When you Google for information on Rwanda, the first thing you are going to find is likely to be about the 1994 genocide. It is only fitting then that my first blog post is about our first day as a group spent visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial. I have to warn you, this is not a happy post – but it sets so much context for my next posts that it is needed. The genocide is an important part of Rwandan history.
The memorial is up on a hill, quiet and peaceful, with only the sound of birds and the occasional sound of traffic far below or workers nearby. When you walk under the gate, you enter a courtyard with a fountain, birds, and trees. A line is strung between the trees and pinned to the line are long ribbons with prayers and memorials written on them.
Passing the ribbons, down a flight of stairs are the graves. Huge raised concrete beds in rows where over 250,000 people killed during the genocide in 1994 are entombed. The graves are surrounded by roses, pergolas and trees – it is a beautiful, quiet, contemplative but very sobering place. Further, past the rose garden, is the open grave. It is similar to the other concrete tombs except it has glass doors over the center. Inside are the coffins and remains of victims shrouded in satin. Here our delegation group, and others, left to baskets of flowers that say “Never Again”.
As a group, we then began the internal tour of the memorial where I learned for the first time that the deep divide between Hutus and Tutsis was mostly a construct of the colonizing Belgians. The division was based on arbitrary factors such as how many cattle a person owned. A person with 10 or more cattle were considered Tutsi and given an ID card stating such. Any one else was labeled Hutu and their ID card identified them as such. Over time, the Belgians created physical characteristics to help bolster the divide, but it was an artificial construct. While a minority (about 10% of the population), the Tutsis were groomed to run the country by the Belgians.
Time went on and the history gets more complicated. Once the Belgian colonization ended, a radical Hutu group became determined to wipe out the Tutsi. In 1990 extensive propaganda campaigns included the passing of the Hutu ten commandments declaring Tutsi to not be human. Hutu males married to a Tutsi woman were expected to kill their wives and no Hutu could do business with a Tutsi – the punishment was death.
Later I learned from one of our guides that after conflict in 1959, an area around the Akagera river was created as a concentration camp for the many of the remaining Tutsi in Rwanda. An undeveloped area about 40 minutes out of Kigali, it later made the mass killing of Tutsi easier in 1994. In fact, after the relocation in 1959, many Tutsi died out due to disease from the Tsetse fly in the area. During the genocide of 1994, the river was clogged with the bodies of the dead.
In April 1994 the full chaos of a mass genocide broke out in Rwanda. Unlike other tragic events in human history where military soldiers were mostly responsible for the deaths, in Rwanda, neighbor turned on neighbor. Fathers killed their children; wives turned against their husbands. One woman told us many Hutu mothers of a mixed marriage were so convinced their babies were not human, that they killed their child. Perhaps it was actually to spare the child from being killed and tortured by others – but perhaps the genocidal propaganda was truly that strong.
People hid in churches, seeking sanctuary – only to provide an easy way for the genocide troops to kill thousands at once. Hutus who supported or helped the Tutsi were killed. As part of the genocide plan, Tutsi women were raped by HIV+ men and left to carry this disease, slowly die from AIDS and destroy any children they may have.
The world stood by and watched the genocide happen. Only when the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) were able to return to Rwanda and take over the country did the genocide end. The RPF were a trained military group consisting of Tutsis who had been exiled in earlier years, many of whom had been living in Uganda. In mid-July 1994 the chaos came to an end.
In the memorial, the historical background is the first part of the memorial. After seeing, reading and hearing about the darkness of 1994, you enter another area when you feel the impact of the human loss. The facts and figures of the first section of the memorial cannot truly communicate the loss. In the second set of rooms is a series of alcoves, each with the photographs of known genocide victims clipped in rows to wires – these photos are brought to the memorial by the families of the victims. The total deaths were over 1 million (in a country of only about 11 million) and the impact of seeing the victims is stunning. Putting faces to the atrocity not only makes it more real, but even more devastating.
The next room contains stacked skulls and bones from victims that have not been identified. Some of these skulls show evidence of being beaten and crushed in. The final room in this section shows the clothing of the unknowns. Dresses, pants, shoes – all found with victims and placed in glass cases.
These rooms are on the inside of the memorial. They are covered in darker fabrics and soft spotlights with no natural light. After these, the final room looks almost hopeful. The entrance is a soft orange and you can see natural light coming in. It is called “The Childrens’ Room”. The entrance has a photo of a child and a plaque saying the room is dedicated to the lost children of Rwanda. You enter a room full of light and that same soft orange color and again you see the wires with photos clipped to them. This time, these photos are of the children murdered in the genocide. You turn a corner and realize it is not one room but many with row after row of photos. If you are human at all, you can’t escape this room without crying – I certainly could not. I was sobbing as I ran for the exit. I walked down to the strange peace of the mass graves where no one else was walking and cried hard.
The sheer destruction of the genocide; the chaos and breaking of a country; the propaganda that turned neighbor on neighbor and family on family – it is horrifying to realize that it all happened only 20 years ago and the world stood by and watched it happen.
Now, Rwandans do not identify as Hutu or Tutsi – the old colonial divide is removed. The Rwandans have had no choice but to move past 1994 and do it with grace. There are many critics of how the Rwandan government is handling things – but many countries could also learn from what they are trying to do here.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” ― Martin Luther King Jr.