Butare, Gikorongo and the Murambi Memorial

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Africa » Rwanda » Province du Sud » Butare
June 5th 2012
Published: September 9th 2012
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The bus down to Butare from Kigali was fairly eventful, especially by Rwandan standards. In Rwanda, unlike most other countries in the region, buses run to a timetable, irrespective of how many people are on board. Another unique feature is the traffic police, who are there to uphold the rules of the road, as opposed to other countries where the sole purpose is to eke out some sort of bribe. So as our driver sped through the mountain passes on the way to Butare, we were stopped by some traffic police for quite some time, where the driver was eventually let off with a warning. About 10 minutes later, we came to a sudden halt as we sped through some town. I looked out the window and saw some guy stumble over after being clipped. He got straight back up and proceeded to relieve himself on the side of the street. It was pretty obvious he was pretty drunk and was oblivious to the fact he had almost been killed.

In Butare, I was picked up by one of my Belgian couchsurfing hosts and went back to his house, where I met his Belgian friend and his Portugese girlfriend. We went for some dinner and beers. It was good to talk to some Europeans living there to learn what their take was on today’s Rwanda. One of the more interesting predicaments they faced, was the unavailability of cheese in local shops. The story was that the Rwandan dairy farmers were in dispute with the largest national drinks company over the price of milk. This company happens to be run by President Kagame’s wife and around the time of the dispute, all of the cheese producing factories were closed down for health inspections. It had been a few months and they were still shut. It’s difficult to know for certain how true this story is, but what is a fact is that it is difficult to draw people out in open conversation about Kagame, or politics in general.

The next day, I took a minibus out to Gikorongo, about half an hour away. The landscape on this journey was some of the most stunning I had seen in Africa. I went out to Gikorongo to visit the nearby Murambi Genocide Memorial. There was a school under construction during the time of the genocide and the local leaders assured the Tutsis that they would be safe there. Far from being safe, what resulted was that the Interhamwe had half their work done, as every Tutsi in the surrounding area sought refuge there.

At 3 a.m., the Interhamwe commenced their slaughter and only relented for 30 minutes over the course of an 8 hour period, after which 50,000 people were dead. Very few escaped. The bodies were later discovered in a mass grave and some have been exhumed, placed in the classrooms and covered in lime to preserve them as a reminder of what happened. This was definitely the most stark and shocking of the genocide memorials. Visually, I was shocked by the sight of so many corpses. This was exacerbated when I saw how tiny some of them were and also many which were missing limbs. As I walked from classroom to classroom, I found it difficult to comprehend how something so brutal could happen in such a beautiful place. There was also a stench in each of the classrooms.

The guide, who showed me around, until he let me visit the classrooms alone, explained to me afterwards that the Hutus had buried all the bodies in a mass grave, as the French had eventually sent some troops in. However, the French found the mass grave, but rather than alert the world to what had occurred, built a volleyball court over it to cover it up. Operation Turquoise, which the French had come up with, was not about stopping the genocide, but about helping the refugees escape reprisals. Many of the people, who escaped with the French help, were the very people who had taken part in the genocide. The French had initially backed the Hutus and had even trained the Interhamwe in the lead up to the genocide. But in typical French fashion, they couldn’t admit to the world that they were wrong and made some pathetic attempt to cover it up.

There is a very strong anti- French and Belgian (who colonised Rwanda after World War 1) sentiments in all of the genocide memorials. The Belgians are blamed for creating the tense divisions between the Hutus and Tutsis. They introduced the identity card scheme, whereby every member of either tribe must carry a card to say what tribe they belonged to. They also initially made the Tutsis the controllers of land and power initially, before changing this to the Hutus before Independence was granted. This created or at the very least, enhanced suspicions and tensions between the tribes, who had never had any violent conflict before colonisation.

The Rwandese government have now changed the official language from French to English (Kinyarwanda is also an official language, in fact the main one). They claim to have done this to improve Rwanda’s internationally, especially with the East African Community, where the other members’ official language is also English, except for Burundi. It does seem a big step for them to take, perhaps a bit prematurely. I spoke to two English teachers on buses, who used the opportunity of meeting me to practice their English, which definitely wasn’t up to a standard that could educate a nation, to change their language. It will take time I suppose.

The shift in language is also an attempt to sever ties with their former colonial rulers, who they lay a lot of the blame for the genocide with. I can see why they are so angry, but many colonial powers did a lot of disgraceful things to different places in Africa and beyond. Yet, Rwanda is unique in the fact that they committed the genocide on each other, with no encouragement or interference from the outside. There doesn’t seem to me to be and acceptance of collective responsibility for this yet, but it is probably too soon for this, just like I think it may be too soon to be too critical of the way Kagame may not be acting in a 100% democratic manner. A pure democracy may lead to Hutu versus Tutsi divisions being recreated and someone like Kagame, an "enlightened dictator", is possibly the better for the country, at present, but for how long?

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