Maison Rouge: Memories of A Childhood in War
In her “memories of a childhood in war,” author Liliane Leila Juma takes readers back to her joyous life in Uvira, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), before a perfect storm of war, wanton violence and famine hit her town. “I was living happily” (16), she remembers. Hers was a plush neighborhood of Uvira, a town located on the Congolese side of the Rift Valley of the Great Lakes Region, in the South Kivu Province, near the border with Burundi. In “Maison Rouge,” as her luxurious mansion was fondly nicknamed, Leolina enjoyed a life of affluence maintained by “housekeepers, cooks, tutors, nannies and seamstresses” (17). Although her family was Muslim, she attended a diverse Catholic school that catered to the children of opulent expatriate and upper-class Congolese families. In the early 1990s, ethnic strife simmered in the Great Lakes Region and flared up at times, when, for instance, in October 1993, war broke out in Burundi and sent thousands of refugees across the border and into Uvira. Then, in April 1994, all hell broke loose when the aftermaths of the genocide in Rwanda spilled over Congo’s eastern border and created a humanitarian crisis of such staggering magnitude that the UN had to intervene. Tens of thousands of Hutu families crossed the border to seek refuge in Congo. The volatile situation led to the First Congo War (1996-1997) that ravaged Eastern Congo as Laurent-Désiré Kabila and his motley crew of rebels and ragtag child soldiers (known as kadogos) fought to oust President Mobutu, Congo’s strongman, from power. It was during that war that Leolina and her family became refugees themselves. After her father was abducted by militiamen, never to be seen again, and Maison Rouge bombed, Leolina and her family fled Uvira and made their way to Zambia, then Tanzania. They ended up at a UNHCR Protection Center in Tanzania after a harrowing odyssey across Lake Tanganyika. The entire family, bereft of her father, whom she describes as having “a heart of gold,” a “good man” who “lived only for other people” (65) and one sister who was shot by rebels, resettled in Québec, Canada.
Juma’s heart-wrenching story of betrayal, war, and displacement is tantalizing and will no doubt captivate her target audience. Unraveling for her readers the often-convoluted ethnic unrest and vortex of war that have wreaked havoc in the Great Lakes Region, she succeeds in conveying the ways in which war tears apart the social fabric of vulnerable communities, displaces civilians, and indiscriminately destroys ordinary people’s lives. Yet, at times, she misses the opportunity to compellingly challenge and dispel the myth of senseless Africa’s unending ethnic conflicts that often percolates in the 24-hour news cycle in the US media. The war in Congo, which some scholars have dubbed Africa’s First International War, pitted powerful international forces and private interests against one another. We get a glimpse of this maelstrom in the book when Leolina and her group of refugees is joined by a weary Frenchman who was also trying to escape Uvira. “Ah, France,” bemoans the man, “it’s all your fault” (83). Rather than seize that opportunity to explain the international stakes of the war in Congo, the author glosses over the lament and leaves the reader wondering why France should be blamed for a conflict unfolding in the heart of Africa.
Reviewed by Didier Gondola, Ph.D., Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis
Published in Africa Access Review (September 28, 2020)
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