Interview: Lesley Bilinda, author, and widow from genocide in Rwanda

02 November 2006

Charles was “just” one of up to a million people who died in Rwanda in 1994, in the space of 100 days. That is 10,000 deaths every single day for three months.

For a while I saw my identity as a widow from the Rwandan genocide. But my life is bigger than that now.

On the tenth anniversary of the genocide, I went back in search of the truth about what had really happened to my husband. My new book is about that visit. It’s an update on my first piece of writing, The Colour of Darkness.

I did not talk about my marriage in the first book. My emotions were so raw. I felt such a failure. I have worked through so much of that now. My new book talks about how, on my 2004 visit, I discovered details about Charles’s affair.
I have worked through a lot, as the awfulness of what happened was clouded by the memory of his affair. I did not want to splash this around, but, on the other hand, it is part of life.

I remember exactly where I was when I heard about the genocide . I was on holiday with my sister, sitting in a hotel room in Kenya. I rushed up to Nairobi and desperately tried to phone for information. I remember lying on the bed in utter despair. Nothing could get Charles out. It was unspeakably awful.

I went back three months after the genocide to find out more about what happened to Charles. I went again in October 1995, when there was a state burial after they exhumed mass graves. This was the nearest I had to a funeral.

I have worked very hard at forgiveness. I very much respected what the Revd Julie Nicholson said about her daughter’s death in the July bombings [News, 10 March]. I am 12 years on, and so in a very different place. For me, forgiveness is a choice — not an easy one, but an act of will.

I have had to forgive both the men involved in Charles’s murder and the fact that he himself deceived me. God teaches us to forgive, but it is a long journey.

I find it easier to write than to share my story. My visit was a discovery of some very traumatic things and some very wonderful things. I felt it was very important that people knew what it was like. It was like an outpouring for me. It took six to seven months of writing every morning.

I now work part-time as an administrator to let me pursue my interests, such as writing, supporting Tearfund, and speaking about my experiences. I originally went to Rwanda as a midwife. I took part
in the Truth and Reconciliation television programmes in Northern Ireland chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

I still oversee the Charles Bilinda Memorial Trust. It has been going for 11 years, and we have a regular core of supporters. In turn, we support a number of different individuals in Rwanda. We generally use our own on-the-ground contacts. A lot of our work is done through Christians.

My experience in Rwanda is completely unforgettable; it is part of who I am. For a while, Rwanda was where I felt I belonged, but my roots are now firmly back in the UK. I have very close connections still with friends in Rwanda. Looking back, I was very lonely. If I had had people to talk to about my marriage, I might have coped better. If, through honesty and the admission of my failures, others might survive better, then it was worth it.

I enjoy biographies in which people are honest and real through adversity — Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling, Fergal Keane’s All of These People. I am currently reading Desmond Tutu’s No Future without Forgiveness and Joanne Harris’s Five Quarters of the Orange. I love France, and this book is really evocative.

My parents are both still alive. I have two older sisters and an older brother and several nieces and nephews, and I love them to bits.

As a child I loved animals, so really wanted to be a vet — until I discovered I might have to put an animal down.

Going to Rwanda was my most life-changing decision. Its repercussions have influenced me hugely. But there is my ongoing choice to give my life to God, which is fundamental to all that I am.

I last got angry when someone cut me up on the motorway. But generally I get angry over our selfishness and greed in the West at the expense of the majority world.

I feel happiest on a long walk over the hills in Scotland with my rescue greyhound, Rosie. Also if I’ve had a part to play in someone’s journey towards peace with themselves, others and God.

I love fairtrade Dubble bars.

I was brought up on the coast, but spent all childhood holidays in the hills. I just love both for holidays. My favourite retreat place is a little cottage in a Scottish glen, surrounded by sheep and hills.

I enjoy gardening, cycling, dog-walking, campaigning for justice and fairer trade, and thrashing out some of life’s nitty-gritty issues with friends over a glass of wine.

I would most like to get locked in a church with my sister Sheila . I rarely see her, because she has been living in Argentina for the past 12 years, and we have so much to catch up on.
Lesley Bilinda was talking to Rachel Harden. Her book With What Remains is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £7.99 (CT Bookshop, £7.10); 0-340-90873-4.

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