Whenever I think about it, I cry all day long


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Africa » Rwanda » Ville de Kigali » Kigali
June 15th 2009
Published: July 27th 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY

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Kigali Memorial Centre
I warm further to Rwandan minibuses when we leave Gisenyi on time and only half full but the comfort levels drop at Ruhengeri when the remaining seats are filled by other Kigali-bound passengers and their luggage. There are many wooden cylinders in various roadside trees, and it's only later that I figure out that they are beehives.

We pass numerous signs along the way - I can't read any Kinyarwanda but the word "Jenoside" in red letters presumably means the obvious, and I come to the conclusion that these are memorial sites from the madness of 1994. There are many.

Like in Uganda, carrying one's luggage/goods on one's head seems to be popular. We drive through one village where I see several people wearing Father Christmas hats, presumably for warmth, as well as one fellow in the unlikely sleeves of a Eurotrade jacket.

Kigali is fairly compact as far as cities go. However navigating around it is made unnecessarily complicated by the lack of street signs and, worse, the fact that no-one knows where anything is. I need to find the main roundabout in the city centre, and I know that it is less than 200m from where the minibus terminates, but the first man I ask sends me in totally the opposite direction, and the next two claim to have never heard of the roundabout. I subsequently shift to using the Nakumatt supermarket (whose recent opening created a stir throughout East Africa) as my point of reference, but again find that few people have heard of it. Later in my stay, while trying to find a restaurant one evening, the police force me to take an enormous detour to reach my destination as they don't want me walking through a residential area - naturally, as a tourist, the sight of a residential area would pretty much compel me to commit crime.

This is without the boda boda issues I encounter with many of the drivers speaking neither English nor French. However boda bodas do appear to have some kind of regulation here, with the drivers wearing numbered bibs, and helmets being used by both them and their passenger.

Kigalis turns out to be little different to Gisenyi in terms of cost (a notable exception being that DC is only slightly pricier than normal Coke), and a standard paperback goes for $25. It's irritating that what
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Kigali Memorial Centre
is turning out to be the most expensive country I've travelled in in Africa is also one where I can't access my bank accounts due to none of the ATMs accepting international cards. The many cell-phone airtime and newspaper vendors clearly don't realise how short of cash I am, as they accost me every five minutes.

There's certainly no shortage of foreigners in Kigali, including many Chinese, and one of the main daytime hangouts is Bourbon Coffee. It has a pleasant covered terrace with a high population of laptop-wielding mzungus, voices raised in aid-related fervour. I eavesdrop on the conversation of a couple of American film-makers, learning that the Rwandan film industry goes by the name of Hillywood.

Kigali by night is pretty, its contours of hills and valleys picked out by a galaxy of lights. It also feels safe, a fact I'm doubly glad of as my dodgy navigation invariably results in me getting lost by night as easily as by day. On one of these rambles I pass the Hotel des Milles Collines, made famous by the film "Hotel Rwanda" and a haven for more than a thousand people during the dark days of the genocide.
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Kigali Memorial Centre
It's supposedly one of the better hotels in Kigali but, unbelievably, lacks a hairdressing salon and I have to take my unkempt locks to the Serena for a $10 chop instead.

Kigali also brings a burst of nostalgia as I find that I've missed a reunion in the UK of my year from secondary school. More than twenty years have passed since I last saw most of these people and the pictures on Facebook give me a grin that lasts for hours. These two decades have turned hotties into fatties, hairies into baldies, familiar faces into "Who the hell are you?"s, ugly ducklings into swans, and puppy fat into lean muscle. Of course, I know there are good reasons why we didn't necessarily stay in touch, but I do regret missing this one-off, with the power of alcohol no doubt being enough to smooth over some of the awkwardness of the inevitable "So, what have you been doing since O-levels?" icebreakers.

I read in the paper that the English language has now reached a million words, and apparently a new word is created every 98 minutes. Of course the word that most people associate with Rwanda is one
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On the way from Gisenyi to Kigali
coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Graeco-Latin combination of the root words for race (genos) and killing (cidium) - genocide. And the wholesale slaughter that took place in the country in 1994, killing nearly a million and displacing most of the rest of the population, is described in sombre and compelling detail in the Kigali Memorial Centre.

The main exhibit in the centre documents the Rwandan genocide from its roots in the Belgian colonial era to the genocide trials scheduled to wrap up in Arusha in Tanzania next year. It's a sad tale that's worth a recap.

Though there were established ethnic divisions before the Belgians arrived, with a Tutsi ruling class, status had at least as much contribution as ethnicity to one's place in the pecking order. Tutsi were predominantly cattle-owners and Hutu land-owners, but neither of these generalisations were set in stone. Intermarriage and status changes allowed people to move between the two groups.

However this was soon eradicated by the Belgian colonists, who issued ID cards clearly stating ethnicity. If physical appearance or family circumstances didn't unambiguously determine a person's ethnicity for the purposes of their ID card then it came down to the number of cattle they owned - more than 10 and they were a Tutsi, less than 10 a Hutu. Only Tutsis were allowed in positions of responsibility in the Belgian administration, and the teaching of the Belgian missionaries was that the Tutsi were a separate race originating in Ethiopia. Thus was created a wall between Hutu and Tutsi that could never be breached. As independence neared, the Belgians switched sides, as they feared their commercial interests wouldn't necessarily be best served by a Tutsi government, and post-independence Rwanda was ruled by a succession of Hutu administrations.

In the decade leading up to the genocide, the (state-controlled) press broadcast a constant stream of anti-Tutsi propaganda, including the Hutu "Ten Commandments" that portrayed any interaction with Tutsis as verging on the criminal. The Interahamwe youth militia became wildly popular among young Hutu. A series of small-scale massacres of Tutsis helped accustom the nation to the idea that this was normal behaviour.

This would have been objectionable enough, but it was simply the groundwork for something much more sinister, a fact that the UN became aware of sufficiently far in advance of the actual genocide as to further damn its later inactivity. A high-level informant told of lists of Tutsis' addresses being drawn up and arms caches created, and offered to reveal the locations of these in return for UN protection. Though the local UN commander was amenable to this, UN top brass declined.

At this point in time, Rwanda was ruled by a power-sharing government consisting of Hutu President Habyarimana's party and various opposition groups, including the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The RPF, led by Paul Kagame, had been formed by Tutsi exiles in Uganda and possessed a well-trained army. In fact, the power-sharing government had been forced on Habyarimana by the RPF's invasion of Rwanda in 1990, an invasion that had only been thwarted by French and Zairian military assistance. Most of Kagame's men were still in Uganda, pending their integration with the existing government army.

The shooting down of Habyarimana's plane was the trigger for the genocide to start. And it proceeded with frightening speed - one of its key features. 800,000 people were killed in 3 months, and the bulk of the surving population displaced. The slaughter was conducted via methods primitive and cruel, as if mere killing wasn't enough but there needed to
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Kigali Memorial Centre
be a component of suffering too. There were no safe havens, with churches not places of sanctuary but rather focal points of death. Often, there were too many potential victims to kill them all in one go so some had their Achilles tendons cut to prevent them running away.

The rationale in all this was simply to wipe out the Tutsis - the crazed vision of a handful of powerful men that, via the machinery of state, was handed down to the general population in such a way that people no longer consulted their own moral compass as to right and wrong but took their cues from the behaviour of those around them, behaviour that involved torturing, maiming, and murdering.

When it was clear that the international community was not going to intervene, Kagame instructed the RPF forces to advance on Kigali and then out into the rest of the country. This precipitated a flood of Hutus into Tanzania and DRC. The tale wraps up with a mention of the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha in Tanzania, to identify and prosecute the perpetrators of the genocide.

This exhibit also contains a chamber
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Kigali Memorial Centre
full of skulls and bones, and ends in a room filled with pictures of some of the people who were to die, while a loop of painful survivor testimonies is projected on the wall.

The second exhibition is called "Tomorrow Lost", a sad affair dedicated to the children that died in the genocide. This consists of a series of photos of kids, each photo accompanied by a plaque giving their name, favourite food, favourite sport, and a couple of other innocuous details. These are then followed by items like Last Word (one child showing unjustified faith in the international community by saying "UNAMIR (the UN mission in Rwanda) will come for us") and Cause of Death (best case scenario: shot, worst: whatever your imagination can come up with). It's impossible to remain unmoved.

The grounds of the centre contain several mass graves. In amongst colourful flowers and water features, and with views over a valley to the centre of Kigali, over a quarter of a million people are buried.

The Memorial Centre is slick and informative, and successfully conveys the horror of those months in 1994. However what it glosses over or even omits are also hugely
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Kigali Memorial Centre
important parts of the tale. It's obvious why they've been treated this way, but they make the whole episode an even darker chapter in human history.

One area that's barely touched upon is the behaviour of the rest of the world in all this. Tragically, there were various agendas at work that contributed to the international community's reluctance to do anything, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that mass killing was going to take place. One problem was that the UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, in one of his previous jobs as Egypt's deputy foreign minister, had developed a close relationship with the Hutu administration.

In addition, the French government had (and still has) a predisposition to French-speaking countries, the preservation of which in Africa enable it to maintain the delusion that it is a world power, so even though Rwanda had been a Belgian colony, the French had established ties with the Habyarimana regime. Worse, with the RPF having been predominantly formed by Tutsi exiles in English-speaking Uganda, there loomed the prospect of a francophone government being replaced by an anglophone one. Thus the French decided that it was appropriate to support a regime with genocidal intentions.
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Kigali Memorial Centre


Hence both the UN Secretary-General and the French had no desire to see the Hutu administration brought down, and constantly underplayed the seriousness of the situation within the UN.

Finally, the Somalia debacle the previous year had weakened many countries' resolve - principally the US's - to engage in peacekeeping missions in Africa.

Related to this, there's no mention of the hundreds of thousands of Hutu that fled the country into DRC (then Zaire) once the RPF started its march to Kigali, including many of those involved in carrying out the genocide. This mass of refugees caught the attention of the international community in a way that the genocide hadn't, and vast amounts of aid poured in. Much of this aid was channelled into regrouping and rearming of Hutu militias for the purposes of rebelling against the RPF.

The second major omission is that the Centre leaves one with a prevailing image of the Tutsi as "victims" and the Hutu as "aggressors", which was indeed predominantly true before and during the genocide, however once the RPF took steps to intervene then the balance began to shift. The RPF's advance from Uganda to Kigali was marked by
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Kigali Memorial Centre
massacres of Hutu and, when they gained control of the country, they found themselves in a unique situation in the history of genocides - namely that they, the survivors, were now in command. And revenge is human nature.

Rwandans - both Hutu and Tutsi - had been migrating into eastern DRC for years, for various reasons, which had already caused tensions in the area with the local people, principally over land. The sudden arrival of a million Hutu after the Rwandan genocide, many filled with strong anti-Tutsi feeling, brought simmering discontent to the boil. Tutsis who had lived in DRC for decades were targeted and they eventually appealed to the RPF for help.

This was an opportunity the RPF had been longing for. Both they and Uganda had been targeted by rebel groups based in eastern DRC and they now had an excuse to root out these militias. DRC's despotic president Mobutu had found it expedient to support the anti-Tutsi movement, so Rwanda and Uganda were both keen on deposing him too. Using Zairian guerrilla Laurent Kabila as a front for their machinations, they orchestrated a military operation that killed hundreds of thousands - including many Hutu refugees
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From Kigali Memorial Centre
in massacres - and ended up deposing Mobutu, despite the best efforts of the French, who regarded him as one of "theirs".

Rwanda and Uganda then set about exploiting the mineral wealth in eastern DRC. Many Congolese resented having foreign troops on their soil, siphoning off natural resources, leading to Kabila's relationship with Rwanda and Uganda cooling appreciably. The two countries then tried to replace him, via a civil war that eventually involved the armies also of Burundi, Angola, and Zimbabwe.

In the space of less than a decade, Rwanda's reputation in the world changed from being that of a victim to that of a regional bully.

There have been a couple of main attempts to deal with dispensing justice with regard to the genocide. One, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, has no unit for investigating RPF atrocities, making it somewhat one-sided. The other is via a village-based traditional court called gacaca. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have heavily criticised the gacaca approach, both for the remit given it by the RPF, and the fact that it is being blatantly used to settle scores.

And finally, it's still unknown just who shot down Habyarimana's plane in the first place. The latest evidence seems to point towards the RPF being responsible, which muddies the waters even further.

It's often mentioned that, with roughly 10% of the country's population killed during the genocide, when you walk around in Kigali then pretty much anyone you see knew well at least one person that died. However it's not often mentioned that the number of perpetrators of the killing was of the order of magnitude of hundreds of thousands, i.e. something upwards of 1% of the population. One survivor quote in the Memorial Centre is that, during the genocide, 5% of the people were good, 5% were neutral, and 90% were evil. It's astounding to think of a society where these groups are now co-existing.

The main purpose of the centre is educational, and a nod to the idea that "Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it". And in that regard it can't be faulted (the last genocide memorial I visited, in Phnom Penh, was sadly lacking in detail). However one blindingly obvious conclusion to be drawn from the exhibits, in particular the third one "Wasted Lives", devoted to genocides around the world, is that people clearly don't learn. One highlighted quote elsewhere in the centre is a Rwandan genocide survivor asking "When they said "never again" after the Holocaust, was it meant for some people and not for others?", a question that could equally well have been asked by Russians in Stalin's gulags (post-WWII, and the most noteworthy omission from the "Wasted Lives" exhibit), Cambodians in the Pol Pot era (1970s), Muslims in Bosnia (1990s), and any number of other people persecuted by their governments but just not in sufficient numbers (or with sufficient publicity) to qualify for the legal definition of victims of genocide. We just can't stop killing each other.

Kigali's weekend nightlife is supposedly worth a sniff so I head to one of the rumoured hotspots. I arrive early as recommended - and no-one else appears for nearly two hours. The next two groups both consist of a 50-something white guy and a 20-something local girl, which I convince myself is not at all dodgy. The food is fine, albeit overpriced, but when the bill arrives I find I've been overcharged for the food, and the number of beers I supposedly drunk has been inflated by 50%. I point out both these errors and the bill is recalculated. They then try to shortchange me. Bearing in mind that most of my ordering took place while I was the sole customer, at best the staff are highly incompetent, at worst downright dishonest. I decide I'm likely to have more fun and less disappointment by retreating to my room with a couple of Primuses to watch the amusing cut-price rap videos that are popular here (think a bunch of guys trying to look hard while clustered round a C-series Merc, with a rinky-dink musical backing). Which is what I proceed to do.

My TV watching also reveals that the Construction Buyer for "Red Eye" shares my name. And when the TV ceases to provide any amusement, I find myself turning to the Word of the Lord courtesy of the trilingual Gideon New Testament on my bedside table.

I stay in Kigali for a week, bleeding money - not because of liking the city (though I'm almost tempted to stay for the impending gorilla naming ceremony) but because I'm awaiting a package from home sent poste restante. The first two occasions I ask for it at the Post Office, I am ushered into a back room where a woman goes through a small pile of envelopes while I look on. This is quite unlike my previous poste restante experience in non-French-speaking Kunming but the staff are adamant that this is all they have. The third time, I try a different tack and instead simply present a piece of paper with the words "Poste Restante" on it. This magically results in my being sent to a totally different part of the building, and I feel I've struck gold when I reach a room full of numbered packages, and a man tosses me a book of recent arrivals. Sadly the situation is long on promise but short on actual results. However hard I look, my name never appears in the Recipient column. I leave, not entirely convinced that my package isn't in the building somewhere, but how many definitions of poste restante can there be?

One piece of admin I do successfully accomplish in Kigali is to send my stricken laptop and associated paraphernalia home at extortionate cost via DHL. I can't say I've been exactly overwhelmed with confidence in the ability of the computer shops I've sounded out about getting it fixed so, as wifi has been either absent or rubbish since I left Egypt anyway, there seems little reason to keep carrying it around. All told, this is 3kg out of my luggage, which is most definitely a cause for celebration.

However this is still an unbelievably tortuous process. At the beginning, I ask if they accept credit cards - if they don't then I'm screwed as it's going to be a struggle to reach Tanzania (the next ATM-ed country on my agenda) as it is, let alone with an unplanned spend of 140 of my disappearing dollars. They say yes - but only Mastercard. That's fine, so they take all my details then ask me to return late afternoon to check everything's OK - apparently they have to go via some intermediate credit card processing company so they can't immediately process my payment.

I return late afternoon to find that the intermediate company isn't currently processing Mastercard. The way this is worded makes me think they haven't for some time. I suggest Visa instead, and am told that that should be fine - despite the earlier statement about only Mastercard being acceptable. A phone call later, and I'm told that I'll need to go to the intermediate company in person with my Visa card. Another phone call later and this option is suddenly off the table. Instead, I'm told that Bank of Kigali will be able to help me. I query if this is a cash advance, the commission and interest payments for which are the last thing I want to be frittering away money on, but am assured that it isn't a cash advance.

I go to Bank of Kigali with one of the DHL minions and, much to my lack of astonishment, the service they can offer me is none other than a cash advance. This leaves me with no choice. I've spent much too long in Kigali already and am desperate to leave, but I'm damned if I'm going to depart having accomplished nothing. Bank of Kigali - take your 3.67% commission. Mastercard - take the 3% foreign transaction fee plus whatever ludicrous interest charges I'll incur for a cash advance. I don't give a shit. Just get me out of here, minus 3kg of luggage and whatever amount of dollars.

The 6AM bus from Kigali the next day can't leave early enough.

Dull but possibly useful info
i. There are many minibuses each day from Gisenyi to Kigali (at least one every 30 minutes). I took a Virunga Express one at 8:30AM, costing RWF2,300 and taking about 3.5 hours.
ii. I stayed at the Auberge La Caverne, paying RWF10,000 for a twin room with en suite. Despite the confusion of the hot and cold taps in the shower being the wrong way round (to Western minds), it was rarely hotter than lukewarm - not a big problem with the air temperature quite warm, but the pressure was just a dribble. The TV had 2 channels showing either soaps from the Philippines or music videos. The food here is fine but they inexplicably don't serve the 720ml bottles of Primus.
iii. If you carelessly get something sent to Kigali poste restante, your only hope of retrieving it is to enter the carpark behind the Post Office and go through the first door in the Post Office building. Then go through the "arrivals" book.
iv. You can get a good exchange rate for $ pretty much everywhere.
v. The best Internet cafe is the one in the Post Office complex - the one next to Nakumatt is overpriced and very slow.
vi. It costs RWF5,000 for a haircut at the Serena hotel.
vii. A boda boda ride within the town should be RWF300 or 400. To the Memorial Centre it's 400.
viii. You can buy Penguin Classics in Nakumatt for $5.
ix. A cash advance at the Bank of Kigali will incur a commission of 3.67% (Visa) or a flat fee of $25 (Mastercard), plus whatever other charges/interest your card provider might shaft you with. You will need to know your credit card PIN.
x. The DHL website is wrong for the address of their Kigali branch - there is a sub-office just downhill of Nakumatt, but the main office is on Avenue de la Justice. It cost me $125 to send 3kg of stuff (plus 0.5kg of packing) back to the UK, plus $15 for $500 worth of insurance. If their credit card processing is working, there's a 5% commission for that.

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28th July 2009

Great history lesson
This was an amazing piece of writing- not only for your, as always, wonderful descriptions but for your clarification of the the genocide and warring factions. I am sending it to several young people who are very interested in African studies. Hopefully they will realize that the problems are deeper than buiding a sandbox at an orphanage or sending care packages to a a penpal. Carolyn

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