Genocide in Rwanda: Novel inspired by mystery surrounding lost pen pal

At the age of 16, Sophie Buchaillard worked in her parents' Paris kitchen

A novel was written by a woman to "exorcise the grief of not knowing what happened" to her after her childhood pen pal abruptly stopped writing after fleeing the Rwandan genocide.

Victoria, a 16-year-old pen pal of Sophie Buchaillard, fled the estimated 800,000-person genocide in 1994 without her parents.

Victoria was residing in a camp for refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Goma.

Prior to Victoria writing that she was moving and would get back in touch as soon as she could, the two had frequent correspondence.

I never got a response," Sophie reported.

Sophie, who was 16 and living in Paris at the time, wrote to Victoria's camp teachers and was connected with a Rwandan organization that helps reunite families, but to no avail. .

She initially worried that she had hurt her friend, but as the months and years passed, she started to understand how vulnerable her friend had become.

Sophie, who now resides in Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan, said, "Growing up, it dawned on me that something terrible may have happened, she might have died or been killed, or all sorts of other things could have happened to her.". .

"I didn't fully comprehend the scope of what life in the camp must have been like until I began conducting retrospective research. ".

An illustration of Victoria’s letters, written in turquoise ink on tracing paper
a representation of Victoria's correspondence.

Children had pen pals from far-off places more frequently in the 1990s, and Sophie's school connected her with Victoria, sparking the unlikely friendship.

Victoria had the chance to communicate in French because she wanted to be a translator.

"She would have been in the Goma refugee camp when we started writing, while I would have been comfortable at home in my parents' apartment in Paris. The differences between our experiences were glaring, said Sophie.

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

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

Sophie Buchaillard
Sophie constantly harbors the dream of learning Victoria's fate.

She was more concerned with her previous life and the one she would return to, treating her time in the refugee camp as a brief interruption from her regular routine, according to Sophie.

She claimed that her friend always came across as being very composed.

Later in life, I realized that what I had mistaken for calmness was probably trauma. She wouldn't have been able to process all of that at once. " .

Following the cessation of the letters, Sophie admitted that she was worried about her friend but that she never completely lost hope that she was ok.

"I've always hoped she just returned to her regular life. and that it would be better not to write any more," she said.

Photographs of victims on display at the Kigali Memorial for Victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide
Photos of genocide victims in Rwanda from 1994 are on display at the Kigali Memorial for Victims.

Sophie enrolled in college a few years after Victoria's last letter to her. Before arriving in the UK as a student in 2001, she lived in Spain and the US after moving there. She later got married and made her home in south Wales.

She would often find herself writing poems and short stories about Victoria because she would never forget her.

I suppose that writing allows one to access the subconscious and has very potent cathartic effects.

Skulls of victims of the Rwanda genocide at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial in Kigali
the Ntarama Genocide Memorial in Kigali, which contains the skulls of genocide victims from Rwanda.

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

Victoria reappeared on her page as she started to write.

This prompted her to spend seven months researching Rwanda before writing the first draft of her novel, "This is Not Who We Are," for her master's thesis.

Sophie Buchaillard aged 16 at Disneyland Paris
16-year-old Sophie Buchaillard visiting Disneyland Paris.

Two women's lives—Iris from Paris and Victoria from Rwanda—are followed in the book.

Iris, a journalist in London, sets out to track down her pen pal twenty years after their unlikely correspondence abruptly comes to an end.

Part of it involved Sophie trying to explain what it was like to be a migrant in the UK during the Brexit vote and learning what happens when your home country makes it clear that you are not welcome.

Additionally, it was about attempting to resolve the persistent, unresolved questions she had about Victoria.

She explained, "For me, part of the exercise was a way to possibly find out what happened to Victoria.

It served as a means of releasing the pain of ignorance. ".

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

"I'm an optimistic person by nature, and I constantly hold out hope that the book's writing will somehow affect someone who is aware of what transpired to her.

. "

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