There is so much more to Rwanda than the genocide but I’ll share those stories and pictures next post. It doesn’t feel appropriate to mix in the same post the fun of our visit with our experiences at the Kigali Memorials.
We arrived in Kigali late afternoon after a long (but scenic) drive from Uganda (and the typically confusing and time consuming African border crossing) and Ben took us straight to the memorial. Unfortunately, it was Rwanda Independence Day so the memorial closed at 5pm so we only had 45 minutes to rush through it. After this 45 minutes we realized we had to come back the next day to take a more respectful time to see every display (the gallery of photos of the victims from the survivors was especially chilling) and enjoy the tranquility of the gardens.
The memorial is so much more than a narrative on the events in April 1994. The country is clearly still healing and the memorial is a focal point of that process – this wasn’t a collection of dusty graves and grainy photos but rather a historic and humanitarian documentary. The memorial staff were my age or younger who, like all Rwandese people above 30 years of age, have expeienced events so harrowing that you marvel at their ability to rebuild a country so quickly. In fact, it was seeing the pain on the faces of the group of young men attending a remembrance service that I found most moving. In 1994, while I was adapting to (the good) life in the USA these young men’s parents and siblings were being hacked to death or their parents were brainwashed into slaughtering their their own neighbors. These were people the world failed to protect.
I would encourage everyone to read this link to the history of Rwanda Genocide. As you walked through the memorial it was explained that the events between April to June 1994 were in the making since the Germans colonized Rwanda in 1875. Being English I’m very aware that every country has chapters in their history books that they wish forgotten but the Belgiums, and latterly the French, did not bathe themselves in glory with their involvement in Rwanda since Germany ceded control after World War I. Nor the United Nations before, during or even after the civil war with their pathetic attempts at war crime tribunals in Arusha, Tanzania.
But the tone of the memorial was not of apportioning blame but to try to allow understanding of what could possibly drive human beings to such barbaric acts. And to detail the heart wrenching and incredible complex process of national recovery. I was left with the impression that these may have been events in Rwanda but this was really another example of the failure of humanity – a repeat of history we should have learned from. Armenia, the Holocast, Cambodia, the Balkans. Genocides have a shameful repetition.
So the Rwandese have healed themselves. There has been significant foreign aid to help the economy (which has been dramatically successful) but the recovery of Rwanda has been been enabled by addressing the genocide head-on with full transparency. The courage of the Rwandese to do this is inspiring.
Maybe not surprisingly, I sensed an underlaying sadness in the Rwandese (the quietest Independence Day I’ve experienced – possibly because in some ways this day marked the point when the wheels came off the bus) that only time will cure. But this shared pain has been channeled (by the government) to make Rwanda the “Switzerland of Africa”. Pride has been restored by collectively making Rwanda the cleanest and safest country in Africa, with a standard of living equivalent to most European cities. There are no Mzungu (white person) prices, no haggling for taxi or motorbikes fares (more on this next post) and a no-tolerance policy to crime, trash or corruption. It’s Rwanda new identify and it’s very welcoming. With the picturesque green rolling hills, range of (non-active) volcanos and the Gorillas, Rwanda is the hot place to visit and invest. Quite an achievement considering what happened in 1994. The President rules with an iron fist but it works. Dictatorships work but only if the dictator doesn’t have self interest (which appears to be the case with the current incumbent).
We also visited the memorial to the 11 Belgium peacekeepers who were tricked, cornered and then slaughtered by the Rwandan army in the build up to the Genocide. They were protecting the safe passage of the moderate prime minister who was executed with her hushband for opposing the genocidal idealodgy. Their last refuge has been left untouched, including where grenades exploded among the soldiers.
Finally, Ben took us to what became known as Hotel Rwanda, the location of the movie (with adapted facts) of the same name. This has now been redeveloped into a very fancy hotel. We took pictures including a photo of the swimming pool that was used as a source of water for the 100 days of the war by the occupants.
Atthis stage it began to feel a little uncomfortable, as if we were genocide tourists. So we ended our sightseeing but we did feel that we completed something important and educational, about Rwanda and the nature (good and bad) of humans. And something that deeply moved us both.