Rwandan Genocide: Novel inspired by mystery surrounding a lost pen pal

In her parents' Paris kitchen at age 16, Sophie Buchaillard

In order to "exorcise the grief of not knowing what happened," a woman who had a childhood pen pal who abruptly stopped writing after fleeing the Rwandan genocide, wrote a novel.

The 16-year-old pen pal of Sophie Buchaillard, Victoria, fled the estimated 800,000-person massacre in 1994 while living apart from her parents.

In Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Victoria was residing in a camp for refugees.

Victoria wrote that she was moving and would get back in touch as soon as she could one day after they had been exchanging frequent emails.

Sophie reported, "I never heard back.".

Sophie, who was 16 and living in Paris at the time, contacted a Rwandan organization that helps reunite families after writing to Victoria's camp teachers, but her efforts were unsuccessful. .

She initially worried that she had hurt her friend, but as the months and years passed, she began to understand the precariousness of the circumstance her friend had found herself in.

Growing up, it occurred to me that something terrible might have occurred; she might have passed away, been murdered, or any number of other things could have happened to her, said Sophie, who is now a resident of Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan. .

"I didn't fully grasp the scope of what life in the camp must have been like until I started doing research in retrospect. ".

An illustration of Victoria’s letters, written in turquoise ink on tracing paper
Victoria's letters are illustrated.

The unlikely friendship was created when Sophie's school put her in touch with Victoria. In the 1990s, it was more common for kids to have pen pals from far-off places.

It was an opportunity for Victoria to communicate in French since she wanted to be a translator.

"When we first started writing, I would have been comfortable at my parents' apartment in Paris, while she would have been in the Goma refugee camp. Our personal journeys couldn't have been more dissimilar, said Sophie.

She recalled Victoria saying she was from the Kigali area, that her father was employed there in the local government, and that prior to the genocide they had resided in a home with a garden.

Despite Victoria's terrible circumstances, Sophie claimed that her letters had a "strange normality" and they discussed "normal 16-year-old things.".

Sophie Buchaillard
Sophie constantly holds out hope that she will learn what happened to Victoria.

The refugee camp experience was treated as a blip, a parenthesis from her normal life, according to Sophie. "She was more focused on what life had been like before and the life she would return to.".

She remarked that her friend always struck her as being very composed.

"I realized later in life that what I initially took for calmness was probably trauma. She would have found it challenging to process all of that at the time. " .

After the letters ceased, Sophie admitted that she was worried about her friend but that she never completely lost hope that she was alright.

"I always hoped that she would just return to her regular life. and that it would be preferable to stop writing," she said.

Photographs of victims on display at the Kigali Memorial for Victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide
At the Kigali Memorial for Victims, photographs of genocide victims from 1994 Rwanda are on display.

Sophie enrolled in college a few years after receiving Victoria's final letter. After living in Spain and the US, she later came to the UK as a student in 2001, got married, and then moved to south Wales.

Victoria was someone she would frequently write about in poems and short stories because she would never forget her.

She said, "I suppose writing makes it possible to access the subconscious and has very powerful cathartic abilities.".

Skulls of victims of the Rwanda genocide at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial in Kigali
The Ntarama Genocide Memorial in Kigali houses the skulls of Rwandan genocide victims.

In her forties, Sophie made the decision to leave her position at Cardiff University in order to pursue a master's degree in creative writing in the hopes of becoming a writer.

As soon as she started writing, Victoria reappeared on the page.

As a result, she spent seven months researching Rwanda before penning her master's thesis, which served as the basis for her book "This is Not Who We Are.".

Sophie Buchaillard aged 16 at Disneyland Paris
At Disneyland Paris, 16-year-old Sophie Buchaillard.

Iris from Paris and Victoria from Rwanda are the two women whose lives are followed in the book.

Twenty years after their unlikely pen pal relationship abruptly ends, Iris, a journalist working in London, sets out to track down her pen pal.

In order to understand what happens when your home country makes it abundantly clear that you are not welcome, Sophie said that she tried to explain what it was like for her to be a migrant in the UK at the time of Brexit.

It was also about attempting to resolve the bothersome questions she had about Victoria.

For her, the exercise included a means of possibly learning what had happened to Victoria.

"It served as a means of releasing the pain of not knowing what happened. ".

Sophie sent 10 copies of her book as soon as it was released to the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda in the hopes that someone would read it and recognize the story.

"I have an optimistic nature, and I always hope that the book's writing will somehow reach someone who is aware of what happened to her.

. "

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