Excerpt from COVERT DENIAL

In her heightened state of alertness, Kendra’s senses wakened. Sounds, smells and images sharpened. As if captured within a zoom lens, they loomed larger than life: the staccato bursts of grenades slicing the air as they exploded on the roadway behind them; the heady renewal of spring battling with the putrid taste of butchered bodies; the waxy coat of acacia leaves glistening with shiny dampness as, over her head, they fluttered on fernlike fronds that canopied the speeding jeep. Why was this land reaching out to claim her? It was as alien to her as Mars.

The unexpected answer struck her. This was no longer a journalist’s search for truth as it had been in Angola. This was about her survival. Everything embraced her with a new reason for being. She belonged to the victims, to the peacekeepers and to the two men in the jeep with her. They were as one. To survive they had to depend on each other.

Rhys’ deep voice broke through her thoughts.

“Kendra, you can sit up now. We’re near the French school.”

She pushed herself up into a sitting position in the back seat and leaned her right elbow on her back pack to brace herself.

Loud chanting reached down the road towards them.

Ben rested his camera on his knee. “What are they singing?”

Let’s Do the Work.”

“When did you learn to speak Rwandan?” She leaned her shoulder into Rhys’ seat with curiosity so she could hear him more easily.

“I’ve heard this chant many times over the past few days. It’s the Hutus’ signal for imminent slaughter.”

Such a flagrant call-to-arms stunned Kendra. She hunched back in silent horror. Her stomach churned. Maybe she wasn’t prepared for what was coming. Everyone likes to think we are brave, but are we really? Am I? She moistened her bottom lip with her tongue. In the next few hours, they could all be dead.

Rhys turned the jeep off the dirt road into a driveway blocked by hysterical Hutus clashing their machetes and thick sticks against a steel rod gate with the insignia OTƎ encircled at the top.  He stopped and pounded his horn. The ranting hordes turned to them and waved whatever they held in threat.

Rhys rose up from his seat as best he could behind the steering wheel so they could see his blue UN beret and fired his pistol. The crowd hushed into sullen silence. A commando from the French Foreign Legion released the gate. The Hutu throng separated, but their voices recharged in rhythmic chaos. Rhys drove through into a clearing covered in red clay dirt where canvas-topped French Lorries awaited, their engines running. Kendra noticed small groups of foreign nationals and ex-patriots huddled among the thousands of Rwandans trampling the school courtyard.

“There are not enough trucks for all these people!” Ben complained as they jumped from the jeep. He had already started shooting footage of the frantic scene.

UN Belgian troops lay on the roof with guns trained on the yammering hordes outside the perimeter wire fence. Kendra’s ears rang with the cacophony of desperate pleading as the Rwandans also realized more trucks were not arriving to evacuate them.

Fingers gripped Kendra’s sleeve forcing her to turn and look into the face of a beautiful young Rwandan woman. The impact of that moment shut down all peripheral noise and sights. The woman’s angelic eyes clutched Kendra’s soul. She could not tear herself away from their wide-eyed innocence. It was a reflection of purity that reminded her of a movie her mother had taken her to see when she was a young girl. Quo Vadis.

Kendra had asked her mother why do people love Jesus, and her mother thought this story on film could explain it more realistically. The Romans fed the Christians to hungry lions, and yet they sang praise to God and were serene in the face of their terrible fate. They believed they were joining Jesus in heaven. Their lack of fear, their serenity awed Kendra, and she never forgot those images. Perhaps such peace only came from God, but over the years since, it was something she never experienced herself. Only more reasons to doubt God’s existence … until the woman facing her now.

In her earnestness was also amazing grace. Maybe a fatalistic acceptance, but Kendra sensed it was more than that. Her peaceful countenance drew Kendra in, as if God were reaching out to her from the heartland of evil through this woman. In that split second, Kendra knew they were part of the same universe. Even if this world were only an insignificant tick in time, they had linked together as eternal sisters-in-spirit and for the first time, she understood something her mother believed in as the source of all good: love.

In contrast, the injustice of the world’s abandonment of Rwanda sickened Kendra. She wanted to scream and pound her fists against someone or something, and yet these feelings swirled and scattered beyond her reach, out-of-body, like whiffs of fog descending into a deep tunnel she could see in a parallel world but not touch.

“Please take my baby,” the woman’s soft voice pleaded. “Save her.”

Kendra stared at her mouth, mesmerized by the words it formed.

“Look at my baby.”

Prickles crawled up the back of Kendra’s neck.

The Rwandan woman moved so close to Kendra that she breached her personal space. In a flash, her image disintegrated into celluloid frames. Kendra struggled to focus on the planes of the woman’s elegant face, tawny skin and rounded eyes of melting chocolate fringed with thick curly jet-black lashes. If she could pull her dissolving features back together, Kendra believed she could hang on to consciousness. She forced herself to concentrate.

A tiny whimper from the baby drew Kendra’s attention to the infant cradled in the woman’s arms. Again she felt sucked through a zoom lens to its precious face. Up close, the sweet musk of baby powder tickled her nose, and her eyes burned.

 “Please save her.”

Kendra struggled to sort through her maze of impressions. “You speak English.”

“I learn English to get job as housekeeper for coffee plantation owner.”

“Did the owner bring you here?”

“Yes. She expect we go with her, but soldiers with red tams separate us.”

Kendra’s heart sank.

Behind the woman, rag-tag Interahamwe jeered as a French commando moved to the center of the courtyard and began to call out evacuees’ names. One Hutu wagged his stick through the wire fence at the woman. Wild and salivating over his prey, he heckled her in English.

“Hey, yo’ hi-and-mighty missy. You are mine, Inyenzi. I will suck yo’ milk, cut off yo’ breasts and stuff the little white cockroach up yo’ ass.”

Through her strange prism of magnified images, Kendra locked on his crazed bloodshot eyes . . . black skin, oiled with sweat and lust . . . and recoiled from his intense hatred.

“Does this terrible man know you?”

“Yes, he is a worker on our plantation.”

“Why does he call your baby white?”

“Two French soldiers rape me.”

“French?” It was the last answer Kendra expected.  

“Last year French soldiers come to our plantation and talk to workers. They seem nice to everybody. Every day they take young boys to work for them and bring them back at night. My lady is Dutch and she invites two leaders of French soldiers for dinner.”

Kendra looked more closely into the baby’s face and noticed her creamy skin and melting chocolate eyes, just like her mother’s. The infant tried to peer back at her with unseeing eyes. Her newborn scent awakened a rush of desire within Kendra to protect her.

“On the night they leave, they ask me if I am Tutsi. Dutch lady tell them I am educated Tutsi and she is very proud of me. They give me chocolates and ask her if they can take me for walk to see gardens. When she goes inside, they drag me behind bushes, cover my lips and undress me. They take turns . . . and pictures.”

 Kendra sucked in her breath and resisted the urge to rest her hand in comfort on the woman’s shoulder.

The Rwandan bowed her head and spoke with stoic acceptance, “I tell no one. I am ashamed.”

“Did you stay at the plantation?”

The woman nodded. “When I get bigger, my family not let me come home. Dutch lady keep me. She tell UN patrol about French soldiers but they are gone. Then killings start and she say we have to leave. I give birth on convoy here.”

Kendra scanned the grounds hoping to see Rhys. Maybe the UN was sending more trucks. But Ben had disappeared as well.

The French commando raised his voice above the growing din as he called out more evacuees’ names. Cries of Please and Kill me echoed across the courtyard.

“Mercy . . . Don’t leave us . . . I pay you to kill me and my family . . . Please . . .”

Where was Rhys? What could she do? What could they do?

The woman lightly tugged Kendra’s sleeve again.  “The Interahamwe will kill us. No one wants me, or my baby. Please don’t let her die. Give her a chance. PLEASE.”

Even as the woman spoke, Kendra was not aware of her pleading, only of her love for her child. Her face glowed. How Kendra wanted to believe she and her baby could be saved! God still had time to intervene.

Frantic pleas to the French commandos plagued her ears. Such a dilemma had never confronted Kendra before. She sank back on the heels of her boots, finally facing the truth. There would be no rescue for these Rwandans. They were doomed. The dam of Kendra’s emotions cracked. She clutched her satchel closer to her stomach. A deeper direction called from her innermost heart. To save one is to save many. You can make a difference.

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