Travel Journal: Stepping Back in Time in Rwanda

Rwanda Genocide Lost Little Lives

The Rusumo border is undoubtedly in the running for one of the easiest border crossings, which was lucky for us as we were feeling rather tired and grumpy after a long day of driving. As a one-stop shop, both the Tanzanian and Rwandan border officials share an office building making the process quick and efficient. Best of all, there are no hustlers! One of the main attractions that draws tourists like ourselves to the country is to gain a deeper understanding of the 1994 Rwanda genocide that swept through the country. Our encounter with this dark history would begin at Rusumo where, back in ’94, journalists unable to cross into Rwanda gathered and watched on as bodies drifted down the river and over the waterfalls into Tanzania, thus confirming what few could believe was actually happening in the “Little Heart of Africa”.

Getting to Grips with the Rwanda Genocide

While writing about our experience at the Kigali Memorial Centre I have spent hours typing, editing and deleting sentences. It is simply too difficult to find the words that adequately convey the overwhelming emotional impact that this place has had on us. The memorial marks the site of mass graves where two hundred and fifty thousand people lie at rest. Two hundred and fifty thousand people. How does one even begin to conceptualise that number? Needless to say, the mental and emotional resolve that we had built up en route to the memorial was dispelled from the outset while watching an introductory video featuring the testimonials of survivors. As you make your way through the memorial centre, insightful videos, photographs and information boards explain the development of the deep set resentment and hatred between the once peaceful Hutu and Tutsi tribes, beginning centuries ago with the interference of German anthropologists and missionaries who deemed the Tutsi tribe to be superior based on their physical features and wealth measured in cattle. After Germany’s defeat in World War I and II, Belgium was awarded the colony and when independence took place in the 1960’s, handed power over to the majority population, the Hutu tribe. This provided a platform for retribution against the Tutsi minority and the two groups have been fighting it out ever since the exiling and massacres first began. However, anger and hatred would culminate in the early hours of the 7th of April 1994 and continue on for weeks while the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) struggled to put up a resistance finally capturing Kigali after one hundred days of slaughter. Assistance from the outside world would be rendered only after approximately one million people had lost their lives.

Of these devastating events, there were numerous aspects that we struggled to come to terms with, one being accountability. The French government was accused of not only training the Interahamwe militia extremists but also providing loans that allowed them to secures arms. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), well aware of approaching events and undoubtedly so entangled in its own bureaucracy and limited mandate, failed to respond to Brigadier General Romeo Dallaire’s request for further troops to be deployed, leaving the small fraction of UN troops stationed in Rwanda no option but to leave the country along with their European evacuees or face the same death as ten of their soldiers, brutally murdered after surrendering their firearms. Another aspect of these events that shocked us to the core was the brutality and violence that the Interahamwe inflicted upon their victims which comprised not only of Tutsi, but also Hutu moderates, Tutsi sympathisers. Absolutely no discrepancy was made between different sexes or age groups, the intention being to inflict as much pain as possible through torture techniques and rape before ending a life with a bullet, machete or blunt tool. Incomprehensible is the fact that neighbours, friends and even family members turned on each other incited and brainwashed by years of propaganda and manipulation. 

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A section of the memorial center is dedicated to some of the little ones who lost their lives. Life-size photographs accompany information on the babies and toddlers, often referring to their favourite food, toy and first words. Lives ended before they had a chance to begin. As one can imagine, this tribute evokes much emotion. Having been surrounded for the most part by other tourists, we walked into a room and found ourselves standing alone with thousands of genocide victims staring back at us from their black and white photographed images lining the walls. We felt that these images were a mirror reflecting our own conscience and demanding answers for all the times that we may have thought, felt or acted in a way that was prejudiced towards another person based on their culture, religion or race. In response to the fears and disappointment felt over president elect Trump and his arguably racist principles and ideologies, Barack Obama was recently quoted as saying “your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding. And you should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be inside you and you have to vanquish.” The world over we live in societies rife with prejudice and given our history, South Africa is certainly no exception. What we can say with confidence is that anyone who has visited the museum will leave well aware of the fact that where hatred is cultivated, hatred grows, the effects of which can be utterly devastating. 

The tour ends with a video featuring the same survivors as the introductory video. Here they speak of life after the genocide, of hope for a brighter future and most unexpectedly of forgiveness for those responsible for the atrocities that they have suffered. As for the attackers themselves, many of whom were mere civilians incited or threatened to act, a uniquely African solution was employed. Villagers and communities were gathered together to discuss the events that had taken place and to enforce an adequate punishment against the perpetrators which often only amounted to community service paired with the heavier burden of living with their own guilt and shame. While remnants of the conflict continue over the border in the DRC and have spread to Burundi, understanding, forgiveness and the desire to move forward are prominent features throughout Rwanda and most noticeably in Kigali where roads and infrastructure continue to develop. People are no longer Tutsi or Hutu, they are simply Rwandan and proud. 

After our visit to the museum, we drove to the Hotel des Mille Collines, inspiration for the movie Hotel Rwanda and found ourselves looking on at people passing by in the street and wandering what their experience of the genocide was, whether they had suffered as victims or acted as perpetrators. The following day we would quite unexpectedly come face to face with the events that took place twenty two years ago when a young man came to check in on us at the Airbnb cottage that we were staying in. After a while of chatting about our journey and what we had been up to in Kigali, he began to tell us of his experience of the Rwanda genocide when he was just six years old. From a family of nine, he was one of three survivors. As many had done when the violence broke out, he had fled to a church in the hope of refuge. Upon the arrival of the Interahamwe, he was hit by shrapnel when grenades were thrown into the church. Although the men discovered him beneath a pile of bodies they took the decision not to shoot him but rather to let him slowly bleed to death. He managed to make his way to a relative’s home and seek shelter. As it happened the relative was a Hutu and unwilling to be found sheltering a Tutsi, he recalls that her last words to him were “leave the snake to die outside”. He was eventually found and assisted by RPF men. He also told us of his sister who had her fingers hacked off with a machete and suffered stab wounds to her head and sides. She was left for dead in a mass grave and found by journalists forty three days after the killing had started.

As this young man spoke of his ordeals, we sat listening in stunned silence while, out of respect for the young man, I did my best not to visibly become emotional. I felt that I had no right to become emotional in front of him, I was not the one who had suffered. In fact what this experience has taught us is that we have lost the right to many things, most importantly the right to ever again feel self pity when taking into account the comparatively small challenges that we have faced in life as opposed to the ordeal that genocide victims have and psychologically continue to struggle through. Having been adopted by an American, twenty two years on his sister is living and thriving in the United States and this educated, articulate and impressive young man manages a non-profit organisation in Rwanda called Ward Brook. The organisation provides assistance to people living with HIV by sponsoring schooling and further education to the children of these families. Many who survived the genocide have to live on infected with the HIV virus after having been purposefully raped by Interahamwe known to be HIV positive. 

We have since drawn comparisons between the history of South Africa and Rwanda. Leading up to the ’94 South African democratic elections, many of the same contributing factors that lead to the Rwanda genocide in could be found in South Africa’s history, namely a deep resentment of previous colonial rule, discrimination and inequality, poverty, conflict between races and outbreaks of extreme violence. As we are well aware, had it not been for the leadership of one extraordinary man, in ’94 we too could have been child victims of civil war. Unsure of whether or not to include the above testimonial in our blog, we decided that perhaps it would go a long way in reminding us of how fortunate we as South Africans are. Our peaceful transition to a state of democracy and freedom was nothing short of a miracle and is something that we should strive to protect and defend at all costs.

Lake Kivu

As we had crossed into Rwanda and driven to the Capital under nightfall, our drive to Lake Kivu, bordering the DRC, gave us a chance to take in the less developed Rwandan countryside. Of course it’s all subsistence farming that spreads up the steep slopes of Rwanda’s hills, no doubt encouraging much soil erosion, but in its defense, it is very picturesque subsistence farming. In a progressive and admirable move, the Rwandan government banned the use of plastic in the country, a change that is immediately evident having arrived from visiting with neighbouring Tanzania, where locals openly burn rubbish and the roadside is littered with plastic bags. Rwandans also dedicate the last Saturday of every month to community work which may include cleaning streets or maintenance work on buildings and roads. The effort put in is certainly paying off as Rwandan pride is noticeable on the sharp edge of every neatly trimmed hedge and freshly painted building. At some places the small farmhouses take on a pleasing African interpretation of an English countryside, with blue tiled roofs, flowering gardens contained by wooden fences and lush green pastures dotted with black and white grazing cows. 

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Lake Kivu is known as one of three “exploding lakes” in the area, containing high levels of carbon dioxide and methane gas which travel guides warn can lead to asphyxiation if you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Given that the only two limnic eruptions to be recorded both occurred at the other two lakes in the ’80s, we figured that the odds were in our favour and spent a few magical days splashing around in the gun metal grey water or snoozing on the sandy beaches. Given the amount of unsustainable fishing practices that we have come across throughout our trip, we were thrilled to learn that fishing in the lake is regulated and prohibited altogether for a few months of the year allowing fish stocks to replenish, yet another example of Rwanda’s progressive leadership. With the wellbeing of lake’s fish somewhat secured, we found ourselves content to be lulled to sleep at night by the hauntingly beautiful singing of the fishermen as they made their way out onto the waters. 

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There are numerous accommodation options in the area, ranging from five star hotels to the cosy Airbnb cottage that we happily secured for a few days when the rains caught up with us. Our landlord was a Serbian chap who was staying in the Gisenyi area with his family while contracted to assist in the DRC’s 2016 democratic election, that was of course before President Joseph Kabil saw fit to postpone the election and extend his term in office. Our curiosity in eastern DRC came about during our research of gorilla trekking in the Virungas National Park. Despite numerous casualties over the years, the unrelenting bravery and resilience put up by the Congolese rangers have ensured that the park and it’s highly threatened mountain gorillas have survived the civil war and the presence of rebels in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. The park reopened to visitors in 2014 and has the appeal of only costing US$200 to track the gorillas in the rainy season. However, while the safety of tourists seems to have stabilised in the park itself, we were warned that kidnappings for ransom and having passports confiscated at the border are not quite a thing of the past. While Jimny may have been itching to have a go at the Congo-Nile route, we thought that he would draw the line at having to cross into the DRC. Needing no more convincing we packed up and headed for the Ugandan border and our much anticipated gorilla encounter!