A Novel that was created out of mystery
A woman whose childhood pen pal suddenly stopped writing after fleeing the Rwanda genocide has written a novel to “exorcise the grief of not knowing what happened” to her.
Sophie Buchaillard’s pen pal Victoria, 16, was separated from her parents while fleeing the 1994 genocide in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed.
Victoria was staying at a refugee camp in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The pair corresponded frequently, until one day Victoria wrote that she was being moved and would get back in touch as soon as she could. Sophie, who was living in Paris and was also 16 at the time, wrote to Victoria’s teachers at the camp and was put in touch with a charity in Rwanda that reunites people – but to no avail.
At first she feared she had offended her friend, but as months turned into years she began to realise the precariousness of the situation her friend had found herself in.
Growing up Sophie felt that something terrible may have happened, that Victoria might have died or been killed. It’s only when she started doing research retrospectively that Sophie understood the full scale of what life in the camp must have been.
In the ’90s it was more common for children to have pen pals from far-flung places, and the unlikely friendship was forged when Sophie’s school put her in touch with Victoria.
Victoria wanted to be a translator, so it was an opportunity for her to correspond in French.
When she started to write at home in her parents’ flat in Paris and Victoria would have been in the refugee camp in Goma, their experiences couldn’t have been more different,”
Sophie remembered Victoria said she was from the Kigali area, her father worked in the local administration there, and before the genocide they had lived in a house with a garden.
Sophie said despite Victoria’s horrific situation there was a “strange normality” about her letters and they wrote about “normal 16-year-old things”. “She was more focused on what life had been like before, the life she would return to, and treating that moment in the refugee camp as a blip, as a parenthesis outside of normal,” said Sophie.
She said her friend always came across as very calm.
“It occurred to me later in life that what I assumed was calmness was probably trauma. It would have been difficult for her to process all of that at the time.” After the letters stopped, Sophie said she was concerned for her friend but never completely gave up hope that she was okay.
“I always hoped that she just went back to her normal life… and that it was more desirable not to continue to write,” she said. A couple of years after her final letter from Victoria, Sophie went to university. Later she lived in Spain and the US before coming to the UK as a student in 2001, getting married and settling in south Wales.
She never forgot Victoria, and would find herself writing poems and short stories about her friend.
“Writing has very powerful cathartic abilities and makes it possible to access the subconscious, I suppose,” she said. In her 40s, Sophie decided to leave her job at Cardiff University and study a masters in creative writing with the hope of becoming a writer.
She began writing and once again Victoria appeared on her page.
This led her to spend seven months researching Rwanda before writing her masters portfolio, which became the beginning of her novel ‘This is Not Who We Are’. The novel follows the lives of two women, Iris from Paris and Victoria from Rwanda.
Twenty years after their unlikely pen pal correspondence comes to a sudden end, Iris is working as a journalist in London and sets about trying to find her pen friend.
As soon as the book was published, Sophie sent 10 books to Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda in the hope that someone would read her book and recognise the story.