Having read Clemantine Wamariya harrowing, human and ultimately hopeful account of her childhood as a refugee fleeing the civil war in Rwanda I’m genuinely unsure how to write a review. Partly because the central theme of this story is Warmariya attempt to find her voice, to take the pain and suffering of her young life and discover who she is.
At only six years of age Clemantine first heard her parents speaking in whispers, then she started hearing noises like thunder on sunny days and then people started disappearing. It was 1994, and in 100 days more than 800,000 people would be murdered in Rwanda and millions more displaced. Clemantine and her older sister Claire escape their home and spend six years running from war and danger. Their journey takes them across Africa until they are accepted as refugees in the United States.
In the United States Clemantine finds many people who want to help her but her past means she struggles to find a place in this new world.
The narrative alternates between her life as a refugee and her new life in America.
The atmosphere of this book is claustrophobic, there is always a threat which Clemantine and her sister Claire must escape, be that the unnamed “them” who cause them to leave their home or Wamariya struggles to work out who she is, and to accept the privileged position she has found herself in.
My concern when I started this book was that it would be unrelentingly harrowing and yes there were moments which simply left you despairing at the cruelty that humans can inflict upon one another. Also difficult is the way that the most vulnerable refugees, like Clemantine and Claire, are left to fend for themselves and are continually at risk. But there is hope and there are splashes of human perseverance which do inspire.
Personally I found the relationship between Claire and Clemantine difficult at times; there is little of the familial affection which you might expect between the two. If this were a fictional account you might be tempted to criticise this dynamic, but given all the pair go through it’s not surprising that Claire simply cannot give her younger sister the attention and affection she craves.
Clemantine continually feels like an outcast or that she does not fit. But this is more than those moments that we all go through – this is as a result of the displacement she experienced during her formative years.
The message that I took from this though was that this is a story like the stories of many millions who have survived genocides. Much as we might wish to group these tales together, to try to find some reasoning behind it Wamariya shows us that there is no reason but only a gaping nothingness which consumes not only a person’s past but also their future.
There is beauty in this book and in its storytelling. I’ve seen it called disarming and I would say that this is the perfect description for this unique book.