actually. I had been so successful overselling my French language prowess ('D' at A-level) that I was appointed Project Manager of an agricultural mission. Language of communication? French. First task? Hire staff as food distribution monitors.

I took local advice and simply put a notice on the gate of our compound that we were hiring, inviting interested parties to appear two days later with completed resumes. The position was not challenging and I hoped to find the ten I needed without wasting more than an hour of the day.

"How many are there?" I asked my local Burundian fixer, Felix, in French.

"More than 450, Sir."

It was a depressing morning. There I was, a foreigner with five minutes' experience in Africa, bad French and very little local knowledge, with the economic power to transform households on a whim. The line was indeed 450 and more, young and desperate people with little to offer in terms of experience, but plenty in desperation.

The average resume was hand-written, single page and contained brief details on name, address, education and hobbies (supporting Manchester United featured large). There was no previous work experience. I went through the formalities of basic interviewing and trusted the judgment of Felix to choose the right people.

After more than an hour in which I had exhausted my French interrogation techniques, the next candidate confidently approached with an impressive collection of papers. There was more purpose about him than the others, a worldliness that implied he was different. The papers showed he was. Written in Cyrillic, a degree in agriculture from the University in St. Petersburg.

"Ty govosih po russki?" I asked in astonishment.

"Da, koneshno," he replied, equally surprised. And so we slipped into animated conversation and forgot our surroundings. Nobody was more surprised than Felix, who surmised that his strange new boss had some language aptitude after all.

A friendship was born and vodka inevitably appeared. Albert drank like a Russian (not an endearing quality), but it was nice to reminisce about the old days. I certainly didn't know everything about him, but when they came to arrest him, the fourth member of my staff in five days, I knew for sure that an injustice was occurring.

The charge was genocide complicity, which was being cast around the country with dangerous abandon - an emergency law stipulated that if five members of different families made the same accusation, it was sufficient to merit an arrest. Many innocent people with nice properties and possessions never made it out of prison, thanks to greedy neighbours.

I was coming to terms with the arrest of the others, especially after they confessed to awful crimes and sent apologies to their Western bosses, but Albert I could not accept. Accepting that I had been working in close quarters and sharing my table and home with mass murderers and rapists was challenging enough, but the arrest of an innocent was too much, and I decided to try and do whatever I could, my only bargaining chip being my white (more pink) skin.

The guards were not pleased to see me but the pink skin had its desired effect and I was ushered into a room and told to wait. Albert, who I had not seen for 48 hours, was brought in and looked a shadow of his former self. He had clearly been beaten up, possibly worse. Two guards stayed in the room.

"Albert, tell me what happened. Have they hurt you?" I asked in Russian.

"Please Monsieur Paul," he replied in French, "No Russian. I do not want them to think we are planning anything."

He told me in front of the guards in French that he was being treated well (I knew he was lying), that he was wrongly arrested as people in his village wanted the family house. I promised to help him and went to see the UN the next day. I was due to leave Kigali for ever two days later, but I managed to arrange for the newly-formed UN Human Rights team to investigate.

They planned to travel to his village on the day I was flying out. On the way to the airport the ever-faithful Felix passed me a tatty letter, addressed to Monsieur Paul. I opened it to find a missive in Russian, which had been smuggled out of prison with the real story. It wasn't pretty and ended with a desperate plea for help and money. I gave Felix what I had and asked him to follow up with the UN. This was 1995 and email and Facebook were not established in the developed world, never mind Rwanda.

I never heard anything further, until, six years later and still in possession of Albert's letter, I returned to Rwanda and went to find him. You can read about my journey here (posting the URL until I can figure out how to link -

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