Rwanda Genocide Memorial - An Agonizing Lesson in Humanity
This post is not intended to be a history lesson, instead it is meant to give you a brief overview of events that occurred in 1994, along with my personal experiences visiting Rwanda in 2015, 2016 and 2017. I am, most certainly, not an authority on the history of the Rwandan genocide.
What Happened in Rwanda?
Over a 100 day period in 1994 the Hutu ethnic majority in Rwanda killed as many of 70% of the Tutsi minority and non-compliant Hutus. About 20% of Rwanda's population was wiped out by genocide.
The Hutu government and government-backed militias successfully convinced Hutus to murder their Tutsi neighbours. Local priests worked directly with the militias to give up churches full of Tutsis seeking refuge. These Tutsis enivitiably would face slaughter.
Western governments were publically accused of standing back and allowing the massacre to happen, many gun-shy after recent events in Somalia. Belgium and France (former colonial powers in the region), in particular were accused of helping arm the would-be genocide efforts. Following the massacre they were then accused of creating a safe, unsecure corridor to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) where many innocent civilians, but also militia members escaped.
This info is documented or suggested at the Genocide Memorial and also in Romeo Dallaire's book titled "Shake Hands with the Devil". I do highly suggest you read the book (and not watch the highly disputed movie, "Hotel Rwanda").
Canadian soldier, Romeo Dallaire is largely touted as a hero for his work in Rwanda leading up to and during the massacre. Sadly his pleas for help fell on def ears in the UN and the international community before it was too late.
Many people have raised an eyebrow each time I've travelled to Rwanda. We think of the news in the 1990s. We think it must be dangerous.
In fact, Rwanda is often called one of the safest countries in Africa.
I always feel it's the safest African country that I visit and I would highly recommend visiting for newbie Africa travellers, for that reason.
Further investment is being put into tourism, with expansion in new top-notch hotel bed spaces and local infrastructure to support tourism expansion.
You'll see a spotless Kigali, where its residents are required to participate in monthly city clean-up efforts. In all directions, all you'll see are rolling green hills (which is probably not what you had in mind for Africa)! Kigali's friendly and orderly traffic and street life may not be what the regular Africa traveller has in mind either!
I've heard (although sadly have not had time to experience) that Kigali has an amazing foodie scene.
When you land in Rwanda, something just feels different. It's difficult to put into words, and I think that if you had no idea of the tragedies its faced, you'd still notice.
There is a heavy police presence both on the streets and in the airport. And it feels genuine. People seem to respect the police, which is not the case for many African countries that I visit. The police also seem to take great efforts to make their presence very visible.
It's a country that looks beautiful at first glance, and continues to look beautiful as you get to know it. But it feels somehow haunted, the longer you stay. Quietly on many occasions while on business in Rwanda, someone has averted their gaze from me, as they painfully, but matter-of-factly tell me how they lost parents in the genocide. Every time, my eyes well up with tears, as I take a deep breath and internally beg myself not to cry. And as a non-expert, who has just had three short trips to Rwanda, they seem to be a country that knows what its like to lose everything, a country that has learned the value of life and peace through very hard lessons.
Visiting the Genocide Memorial in Kigali
As soon as you enter the beautifully landscaped grounds, you are greeted by the info desk. There is no fee to enter the memorial or the museum, but the desk will rightfully suggest that you make a donation, that you pay $15 USD for the electronically guided tour or that you make some purchases in the gift shop. They want the memorial to be accessible to all, especially survivors that regularly come to mourn their loved ones.
I do highly recommend the guided tour. It will provide you with deeper insight and personal accounts of the events, some of which I have used in crafting this blog post.
Before setting us off to explore the grounds, we were brought into a room to watch a short video. The museum employee quietly nodded toward the box of tissues at the front of the room and left us to watch the video in privacy. I cried a thousand tears as young adults recounted childhood memories of witnessing their otherwise neighbourly neighbours, murder their entire family under the insistence of the government and militias. One young woman recalled having dinner with her neighbours just a few days before they murdered her family.
Others recounted the horror as priests allowed militias to enter churches and stadiums where families were seeking refuge. Another young woman expressed how she is forever haunted by the image she saw of a young child trying to breastfeed from its already deceased mother.
The common theme that is echoed over and over is that the churches betrayed them, and no one, not even the UN came for them in their hour of desperate need. And the world knew what was happening. Embassies in Kigali shut their doors, diplomats and aid workers were sent home.
One concept that come up over and over through the videos and through chatting with one particularly open, and articulate young woman in the gift shop was that of trust. The young woman quietly asked us how Rwandans are to trust each other, and the international community? In her words, regardless of what side of the conflict your family was on, how do you go on to trust your neighbours, your church, the UN and the international community, when all have betrayed your humanity so deeply? She expressed that while the country has worked very hard on the reconciliation process, the issue of inter-ethnicity marriages is still a tough one for this reason, and many mixed-ethnicity children find it hard to find a sense of belonging and trust in either community.
Perhaps the most jarring scene of the entire visit was the space left on the plaques of remembrance, and the ground waiting to be filled with additional graves. You see, they are still trying to compile info of all of the bodies buried at the memorial, and they are still uncovering bodies from the massacre.
I wish every human on earth could experience this memorial. It's so beautifully and respectfully done. I feel as though there is no way that I could do this blog post justice. But, if you are ever in the area, I would urge you to go. This is, without a doubt, one of the most profound experiences I have had in my life.
Will I be visiting a memorial in Aleppo, Syria one day? Will we ever learn?