When I was a child in Bikenke, a village in northeast Congo, my grandmother told terrifying stories in an attempt to teach me about the world. Fierce animals and venomous snakes are waiting in the forest nearby, she told me, so be careful where you walk alone. Don't get close to the fire or a snapping turtle will come out of the flames and bite you. From far away, a chimpanzee looks like a person. Keep your distance from anyone you don't recognize.
Her stories sent me whimpering to bed. But nothing could have prepared me for how scared I was the morning my father showed up at the door to our house, bleeding from the head.
I was a child; I didn't understand what was happening. The mat I sat on, like always, smelled of sharp eucalyptus because it was woven from eucalyptus leaves. Fruit weighed down the branches of the mango tree that grew by our front door; because a year had passed since we last ate them, they were ripe again and would taste sweet. My baby sister, Patience, full of milk, was quiet in my mother's arms. Outside, the rain had turned our roads into pits of mud that came up to our knees if we tried to run on them. Would we have to run now?
My mother turned away from me. She couldn't stop my father from bleeding. "I'll get some herbs," she said. "Wait here." Watching her leave, I felt fear creep into my chest. Would she also be bleeding when she returned? Would she be gone forever? Soon she came back through our door carrying some small green plants that were sprouting yellow flowers.
Despite feeling as though, at three years old, I had explored all of Congo with my little fingers, I had never seen those plants before. I watched while she pounded the plants into a yellow paste and spread it over my father's face. It mixed with his blood to become a disgusting dark orange. I looked away.
"Last night I was drinking with Mbashagure," my father said. "He warned me that Bagogwe were going to be attacked."
Mbashagure was my father's closest Hutu friend and one of our many Hutu neighbors. His ethnicity, like mine as a Bagogwe, a community of Tutsis who lived in both eastern Congo and western Rwanda, was meaningless to me. I was a child and the fighting in Congo-at the time called Zaire-and across the border in Rwanda wasn't a part of my life, although the adults followed it as closely as was possible in our rural village. They tuned an old radio to Voice of America, where journalists reported attacks on Tutsis-a slaughter near the border, a village burned in the center of the country-in mechanical, unemotional tones. Helicopters sometimes flew overhead. Every weekend Bagogwe adults gathered around a large fire to trade stories and warnings. "This village was attacked," they would say. "That family was killed," another reported, sounding like a more exhausted version of the Voice of America reporters. Because we were Tutsi, we had to keep keenly aware of what was happening so close by. We didn't have a plan, though. Leaving Bikenke was inconceivable. There was nowhere for us to go.
A loud thump at the door made Patience begin to whimper. My father reached for his spear. "I heard you were attacked." Mbashagure stood in the doorway looking stricken, wincing at the sight of my strong father, a leader in the village, sitting weakened on the floor with his face covered in the sickly orange paste. "I am so sorry."
Mbashagure was a good man. His family was like a part of our family, and he told us what was coming. Hutus in northeast Congo-some of whom had escaped or been expelled from Rwanda because of their role in the genocide-had been collecting weapons, intending to attack Tutsis. They considered us strangers in our own home. For generations, we had been told that Belgian colonists, eager to exploit the land for their own wealth and establish a hierarchy that they could control, brought Tutsis to Congo from Ethiopia or Rwanda to manage the land they had stolen. As we farmed the land and took care of the cattle, we tried to ignore the accusation that we didn't belong there. Traditionally Bagogwe were nomadic, traveling between Congo and Rwanda; before colonialism, those geographical differences hadn't mattered. We were Congolese. This was as much our land as anyone's, we thought.
Even before the genocide began in Rwanda, Tutsis were targets of mass killing within Congo. When the genocide began and spilled across the border, the hatred became impossible to ignore. Neighbor turned against neighbor; friend against friend; family member against family member. That genocide is a familiar story now, and by the time it crossed into Congo perhaps people had already grown weary of it. This wave of violence was new-terrifying, spontaneous, life-changing-but our cries fell on a world of deaf ears. Our Hutu neighbors told us that it was time for us to leave and return our land to the people they considered the real Congolese. To me-then as a young child, and still today-the idea of leaving our home was absurd. My family was Congolese and had been for as long as anyone could remember. Where would we go?
By the time my father was attacked, it was too late to try to reason with our neighbors. The people who hated us had already collected weapons of all kinds. I recognized most of these weapons. Some were normally used on the farm. They were the everyday tools that were supposed to help feed us. There were also weapons men carried with them in case they encountered a leopard or a lion, meant to protect us. Then there were weapons people kept in case they were attacked by other men, like guns and grenades. I was a child, but I knew what these objects meant. They filled me with dread. If you had them, it meant you were scared of something.
"I gave them weapons, too." Mbashagure hung his head, ashamed. "I didn't have a choice. You need to leave. They are planning to attack your house at six in the evening." It was late afternoon, almost time for my sister Furaha and my brother, Faustin, to come home from the fields where they were taking care of the cows.
"I'm telling you this because you have been my best friend since we were kids," Mbashagure said to my father. I noticed that he carried a machete in his left hand. "I don't want to see you killed in front of my own eyes."
I think that every refugee can identify the moment their life changed forever: a final attack that drives you from your home near Damascus, the impossible stab of hunger that causes you to board a rubber dinghy from Libya to Italy, the realization that your religion may force you across the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh. Before I saw my father appear at our front door, bleeding from the head, I was the son of Congolese cattle ranchers, a child content to grow in the shade of our house until I was big enough to help on the farm. After my father was attacked, I became a homeless, displaced person, at the beginning of a long journey to a refugee camp that most of us would never leave. It was one unexpected moment that changed everything, and I have spent the two and a half decades since thinking about it.
As he ran, my father's face swelled and the veins on his neck bulged. Rain, sweat, and blood covered him almost to his waist. In one arm he carried the small amount of food we had grabbed before racing out of our house, and in the other he carried me. My mother, at our side, had Patience strapped to her back in a brightly colored kitenge sling. With every step my cheek banged against my father's wet shoulder. His blood ran onto my head and dripped down my face and neck. I must have looked like I had also been attacked, although I was healthy, fat even, and without a single bruise on my smooth skin. Soon my father's legs began to buckle, and his arm wilted around my back. "I'm weak," he told my mother, putting me down. My mother caught me and ran with me into the forest. My father collapsed on the road behind us.
Once, after my grandmother had finished telling us a story about a disobedient boy who had been attacked by a ferocious animal, I asked her to tell me what a dead person looked like. She didn't think that children should be sheltered from the world, and so she did. A dead person was limp and unmoving, she said. It was just a body, empty of blood and spirit, deflated as though ready to blow away but heavy like butchered meat. It was important to understand that a dead body is no longer a person, and to bury it quickly so that what you remember is the soul of the person who once lived inside.
Lying there, bleeding in the muck of the drenched road, my father looked like the dead person my grandmother had described. He was vanishing, his flesh unmoving except to cough out the last little bits of who he was. Why had my mother left him there? As though sensing my rage, she dashed out of the forest and dragged him to safety. Oh, I understood, she wasn't strong enough to carry all three of us at once. I felt my little heart soften toward her again.
Crouching in the forest, we heard laughter and talking in the distance. "Keep quiet," my mother said to my father, who was groaning. "People are coming to kill us. Keep quiet." He didn't stop, deaf with pain. With one hand she covered his mouth, and with the other cradled Patience up to her chest, feeding her to keep her from crying. I was so young, but I knew enough about war to know to keep my mouth shut and hold my breath.
"There's blood." A man stopped on the road only a few feet from where we were hiding, pointing at the red stain where my father had been. He walked with a group, all carrying weapons. Some had grenades strapped to their belts, others carried long guns capped with sharp bayonets. One had a red bandanna tied around his head, and some wore banana tree fronds around their waists. The airy swish of the fronds as they walked terrified me.
"I smell it," one of his companions said.
"Maybe it was an animal," another said. "Let's look around and see if we can find it."
"Let me," said the man in the red bandanna. By the tone of his voice and the way the other men parted to let him through, I could tell that he was the commander. "I will know whether it's man or animal," he said.
The commander knelt on the road and ran his cupped hands through the red puddle, then brought them up to his face. Slowly, like someone taking the first sip of hot tea, he drank. Then he shook the rest of my father's blood back onto the road. "It's salty," he said. "It belongs to a man. He must have been bleeding here just a few minutes ago."
"I see a line of blood going into those bushes," another said, pointing in our direction. They walked toward us and peered through the thick trees to where we sat. Their eyes were impatient, like mine when I was begging my mother for something sweet. I was sure that they saw us and I held my breath to keep it from shaking the leaves and giving us away. My mother hung her head and closed her eyes, praying, maybe. Patience cooed and sucked at her breast. My father swallowed his groans.
Every second of my father's life up to this point had been a miracle. He was born early, a tiny, doomed baby, and his mother died moments after. Without milk to feed him, his family was forced to contemplate sparing him the torture of slow starvation. There were impossible but ultimately merciful decisions that Bagogwe, who didn't have access to formula to feed their babies or hospitals to incubate them, had to make. But my father was lucky. Word of this tiny, motherless baby spread throughout Bikenke until a woman-a righteous, aging, childless woman and inspired storyteller-heard it and volunteered to take him in.
My grandmother loved my father from the moment she saw him, producing her own milk to feed him, and as he grew, she gave him opportunities that other boys didn't have. She and my grandfather owned cows and land, and they sent my father to a boarding school until he was sixteen; afterward he got an apprenticeship on a Belgian estate, where he studied veterinary medicine. Once a week he walked for two full days between Bikenke and the Belgian estate, hiding from large animals and eating fruit from trees along with whatever food he brought from home. Congo then was still under Belgian occupation, and although eventually we would all come to celebrate our independence and understand colonialism as slavery, my father knew that the apprenticeship was the best way for him to learn a trade.
As he got older, he acquired more land and more livestock, which he kept healthy on his own, and built a reputation in the region for his skill with animals. By the time I was born, he had become a chief, a leader often called upon to resolve disputes and help make important decisions within Bikenke. He was a person other villagers looked up to. Now it seemed likely he would be killed by these laughing men, a casualty of incomprehensible hatred.
For a reason I could not fathom, the men turned away from the forest that concealed us. Maybe they couldn't make out our faces. Maybe they were daunted by the mess the rain had made, and the hassle of wrestling through the wet plants and deep mud to reach us. That effort, I thought, might take time away from their joyous, murderous spree. For a moment, we felt saved. Then the commander spoke. "Let's go," he said. "I'm sure we can follow this blood to Bikenke. We have orders. We have to find Sedigi and kill him first." Sedigi was my father's name.
My life has often felt like a series of stories, half remembered and half told to me. One was about my father's ambition, another about my grandmother's bottomless love. There was a time when I had many brothers and sisters and, because my father had been married before, many half brothers and sisters as well. Our home was sometimes so busy it felt like a village market, but we were mostly joyful, and we lived with purpose. We had jobs to do. Those of us who were old enough took turns working on the farm, taking care of the cattle and tending to vegetables and sugarcane. Young children made a job of absorbing my grandmother's wisdom, listening to her fables and stories and preparing mentally for the rigors of the grown-up world. The children in the middle were asked to gather water and firewood. Both jobs could be risky-children did, as my grandmother warned, fall into the river and drown-but, at the same time, as long as you were careful, you could return home with a hero's cargo.