Sunday, 2 December 2007


This is an extract from my African travel blog, where you can read all of my adventures in Rwanda

I got a moto from town up to the Memorial Centre. Successfully managed to beat the price down from FRW 600 to FRW 400, which is what the Tourist Info shop told me it should be (err...yes, remember you’re talking to a mzungu and your average man on a bike ain’t gonna agree with the price you quote me :op).

Wasn’t sure what to expect really. It was intense.

Pretty quiet place. Not that many tourists in Rwanda, though locals will tell you there’s loads. You start by walking through the display board corridors explaining the run-up to the genocide, the colonial and political powers involved. 

Apparently there used to be 18 main tribes in Rwanda. The term Tutsi was applied to anyone with over ten cows, Hutu to anyone with less - throughout all tribes. It was a class, rather than an ethnic, divide. 

The Belgians expanded on this by issuing identity cards. When Rwanda gained its independence in 1962, the Hutus saw the chance for a class revolution on ethnic gounds. By that time, Western eugenic ideology (measuring noses, head shapes and eyes) had determined that, actually, Hutu and Tutsi were distinct ethnic groups – much in the same way that the Nazis thought they could tell a Jew by measuring his or her nose, or the Australians thought that they could tell a potential murderer by the shape of his head.

I won’t go into all of the details, you can read about it in Season of Blood by Fergal Kean, or on Wikipedia.

Suffice to say, the display starts off pretty matter-of-fact and easy to follow. It gets progressively more disturbing. The first part of information that makes you stop is a padlock and chain in a perspex box. Above is a family photograph. The explanation is that the man on the far right, and the woman in the middle, were chained together and buried alive. When their bodies were exhumed, they were still bound by the lock and chain in the box.

There are various videos as you walk around, showing survivors telling their stories, images of machete victims displaying their wounds, and bodies being recovered from rivers. One million people in a matter of weeks. The Nazis killed six million, but it took them years. This is perhaps the most 'efficient' genocide on record.

Amongst the horrors are also tributes to people who went out of their way to save other people. It wasn’t just Tutsis who were killed – it was also ‘moderate’ Hutus – those who had married Tutsis, were friends with Tutsis, or simply refused to take part in the killings. 

One survivor told how, when the death squad came for them, they were having dinner with friends. The guards checked identity cards and discovered that one woman was a Hutu. They told her to leave, but she refused because the survivor's wife, a Tutsi, was injured and she was tending to the wound. She said ‘I won’t leave, kill me if you want’. So they did.

One of the heroines was a very cunning woman called Sula – a seventy-one year old ‘traditional healer’ who hid Tutsis in her barn. She played on her reputation as a witch, possessed by evil spirits. Whenever the Interahamwe came knocking (rarely, as they were already scared of her) she threatened to bring the wrath of Nyabinghi down on them, and they ran away!

Another very sad aspect was a board describing the after-effects of the genocide on orphans and women. The terribly sad thing for a significant number of women were that they were raped by known HIV infected males. Having survived the attack itself, they were faced many years later with sickness and death.

Many thousands of children were orphaned. One survivor describes walking down the street in utter shock and seeing a young baby still suckling at its dead mother’s breast, but being too traumatised to do anything about it.

The display comes to an end in a beautiful open area with sculptures and hidden viewing rooms. The first viewing room contained a big screen with more survivor’s accounts and, in display cabinets around the room, clothes recovered from the victims – the things they were wearing when they were killed.

I thought that was very sad. I’m not sure whose idea it was to create such a display, but it was deeply poignant.

I walked out of there into the next room. That one made me stop still, for the glass cabinets were filled with human skulls and leg bones. Many of the skulls you could see clearly how the person had died: round holes punched on one side, slices removed like pieces of cake, or everything below the eyes missing – a bludgeon attack, a machete, and probably a grenade thrown into a church. Churches were a favourite killing place, because people went there willingly en masse for protection. It was often the priest who led the Interahamwe attack. One priest bulldozed his own church with his congregation inside it.

The final room contained walls of photographs where survivors could pin pictures of their murdered families and friends. I found this more upsetting I think – along with the clothes. Skulls and bones - it’s hard to imagine them ever having been an actual living, breathing person; pictures you can see so clearly, they look just like anyone you could have know.

From there, you go upstairs and there is another big display board walk that shows you information about genocides all across the world from the Nazis to the Balkans and Cambodia. I liked this part because it linked Rwanda to the rest of the world – it stopped what happened here from being ‘an African thing’, or an isolated, far-away issue. It showed that whatever genocide is, whatever causes it to happen, it is within mankind. Wherever man is, it can be. Within the human race, it’s somewhere within our collective psyche.

The final part was, for me, the most disturbing of all. It was another gallery, this time dedicated only to the children. Families had placed pictures of their lost children. One or two were enlarged as wall features, each with a plaque containing information: their name, their age, their favourite food, what sport they liked to play, who their best friend was, and what their last words were. It also explained how they died. The ages ranged from twelve and thirteen right down to tiny infants.

This is the part I found very hard to get my head around. So okay, maybe – just maybe, after years of grooming, of media campaigns, of training camps, of a diet that taught you - without question - that you were a superior ethnic race, and that you had been disenfranchised from your rightful lands and inheritance – maybe, in believing that you were protecting your fellow kin’s future, just maybe you could understand people killing other people; adults.

And maybe, just maybe, you could almost understand some children getting killed en route – either ‘macheted’ or ‘smashed against a wall’ as some of these children were. Maybe I could almost imagine how that could possibly have happened.

But then there are the children who were: 'tortured to death', or the one who was 'stabbed through the eyes'....

Someone took a tiny baby girl, physically held her down, and decided that it was necessary, even a ‘good idea’ to put a knife through her eyes and into her brain.

That defies understanding of any sort. That is beyond comprehension.

After the displays are finished, you can go outside into the grounds and walk through the carefully kept gardens where there are huge stone slabs marking the mass graves where thousands of remains have been interred. Very reminiscent of Belson.

So. That’s what I did with my Saturday. I’m writing this up now because it’s taken me a while to digest it. It’s an intense experience. It is very difficult to walk through the streets of Kigali and believe that anything of the sort ever happened here. The people all around you lived through and took part in that. You’re not too sure what to think, it seems like another world.

Anyway, I got home that night and cooked for the first time in a while – I made a bean, fish, and tomato casserole and invited Philip round as I know he misses home cooking. I also took a bowl out for Fabian, my new guard, and we chatted for a while – getting to know him. He’s actually really nice and his English makes things a lot easier. I made the mistake (because you forget to think about these things) of asking him whether he had family here in Kigali. He was one of eight. He’s now one of two.

One of the commonest questions you get asked here once you get to know someone is ‘Do you have both parents back in England?’ Invariably people ask this because they are about to tell you that one, or both, of theirs are dead - meaning they were murdered in the genocide.

Anyway, that’s enough horror for one night; one lifetime.

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