Friday, June 12, 2009

Rwanda – Genocide. 15 years later.

June 11 2009
It’s not possible to write about Rwanda without bringing up the genocide of 1994. Neither is it a topic that I have any joy in dwelling on but it’s unavoidable. I’ll try to give an overall impression of the country but in this opening blog on Rwanda I cannot avoid graphic details of the nightmare of 15 years ago. Rwanda is moving on and I suggest a visit to

I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital and largest city via Ethiopia Air from Addis Ababa; the contrast between the craziness and chaos of Addis and Kigali was a delightful gift. Kigali is very small compared with Addis with a population of around 800K and a country population of about 8 million – it’s the highest density country in Africa. First impression was of color. The brilliant green of the hills; the even more brilliant batik dresses of the women; the riot of color in baskets of pineapples, mangoes, bananas balanced expertly on the heads of women. Second impression was of cleanliness –no garbage strewn in the streets, no rotting piles of rubbish, no huddles of beggars and no herds of goats. No stray dogs either, something I’ll write about later. Third impression was of a tropical languor in the pace of people, traffic and warm air.

The country slogan is “Land of a thousand hills” and I think 900 of them make up Kigali. Subsequent in country road trips lead me to amend the slogan to “thousands of hills and even more potholes”! It’s setting is spectacular and despite the heat induced sense of slowness, it’s a city hustling with building projects, animated people and a general sense of life - traffic signals are obeyed, walking is easy. I stayed at a small guesthouse “Banana Guest House” in a very quiet residential district. It’s an expensive country compared to Ethiopia and a room with breakfast set me back $160 but I was within easy walking distance of the first genocide site.

Certainly I was aware in 1994 of the genocide here in Rwanda and neighboring Burundi but my understanding of the motivation and history was unclear. In the past few days I’ve learned that tribal differences between Tutsi and Hutu were manufactured. Beginning with Belgian colonization and by 1932, the Belgians had effectively divided the country into two classes – you were a Tutsi if you owned 10 or more cattle and a Hutu if you owned less. Families and villages were divided and the minority Tutsi became the favored group; the division was further developed by the issuance of identification cards. Sporadically, between 1932 and 1994, violence between groups occurred. In the latter part of the last century, the Hutu majority took power and retribution against perceived injustices on the part of the Tutsi increased.

By 1990 a cult of government supported hate radio and sponsored violence toward individual Tutsi was condoned and encouraged. 1993, the then president signed a peace agreement implying an end to internal hostilities; the hate campaign intensified in response. March 1994, the president’s plane was shot down over Kigali. In conversation with Rwandans there is a quiet cynicism about this. The official line, although never proven, is that Tutsi rebels brought the plane down; the facts don’t support this hypothesis as the rockets were fired from a heavily fortified Government Hill and it is thought impossible that rebels would have access to that site. Both the UN commander at the time and other witnesses, suggest that the attack was from within the government inner circle and had one goal – that of inciting the genocide- to that end, the Hutu president was expendable.

The Hutu were ready for genocide. No genocide is spontaneous. Genocide is planned. Gangs of unemployed Hutu youth had been trained in massacre techniques; machetes and guns had been stashed in secret locations; lists of Tutsis were circulated along with instructions on the most effective methods of killing large groups. Hate radio and literature had done their jobs; for 100 days terror beyond my comprehension was let loose. Depravity, cruelty, violence, death reigned. Over two million Tutsi were killed in Rwanda in those 100 days and several hundred thousand in neighboring Burundi. Priests betrayed their congregations; neighbors their neighbors; colleagues their office mates. Children were singled out in a biblical attempt to “destroy the race”; women suffered unspeakable acts of violence. A photo journalist I spoke with recalled a photographer telling him of driving into a village at night, lights out to avoid detection and to their horror discovering that the road was not pot-holed as first thought - they were driving over piles of bodies.

The French UN commander begged for assistance. Kofi Anan, President of the UN and other world leaders including President Clinton, spoke after the event of not understanding the situation and wishing they had made different decisions. The world responded too late to yet another genocide.

My first evening in Kigali I walked the quiet hillside street to Hotel Milles Collones, the setting for the film, Hotel Rwanda. There was nothing there to commemorate that it had been the scene of such desperation. Privately a Rwandan told me that the Hutu manager was “not such a hero” as he had only sheltered those who could pay.

Monday morning my driver took me to the National Genocide Memorial within the city limits. It is a quiet, peaceful place. Interior exhibits lead you though a brief history of the Rwandan people, culture and era of colonization. There is no effort to shock here; it’s not needed. The gravity of events speaks for themselves. Even the display of skulls, many cracked by machetes have a dignity that defies horrific. Photos and heartbreakingly short biographies of children killed fill one room. Other displays eulogize the heroic Hutu men and women who sheltered friends and strangers alike. Two magnificent stained glass windows designed by a child of holocaust survivors bring light and hope into dark rooms. Another area is devoted to a history of genocide throughout time and asks that we learn from this and work to prevent another genocide.

Outside, above a simple pool, a flame burns. It is lit annually for the 100 days of the genocide. A series of gardens lead through a meditation on unity and hope. In one, at the edge of a pool of water, an almost comical clay representation of an elephant holding a cell phone is telling us that elephants never forget and that we should, as the memory keepers, alert the world.

Through a rose garden, under blossom-laden trellises you come to a three-tier area of mass graves. Over 250 thousand men, women and children, their bodies recovered from massacre sites, are buried here. It is a solemn, silent place. I left with a feeling of unease and sadness that clouded the rest of my time in the city.

Nothing prepared me for the final genocide site I visited on Wednesday. Initially I resisted visiting the church at Nyamata. I had read a description of what took place there.
About a thirty-minute drive east of Kigali we turned off into the township of Nyamata and parked outside the catholic church under the shade of a plane tree. The fence around the church was draped with pink and purple bunting and a banner over the door translated to “If you knew me you would not have killed me”. Ironic because neighbors murdered neighbors.

It’s a big, brick building, simple, no elaborate stained glass windows, nothing ornate. A few school children walked across the dusty plaza to a row of schoolrooms, they chattered and kicked a plastic bottle. My driver declined to come inside. “I’ve seen,” he said. The iron security door of the church is twisted; the walls and ceiling pockmarked with shrapnel holes from grenade explosions. On May 8th. 1994 more than 10,000 terrified Tutsis from the surrounding area filled very inch of this sanctuary. They crawled under the wood slab, backless benches, they wedged themselves under the altar, they huddled in the crypt, and they pressed themselves into wall niches. It is inconceivable to me that so many could fit into this space. The Hutu mob surrounded the church eventually using a grenade to blow gap in the steel bars of the gate and then began hurling in grenades. They stormed in and hacked, beat, shot to death in an orgy of rape then killing. One woman was singled out (and please forgive this graphic description but unless we hear of such horrors, I fear we will forget) for rape and then killed by a stake that was driven through her vagina to her skull.

It’s still inside the church now. There is a musty, unrecognizable smell. The rows of benches are piled several feet high with the bloodstained, torn clothing of the victims. Colors have faded to a dun brown uniformity but occasionally something stands out and catches the eye – for me it was a crocheted hat still showing some green wool – I imagine it once sitting jauntily of the owner’s head; I noted a pale pink toddler sized tee shirt. The cement floor is patterned with dark stains – blood. Five people survived the massacre.

All ten thousand are buried here and an additional forty-one thousand from massacre sites around the area. Under a large aluminum awning out back the mass graves have open windows and you can look down of satin draped coffins and neat rows of skulls and bones.

No photos could begin to evoke the atmosphere in this place and photographs would not serve to honor the dead. The only images I will be including here are of the memorial garden in Kigale and of the roadside signs seen throughout the country that speak of reconciliation and healing.
“We are Rwandans”, we are neither Tutsi nor Hutu” is the word from all you meet.


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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post. Do you have contact details for the Banana Guest House...planning a trip and having trouble finding it on-line.



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