Genocide Memorials in Rwanda

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Africa » Rwanda » Ville de Kigali
August 1st 2015
Published: August 5th 2015
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Every year many of the VWB interns make a weekend trip to Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, and this year Brit and I were joined by Sue, Janaya, and Chantara from the LCP program, as well as Anna, for the weekend trip. The genocide occurred in 1994 and since then the country has undergone an incredible transformation making it a night and day difference from Uganda. But before I go into all that let me just talk a bit about the journey to get there using good ol’ Ugandan public transport.

Well before you can take the bus, you have to figure which bus to take and get tickets. Back home this would be a simple endeavour but like most things here, it is far more challenging than it needs to be. We start asking around and get the names of a few bus companies that have buses running from Kampala to Kigali, passing through Mbarara on the way. Buses pick people up at the gas stations in town so we drive from station to station asking about a bus that goes to Kigali. At each station they have no idea where the buses arrive or when or who to talk to and they just tell us to ask at another station. Some ticket offices are closed and the store clerks don’t know the phone number of the agents or when they will be back. People literally take the buses every day, and they are always full, but yet no one can provide any information. Well, that’s Uganda for you. After about 5 or 6 stations we finally reach one with bus lines running through it. The clerk tells us she doesn’t think we will be able to find a bus in a couple days (yeah I realize we kind of put this off till the last minute) but she can at least give us the number to the agent.

A couple hours later we finally get a hold of the agent who says there is no problem and reserves tickets for us on the 6am bus. We ask if we can pay in advance to confirm our reservation and the following day we are to meet him at an entirely different gas station. He rolls up on a boda, increases the price of the ticket before taking our money, pulls a book out of his pocket and writes us a receipt for a bus that actually leaves at 4am now. If this was in Canada, I would be totally sketched out, but hey this is Africa!

It was my birthday the night before and instead of sleeping I decide to have a few drinks and stay up all night before the bus, telling myself being buzzed and exhausted increases chances being able to sleep on the bus. Never in the history of all my travels have I been one to sleep on any public transport… and today is no exception. We arrive in the dark, pack tightly on to the only seats left scattered around the bus and we’re off. Despite most people on the bus trying to sleep our driver insists on blasting the same five Celine Dion and Backstreet Boys songs on repeat over crackling speakers that blew many miles ago. Everyone on the bus is silent except for two men near me who are yell-talking to each other over the music and over a couple rows of people attempting to get some rest. One thing that has me dumbfounded on a day-to-day basis is the complete disregard for other people, especially strangers, many of the Ugandans seem to have. Whether it’s this, or cutting people off in traffic or trying to skip in front of lines at the grocery store just for the sake of being ahead. They aren’t in a rush; they just want to be first. And worse, is that everyone seems to just take it; they are so accustomed to being treated poorly that many seem content with sub-par respect from one another.

Anyways, a couple hours into the drive, I am as relaxed as I possibly can be on these rocky and turbulent roads with my eyes closed and my headphones playing something soothing into my ears, when a man a couple of seats over hits me on the shoulder, “MUZUNGU!” he yells and laughs. I turn to see that it is one of the men that wouldn’t shut up earlier and he is now stretched over the poor woman between us who was also trying to sleep, “muzungu, how are you?!”

Does he actually think I want to have a conversation with him right now? At this moment I only want someone yelling at me if the bus caught fire and they’re trying to save my life. Or if they were offering me a free, cold beer. The fact my whiteness is a novelty, and he only wants to talk to me to tell his friends he met a white person on the bus, is not a good enough reason for me to pause my iPod to entertain him.

“Muzungu! Muzungu! How are you?!”

I look at him, point to my headphones, shake my head “no”, and rest my head back in my seat.

A few long, sleepless hours later we finally arrived in Kigali. Our hotel arranged a pickup for us and en route to it we found out that it was overbooked and they are taking us to their sister hotel instead. Here we find out that it is a lower quality hotel with fewer amenities, and we’re paying the same price. Needless to say, we aren’t too impressed but the staff was apologetic at the new hotel and there wasn’t much we could do. Besides we were all too exhausted from the bus ride to really argue. **This was just the start of a series of hotel issues that came up over the weekend, but to avoid this getting too long, I’m going to save it for an in-person story**

We had the full day left so we just spent it relaxing at a pool down the street - our original hotel had a pool, but this new one didn’t - a bit of a let down. Other than that, we just ate an amazing lunch and supper and promptly passed out by 9pm. Before I go on, every meal we had in this city was incredible! Maybe it’s because I've been eating in Uganda for three months, or maybe it’s the French and Belgian influence this country has from colonialism, but every meal we had over the weekend was fantastic and I’m salivating as I think of it. Please excuse me while I wipe the drool off my chin.

After about 12 hours of sleep we all woke in time for tours of genocide memorial sites around the city. Today was the last Saturday of the month, called Umuganda in Rwanda, and shops, museums, and other businesses are closed until 2pm to allow citizens to take part in compulsory street cleaning. Rwanda is
the polar opposite of Uganda in so many ways. It’s actually incredibly clean, cleaner than almost any city I’ve been in, with well-manicured green spaces and parks. It has traffic and street lights, sidewalks and rules of the road that people actually follow. Boda drivers have to wear helmets and their single passenger (they are allowed only one) also has to wear one. By law, people are not allowed to work outside the home without shoes, and people appear to dress nicer and cleaner, but that could be due to the drastic reduction of dust and dirt here. It reminds me of a pretty beach front city or a cleaner Los Angeles, minus all the plastic people, of course.

However, I think my favourite thing about Kigali over Mbarara, other than the food, is being able to walk places and not be stared at, cat called, or have people yell muzungu every time I leave the house. Rwanda is a very peaceful country now, and we noticed more white travellers here so even though we still stand out in a crowd, it’s not a big deal.

Anyways, back to the genocide tours. I don’t want to go into a long history lesson but here is some background information on the genocide. Thanks to colonialism, the people of Rwanda were divided into two major tribal groups, the Hutu’s and the Tutsi’s, based on physiological characteristics (most of which did not correlate with the people’s true tribal ethnicity) and how many cows people owned. A whole series of events occurred, which I’m not going to go into, but in a nutshell Belgians treated Tutsi’s as superiors to Hutu’s and eventually tensions began to develop between the tribes due to greater rights and privileges given to the Tutsi’s. I’m going to skip out a bunch more details, and some smaller scale attacks between the tribes, but around 1960, when Rwanda gained independence, the Belgians placed the Hutu majority in power. At this time larger attacks on the Tutsi people began to occur and many started fleeing the country with this continuing periodically until the day of the mass genocide.

Fast forward to April 6th, 1994. The president’s plane was shot down, killing him, and the Tutsi extremist groups were blamed, although now it is believed to have been Hutu extremists. Within an
Ntarama Church Ntarama Church Ntarama Church

Clothing that belonged to the people that were killed here.
hour of the plane crash a Tutsi slander and propaganda radio station ordered the mass extermination of the Tutsi tribe for killing their president and road blocks were put into place to prevent anyone from escaping. The genocide was well planned and executed perfectly to kill as many Tutsi people as quickly as possible. Approximately one million people, majority Tutsi, were killed in a three month period, with this number being a rough estimate; many times entire families were killed without leaving a trace of identification and their bodies may have never been recovered. Even today bodies are still being found around the country. Additionally, countless people suffered long term mental and physical disabilities due to the violence. There was a noticeable amount of people using crutches or with limb amputations, serving as a sobering reminder of how recent in history the genocide was. One of the statistics we read was that 80% of the population witnessed the death of someone they knew.

The first church we went to was Ntarama, located a few minutes outside Kigali. During the genocide people fled to churches believing they would be protected in a house of god. However, no church was safe and 5000 people were massacred in this particular one. We took a tour of the grounds with a genocide survivor as our guide. Inside the church, there were shelves of skulls of varying sizes due to the wide variety of ages of the victims, some with obvious wounds from machetes, bullets, or blunt force trauma. The church benches held row upon row of coffins, each with up to 50 skulls inside. Clothing from the victims hung down from the rafters and their belongings were littered on shelves by the alter. The front of the room contained a wheel barrel and inside it were the remains of three bodies found the previous day on the church grounds. They were in the process of excavating land to make mass graves when they discovered the bodies. We were told it previously was the location of a latrine and it was common to hide bodies here during the genocide. They hope families might be able to recognize the clothing still wrapped around the bones to identify the individuals. The alter had various weapons placed around it, like machetes, sticks, clubs, and any tool that could be used to ruthlessly kill or inflict pain, and draped in front of it was a banner that read, in the local language, “if you knew me, and you knew yourself, then you would not have killed me”. These words refer to pre-colonial times when tribes were not segregated and all lived peacefully as one.

The guide took us to the buildings on the grounds including a kitchen where people were burned alive and another small room with a few church benches on the ground. He pulled back a curtain to reveal a blood and tissue stained wall where Tutsi babies were thrown against the bricks as a means of killing them. The masses of tissue splattered on here were from the brains of the infants. I don’t know how to describe the knot in my stomach I had upon seeing this; it sent chills up my spine. There were also two long sticks, about 6 or 7 feet tall, leaning up against the wall. These were used to rape and kill some of the women. We learned how sexualized violence and rape was a common tool used to attack women during the genocide. Rape was used to damage a woman psychologically first before
Grave of Tonia LocatelliGrave of Tonia LocatelliGrave of Tonia Locatelli

She was an Italian that helped the Tutsi in the early 1990's by providing food and shelter to them.
killing her, and in some cases women would be raped and then left to deal with the trauma for days before others came back to finish the job. Often they would leave the women mutilated in a way to prevent her from reproducing, commonly leading to death from secondary infections caused by the trauma. As well, known HIV positive men were often sent to commit the rapes so surviving women would die slowly from the disease instead.

In the same room was a banner with messages from children who lost family members in the church. Most messages were not in English, but of the few that were I remember one reading, “May the words ‘never again’ be realized. You matter.” Not one of us walked out of the church with dry eyes.

The next church we went to was the larger Nyamata Church. The same thing happened at this church, like many around the country, and people fled here for protection. In the past people were saved in this church and militia let them live, but in the 1994 genocide 10,000 people were killed inside and on the grounds surrounding the church. Instead of
Kigali Genocide Memorial Kigali Genocide Memorial Kigali Genocide Memorial

Measuring nose length was one of the ways Belgians separated people into two tribes
having clothing hanging from the ceiling, it was in piles covering all of the benches. Our guide here also showed us some ID cards placed on the alter that were used to identify Tutsi’s before killing them. Outside the church mass graves were built and we walked inside one of them. It was dark and eerie as row on row of the empty eye sockets in the skulls stared back at us.

Lastly, we visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which is more of a museum used to tell the story of the genocide and gives visitors a chance to pay their respects to the many lives that were lost. By the time we left this memorial a few of us were crying and all of us were emotionally drained.

So I think it’s time to lighten the mood a little bit. After we decompressed from the weight of the day we decided to head to a club at another hotel. Like every other clubbing experience in Africa I have, we are the only white girls and immediately attract a lot of attention. Particularly, the attention of the Zambian national rugby team, who were on a high after winning their tournament and are now one step closer to going to the Olympics. Now, I don’t mind dancing, it can be a lot of fun sometimes, but I’m not a big fan of grinding and humping on the dance floor. Call me a prude, but I don’t need strange sweaty men rubbing their boner on me when I’m trying to have a good time. Anna and Janaya were like-minded and while we danced a fair amount we also denied joining many members of the rugby team in the sweat fest the dance floor had become. I’ll put it this way, an older Turkish man who would kiss my face and hands when we danced was less creepy than some (not all) of the members of the team. I think partly as a joke to get the team off our backs, Anna told them we would dance with them for 15 minutes if the whole team took off their shirts. A few minutes went by, we were at the bar having another drink ignoring everything happening on the dance floor when we turned around to see the entire team dancing in a circle, topless, helicoptering their shirts
Kigali Genocide Memorial Kigali Genocide Memorial Kigali Genocide Memorial

Photo of the massacre in Ntarama Church
above their heads. Ah, damn. Well, I guess we have to keep up our end of the deal. And if my hazy memory of the night serves me well, this was one of the first of many moments in the night where the teammates came over, scooped us up, and literally carried us onto the dance floor.

Morning came way too fast after dancing and drinking till, oh I don’t know, 4 or 5am, so we skipped seeing a museum (we were debating skipping it before all the drinking anyways) to sleep in and woke to do a tour of new Kigali. If Kigali is like LA, then the new areas are Beverly Hills. These Kigali hills were littered with beautiful homes and 4 and 5 star hotels, with mini mansions selling for only $100,000! I know where I’ll be retiring! For lunch we went to Hotel des Milles Collines aka the hotel made famous by the movie “Hotel Rwanda”. *Movie spoiler alert* During the genocide this hotel was used to house and protect over 700 refugees, and thanks to the manager’s quick thinking to keep militants at bay, not one life was lost at the hotel
Kigali Genocide Memorial Kigali Genocide Memorial Kigali Genocide Memorial

This area of the museum highlighted some of the people who risked their lives to save Tutsi people
during the entire genocide.

The rest of the afternoon was spent doing some shopping at my favourite craft market where I killed it at bartering and got the rest of my souvenirs at great prices. I was even told by a shop keeper I know the African way so well that I’m no longer a muzungu! Now I just need to work on my tan a little bit so I look African too! Ha!

I actually cut so much out of this blog, yet it still ended up being my longest entry yet. I hope it was at least informative and somewhat interesting! Take care!

(More pictures below)

Additional photos below
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5th August 2015

Time in Kigali
Glad to see that you made it to the memorials....I was deeply touched as well. Somehow I didn't attract as nearly as much attention at the bar...:)

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