I have grown to appreciate the commute into downtown Kigali. Make a left outside the hotel complex. Drive past the gas station, Chinese restaurant, and Kigali Business Centre. Turn right at the roundabout. Make a wide, arcing loop up the hill, then careen through traffic into the centre ville, past Union Center and the recently finished, Chinese-supplied, Simba Supermarket. Having spent a week navigating the route, I could almost drive it myself.
This morning, though, was different. Instead of making a left outside the hotel, we made a right. Unfamiliar turns. Potholes capable of serious damage – I could only imagine what it would be like to ride a bike. Outside the window, a scene of dust-blanketed streets, crimson soil, sardine-packed minibuses, abandoned gas stations, and packages balanced precariously, yet so seemingly effortlessly, atop human heads. It felt good to not worry about work today. Real good. I was en route to Kigali’s Memorial Centre, apprehensive about the trip, yet eager to learn more about the 1994 genocide.
I hopped out of the car, surveying the large, empty parking lot in front of me. After a brief pat-down from one of the security guards, I entered the gate, walked down some stairs, and found myself at the entrance desk.
You want to visit? First time? Where you from?
I purchased a 55-minute audio tour and was ushered politely outside to station #1.
In 1999, 5 years after the genocide, the Kigali City Council drafted a resolution outlining plans to build a memorial center. Funded and managed by London-based Aegis Trust (with the help of the City Council), the center has four goals:
- To provide a dignified burial ground for victims of the Rwandan Genocide
- To inform and educate those about the genocide in Rwanda and other parts of the world
- To serve as a documentation center
- To provide support for survivors
After four years of construction, the Memorial Centre opened its doors in 2004, welcoming 1500 visitors a day in its first week of operations.
I continued my walking tour. Roughly 250,000 bodies are buried in the Centre, and even to this day – 15 years after the genocide – new bodies are still being uncovered throughout Rwanda, still being brought to the Centre for a proper burial. Looking at the three-tiered level of mass graves, I couldn’t help but think how different these grounds were from a regular graveyard. Out of the quarter-million bodies under my feet, not one of them had died of natural causes.
I meandered my way through the various memorial gardens. I saw a butterfly. It started to rain. I learned about the various foliage – cacti, acacias, roses, fruit trees – and how they were purposefully planted, sometimes in a particular geographic representations, other times standing as symbols on their own. I strolled through the Garden of Unity and the Forest of Memory. The rain held a steady cadence, intensifying the audio explanations, dramatizing the experience. I struggled (and am still struggling) to remember the literary term that describes when an author uses weather to parallel the narrators emotions.
Inside, the Centre is divided into three sections, one for the Rwandan Genocide, another for genocides around the world, and a third for Rwanda’s child victims, the latter section specifically included to “reinforce the horror” of genocide.
While I’m certainly not qualified to accurately explain what happened in 1994, I’ll do my best to summarize, and what better way to do so than with bullet points (my favorite):
- In the early 20th century, “new colonial masters [Germans, Belgians] were obsessed with the differences between the Rwandans, promoting notions of distinct ethnic groups in a way that had never been done before.”
- Arbitrary distinctions lead to very real actions. Anyone who owned 10 head of cattle or more, for example, became a Tutsi, and anyone who owned 9 or less became a Hutu. Identity cards were issued in order to help sort out the subjective, anthropological differences between Hutu and Tutsi.
- Tension arose, and Rwandan unity slowly eroded.
- Under a Tutsi majority, the Hutu voice grew louder, and radical parties formed, spreading seeds of violence.
In Rwanda, when the Europeans first…
The electricity cut out during my tour. I propped myself against the wall, and two minutes later, the lights were back on.
- The Hutu government marginilazed the Tutsis. Its leader, President Juvénal Habyarimana, helped create a militant faction of the government called the Interahamwe. Times were tense.
Here’s where it gets bad.
- April 6 1994, 8:23pm: Hutu (Rwandan) President Habyarimana and Burundian President Ntaryamira were shot out of the sky as their plane was descending into Kigali.
- At 9:15pm, road blocks had already been set up by Interahamwe militia. Houses were searched.
- Less than an hour after the plane crash, killings had already begun. Death lists had been prepared in advance, and those on the list were targeted first.
Jenoside yakorewe icyarimwe mu kanya gato.
Le génocide fut immédiat.
Genocide was instant.
So many of us have become emotionally numb to images of violence on TV. I thought I was, until I reached one panel, a short recurring clip of actual video from April 1994. It was the most disturbing piece of footage I had ever seen. My knees became weak – I moved on.
- Rwanda became chaotic. Bodies everywhere. Neighbors killing neighbors, husbands forced to kill wives and children. Women were raped. The statistics are mindboggling.
- Over a period of 100 days, roughly 800,000 people were murdered. Do the math. That is between 5 and 6 people every minute.
- Other countries stepped in, but it was too late, the damage had already been done.
- The aftermath is another story altogether. Orphans, refugee camps, missing persons, post-traumatic stress, effects that are still evident today.
I apologize if that was a bit choppy. Obviously that’s not the whole story. There were many other variables at play, but hopefully for all you Rwandan scholars out there, I got the basics right. Visiting the Memorial Centre is a must for anyone in the Kigali area, because as hard as it is to think about, the genocide cast such a dark shadow over Rwandan life, a shadow that still hovers over many aspects of Rwandan culture today.
I spent the rest of the afternoon at a local market, talking to shop owners about their handmade products, buying a few gifts here and there. Lazy dinner at the hotel, accompanied by a much-needed glass of red wine. And now, off to bed. Trying to see some wild animals tomorrow! Stay tuned.
For more information about the Rwandan Genocide, you can start with the wikipedia entry, although it may be a little daunting. I strongly suggest We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, by Philip Gourevitch, for an informative read. If you are more of a visual person, then Hotel Rwanda is an excellent film.