1 Dec 2013

Clean present, dirty past

Rwanda: Kigali, Nyamata, Butare

When taken at face value, Kigali is a vibrant, exceptionally clean, safe and progressive city.  Armies of public sector workers constantly groom already immaculate flowerbeds in public spaces, and police officers in crisp uniforms glide along unblemished tarmac on BMW motorcycles.

But even today this apparently utopian capital is, like the rest of the country, defined by the horrific events of 1994.  For example, the Rwandan government is the only one in the world which is comprised of more female members than male, the logic being that a more matriarchal regime is less likely to allow any repeat of the events that Rwanda is still trying to distance itself from.  Another safeguard is the monthly “Umuganda” which, by coincidence, happened to coincide with our visit.  This uniquely Rwandan practice takes place on the last Saturday of each month, and is a rigorously enforced day of community service, compulsory for all citizens from the bottom to the top – even the President himself is not excused.  From early morning until noon Police roadblocks are in force and the streets are eerily devoid of traffic.  But the roadsides and pavements teem with people cutting grass, painting fences and sweeping briskly.  Quite fascinated by this nationwide grime-busting, we learnt that it too has an ulterior motive.  The compulsory participation aims to maintain social cohesion and prevent class or ethnic rifts developing unchecked.

The capital itself has also been remoulded in the wake of 1994.  Grossly overlooked by the international community at the time, aid money (perhaps more accurately described as guilt money) has since poured into Rwanda, helping it to achieve a remarkable turnaround in its infrastructure and redevelopment.

The events themselves of 1994 need no introduction, but little can prepare you for the sensitive but graphic exhibitions at the Kigali Memorial Centre.  Completed in 2004, the primary purpose of this centre is to provide a dignified place of burial for the victims of the genocide and an education resource for future generations.  To date, the remains of over 250,000 bodies are buried here in mass graves, one of which is left open to receive remains which still arrive from around the country. 


The memorial centre is deliberately hard hitting, aiming to dispel the apathy which gripped the rest of the world at the time.  Rows of skulls are on display, as are the personal effects of some of the victims.

The most moving gallery is the one devoted to the child victims.  Here, black and white portraits single out just a dozen or so of the countless infants who were killed in the violence.  Below each picture, a brief text lists their name, age, hobbies, and favourite food.  A final lines states their cause of death which, in each case, was too grotesque to repeat here.  Some of these children were less than two years old.

The final room focuses on other genocides from around the world, including the holocaust, the Balkans conflict, and Cambodia.  This is a stark reminder, if it was needed, that Africa does not have a monopoly on violence.  Europeans have shown themselves every bit as capable of such inhumanity.  The legacy today of Rwanda’s genocide is obvious – a generation of young adults without parents, a disproportionately high HIV rate amongst women who were deliberately infected and, hardest of all to live with, a number of released perpetrators of the violence living alongside the families of their victims.  How Rwandan society has managed to repair itself under these conditions is testament to the African spirit of resilience.

Less visited than the Kigali Memorial Centre, but in a way even more chilling, is the memorial church of Nyamata, about 40km south of Kigali.  It was here that 10,000 men, women and children seeking refuge in the Church were brutally murdered by grenade, machine gun and machete.  The church has been preserved as it was on that day ever since. 

We were the only visitors on the quiet “Umuganda” morning and the unassuming exterior, much like that of any contemporary church anywhere else in the world, gives nothing away about what lies within.  Only as you reach the front doors do you get a clue as to what happened here – the heavy iron gates behind which Tutsis tried to barricade themselves have been bent and broken from the hinges.  Once inside, the scene defies belief.  Bullet holes pockmark the walls and altar and slender shafts of sunlight streak through shrapnel holes in the iron roof.  Along each pew the blood-stained clothing of victims is piled a foot deep.  Our guide here, in her early 30s, was one of the few survivors who escaped.  Silently, and in a matter of fact way, she led us into the crypt where four skulls are given particular prominence.  These clearly demonstrate the four main causes of death – machete, spear, bullet and blunt object. 

The warm sunshine outside only gives brief respite from the sorrow – in front of the church is a mass grave for a further 45,000 unidentified victims.  In the open tomb row upon row of skulls and bones are displayed alongside stacks of coffins.  Each coffin contains the remains of 7 people.  Astonishingly, these memorial sites appeared in almost every town and village we came across.

More uplifting, is the National Museum in Butare, which focusses on traditional arts and contemporary society.  Today the facts are encouraging – a growing IT sector, agriculture and free education for all.  But challenges also remain, with GDP at less than $1,000 and 50% of the population still living in poverty.

Our final night back in Kigali was spent at the *Umubano Hotel*, after an excellent Indian dinner at *Khana Kazana*.  Needless to say a sombre mood still hung over us, as we tried to get our heads around how Hutu propaganda could so effectively cause friends and family to turn on one another.  That can probably never be understood by anyone who didn’t experience it, and we just feel privileged to have met some of the survivors and witnessed the warm hospitality of Rwanda.

Days in Africa: 84
Km driven: 695km

Km total:  12,162km

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