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Published: September 9th 2012
They call Rwanda the land of a Thousand hills, but as I travelled from the border to Kigali, I couldn’t help but think about the hundreds of thousands who had been brutally hacked to death on these very roads only 18 years previously. Rwanda will evoke memories of some sort of atrocity in most peoples’ minds, but a lot don’t realise that atrocity doesn’t even begin to explain what occurred between April and June 1994 in this country.
The exact number of people killed will never be known, but it is estimated that 1.2 million were massacred, mostly by machetes. Many were tortured, raped or had limbs amputated before death. Neither women nor children were spared, no infant too young to be hacked to death. To put it into some kind of perspective, approximately 3 times the amount killed on 9/11, were killed per day, every day, for 100 days.
I am trying not to make this into a history essay, but it is impossible to travel through this country without having the genocide etched in your mind. You see a man over the age of 35 and wonder how he survived. Did he take
part in massacring someone? I would see someone my own age and wonder how many relatives he/she lost or if they had any left. The Hutus had massacred the Tutsis and any moderate Hutus, i.e. Hutus who would not join in or oppose the killing. Too many were involved to bring them all to justice. Those who survived, the relatives of the murdered and had not left, now co-exist 18 years on. This is the reality of modern day Rwanda and I was absorbed in my confusion as to how, or if, a country moves on from something like the genocide.
On arrival, in Kigali, as I travelled through on a local minibus I was struck by how modern, clean and vibrant the city is. It leaves every other African city; I had visited so far, in its wake in terms of how progressive it is. The boda boda drivers all wear helmets and have one for their passengers. They have women sweeping dust from the road. Plastic bags are illegal. It is remarkable that the streets in a city, where less than 20 years ago, people were being dismembered for being from the wrong tribe, now
favours comparably with Dublin in terms of cleanliness and the amount of homeless people. You can’t help wondering, is everything as it seems?
There are new shopping centres to visit, modern skyscrapers being built, the variety of restaurants is the best thus far in Africa – there clearly is money about. There is a massive white population in the city, so much so, that after a couple of days I presumed that anybody I saw, was working, volunteering or studying there. The assumption I draw here is that in the West’s guilt and shame at their collective lack of action during the genocide, Rwanda is now a “donor baby”. They have also shown that they will use the money correctly, so there seems to be now a lot of foreign direct investment, hence the economy is booming and in this respect the future would seem bright.
Yet you cannot escape the genocide and the effect it still has on people’s lives. I visited the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, which is extremely informative and dignified. It is on the site where over 250,000 people have been buried. I also paid a visit to the Hotel
des Milles Collines, made famous in the film “Hotel Rwanda”. I ordered a beer – the most expensive in Africa so far at 3100 Rwandan Francs, which is approximately €4 – and sat in luxurious comfort beside a swimming pool, with a fantastic view of the city. The patrons were about 75% white. There is no evidence whatsoever of the fact that 18 years previously, this was one of the only safe sanctuaries in the country for Tutsis, who resorted to drinking out of the swimming pool at one stage.
The next day, I took a short minibus ride south to Nyamata. There is a church there just outside town that is now a genocide memorial. About ten thousands Tutsis sought refuge there, but were betrayed by their parish priest and the Interhamwe – the name given to the group who carried out the killings – moved in and massacred everyone. What remains inside is all of the clothes from the victims, which are piled on the church pews. Bullet marks behind the altar in the roof and in a statute of the Virgin Mary are also chillingly visible. Outside and below the church, some of the
skulls and skeletons of the victims are stored and are on display if you go down.
Only 5km away is Ntarama, another town that experienced an unthinkable atrocity. It was a very similar story to what happened in Nyamata. Again the victims’ clothes are on display, this time hanging from the ceiling. There is also a bundle of shoes. When you see how tiny some of them are and learn that one of the preferred methods of killing children was by picking them up by the leg and banging their heads off the wall, you somehow are brought to another level of incomprehension at what humans are capable of doing.
Reading the above would make you believe I was utterly depressed for my time in Kigali. Although these genocide memorials certainly affect your mood, this wasn’t the case the whole time. I stayed at a place called Mamba Club, which had to be one of the coolest places I had been so far with a swimming pool and bowling alley. I also met up with some familiar faces and had a couple of good nights out.
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