Kigali Genocide Memorial, Rwanda

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.

At this 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. 



We landed at Entebbe early afternoon and after the usual mix-up with the hotel shuttle we were in our next Protea hotel by 4pm. Maybe I’ve been off the hotel circuit too long but what a treat (thanks again and the many nights and points from the Denver Marriott). A stunning room overlooking Lake Victoria (largest lake in Africa) including one of best breakfast buffets I’ve ever had for a fraction of the points of a hotel in the USA. 

This whole adventure was the inspired by Ronnie, our buddy from the Chinese Food Restaurant and part-time ambassador for the Ugandan Tourist office. A measure of our affection and trust for a Ronnie was we wired a volunteer’s fortune to his friend (Jan Van Droogenbroeck) who runs a Tours business (Goretti’s Tour and Travel) with no questions asked.

We hadn’t heard from Jan in the days leading up to our departure but my concern was more to confirm he had received the wire. Ronnie had suggested Jan would meet us at the Entebbe airport, which was unnecessary as I had researched and booked the hotel shuttle. So when we landed and no shuttle or Jan I started to wonder if there was a problem.

But as soon as we checked into the hotel I was able to call Jan and everything was set and in motion for an early start the next morning. Jan had been sick the previous few days, hence the radio silence, but still invited us to his wife’s restaurant (Goretti’s Beachside Pizza) where we were under strict instructions from Ronnie to order the grilled Tilipia and drink Nile Special lager. I can do that.

Jan sent his son to pick us up and his restaurant was just spectacular; on the beach amoung the palm trees, with waves lapping the shore 10 yards away, and all lit by candles. Poor Jan was obviously under the weather but for the next 3 hours we asked a thousand questions about his journey to Africa (from Belgium over 40 years ago), life in Uganda and the real story about the genocide in Rwanda. 

On the later, Jan gave a very personal account as Jan’s wife, Goretti, is Rwandese and lost most of her family to the atrocities, many in harrowing ways. Amazingly Jan and Goretti where on a brief stint in Belgium but were due to return to Rwanda a month before the war started. But Jan’s employer asked them to stay a little longer by which time events in Rwanda spiraled out of control. As Goretti is Tutsi, both of them would have been killed. There were times during Jan’s recounting of the events that I stopped breathing. Originally for my education, I now feel a sense of duty to visit the war memorials in Rwanda on Saturday and Sunday. 

And the Tilipia and beer were sooooo good and a touching gift from Jan (which I suspect Ronnie may have been behind). But the conversation will be our last memory – you only meet people like Jan very rarely and only when you explore the world. 

Thursday morning we stuffed ourselves at the buffet, and were in the minibus and on our way to Bwindi National park with only our driver/guide, Ben. 

Our first stop was the equator and a marvelous photo opportunity (and some souvenir shopping) – see title picture. Ben explained that toilets on the north side of the line flush clockwise and south flush anti clockwise – they even have twice basins either side to prove it.

I’m typing this after 5-hours of  the 12-hour bus journeÿ and Ben is a joy to be with; son of a police commissioner with 19 siblings, half Rwandese (Tutsi – although it is now law not to describe someone using their ethnic group) and half Ugandan, he speaks SEVEN languages and is an encyclopedia of information ranging from the history of Rwanda genocide, the Ugandan opinion on Idi Amin (and the pros and cons of dictatorships), the progress made on Gorilla conservation and the challenges of taming Zebras (after we spotted some).

Unfortunately Ben is a Chelsea fan but I’m able to overlook that as Ben is a lover of beer and plans to join me on my thorough research of this subject tonight.