December 1994: Kenneth Harvey Writes from Newfoundland

St. John's Mailbox by Kent Barrett

Kenneth J. Harvey is an award-winning author, journalist, photographer and filmmaker from St. John’s, Newfoundland. Throughout the 1990s, he was a minder for PEN Canada – writing letters to imprisoned writers and appealing to authorities for their release. After December’s Season’s Greetings campaign, we look back on Harvey’s thoughtful piece on the realities of this work, originally published in PEN Canada’s December 1994 newsletter. 

Kenneth Harvey writes from Newfoundland about death in Rwanda

It was 1990 and I knew nothing of Rwanda. I had no idea how to pronounce the surname of the man I had been assigned to mind. Call it ignorance on my part. He was the first man that I would attempt to help. His name was Vincent Rwabukwisi and he had been imprisoned because he had the nerve to become editor of a newspaper named Kanguka.

It is extremely difficult to write about a man whose life I believe I played a part in saving. My letters, along with the attention of PEN Canada, Amnesty International and various human rights groups, had cast a shock of light on Vincent, making it more difficult for President Juvenal to dispose of him.

My letters to Rwandan military officials were sent on business stationary and were signed by me with my title, President, typed beneath my name. I assumed that a letter from a company head would be of more value than a letter from a single individual. Companies implied groups of people, powerful people in other countries with governmental connections who were interested in a prisoner in a foreign country. Vincent Rwabukwisi must be of value. This was how I saw it.

I wrote many letters to President Juvenal, to other military officials in Rwanda, to the Rwandan Ambassador to Canada, to Brian Mulroney, and to Joe Clark.

No one replied.

I continued writing letters, not only to government officials, but to Vincent, hoping that my words would get through to him.

I waited, all the while carrying on with my efforts, but not one reply arrived.

Then in November 1991, I received a letter from PEN stating that Vincent had been released from prison. It was a spiritual high like no other, especially after receiving word several months earlier that there had been a serious crackdown on journalists in Rwanda. I was ecstatic that Vincent was free. I could not help but feel proud of my efforts, telling myself that I had done something truly worthwhile for another human being. I assured myself that this was what life was all about. This was the essence of human existence. Our efforts had made a difference.

In May of 1992. I received a letter from Vincent. The words were handwritten on delicate onionskin. The stamp was a reproduction of a colourful painting which featured a member of the National Defence handing out food from straw baskets to thankful men and women. The letter read:

“I’m released, yes, and have already set up a political party. . . We think that we can be protected more than we are now. We are planning to send a delegation to Europe, Canada and USA. . . We are living a very hard life here in Rwanda, the hardest since the whole history of our country. . . We want a real revolution. We want to uproot this banishing system of dictatorship. . .”

Vincent went on to explain the specific breakdown of who would be travelling in the delegation. It would feature three members. They needed assistance in purchasing plane tickets. Vincent continued:

“Please try to help according to your possibilities, of course…I apologize for my poor English but I think that you’ll make your utmost to get what I desire to tell you…”

Vincent was free. I forwarded a copy of Vincent’s letter to PEN Canada and – at the same time – requested a new prisoner to mind. If this was the way the system worked, then I would very much like to be a part of it.

In late 1992, I was assigned Zargana, the satirist from Myanmar/Burma who was imprisoned for telling jokes. Less than a year later, after following the same course as with Vincent, he was released.

My third prisoner became Bela Malaquias from Angola. In April 1994 I received relevant information relating to Bela’s case. Shortly after writing my first letter to Angolan officials, I watched a fax from PEN Canada inching out of the machine, informing me that Vincent Rwabukwisi had been killed. He was free and they had killed him and no one, no measure of stern diplomacy, no intense session of negotiation could have saved his life.

That day I explained the news to my wife, warm tears glossing my eyes as I glanced out the window at the calm countryside beyond the house where we were staying. The absurdity and frustration of the killing tangled my emotions because it was an act that intimate roots. My struggle to free Vincent had made him alive in my mind He was not one of the distant dead on television. He was a man who had picked up a pen and outlined his thoughts in a letter that was sent to me, a letter that I had held in my hands and read while hearing his voice. His words – that connection – had made him real.

“People actually walked into his house and killed him,” I told my wife.

With the news of this death, Vincent was suddenly – inexplicably – so much closer to me. He was gone. Rwanda was closer to me. It became more than a headline in a newspaper. The horror of that country had violated my home, struck me inside my skull and left me staggering through my our heart. It made no sense to me. Vincent has been free, and yet he had remained in Rwanda to fight. “We want a real revolution. . .” He had shouted louder, until men, hearing the perfect clarity of his promise, found him in his home and shot him dead. They had left his empty body where it crumbled, incapable of uttering another word, then hurried off to kill others graced with voices they could call their own.

Vincent’s letter of March, 1992 ended with the following:

“…and thanks to you very much one more time for all that you and your group have done for us; tell them that we are sincerely grateful.”


Photo: St John’s Mailbox by Kent Barrett