Rwanda 17 Years After

May 7, 2011                  Kigali, Rwanda                                                   

During my time in Arusha, Tanzania I sat in on one of the hearings of the Rwandan Criminal Tribunal at the UN that were well under way. After going through extensive security measures, I entered a dark corridor where I was given a headset translating the trial in different languages. I took a seat behind the glass wall that separated me from the accused defendants facing the UN panel. I watched as they questioned a man (whose back was to me and face was hidden behind a curtain for security purposes) about his whereabouts in 1994, his connection to the Rwandan uprisings, and the hand he played in ending the lives of millions of people.I was left with many questions: How did the UN determine who should be tried and who would be let go? What instigated so much hatred that resulted in the death of millions of people? And who was really responsible?

Exactly two weeks later, I boarded a tiny propeller plane and thirty minutes later landed in Kigali, Rwanda, attempting to get some answers. Lynette, a Kenyan girl I had connected with through couchsurfing, had arranged for a driver to pick me up from the airport and take me to her home where she had a spare bedroom I could stay in.  I walked out of the airport terminal and someone stopped me and said, “Hi are you Roxana? I am Kolfi, the driver Lynette sent.” I loaded my baggage into his car and was immediately struck by how jovial this man was. In his limited English he eagerly explained what a wonderful country Rwanda is to live in, how much he respects the president, and how everyone has so much love and compassion for each other. As he was depicting this glorified portrait of Rwanda I thought to myself, are we talking about the same country that less than 2 decades ago experienced one of the most savage genocides the world has seen?

As we drove through the streets of Kigali I was shocked. I saw a developed, cosmopolitan city filled with modern grocery stores, high rise buildings, elegant homes, and sophisticated young business people all set along the backdrop of beautiful green rolling hills, giving Rwanda its namesake, the land of a thousand hills. After 2 months of being in Africa I had become accustomed to the chaos: cows roaming the streets, people pushing one another, unpaved roads and garbage everywhere. In stark contrast, in Kigali I saw streets that were spotless (plastic bags are illegal), structured traffic signals with crosswalks, police guards on every corner, and even people queuing to board the bus. My initial impression was that, ironically, Rwanda was one of the most organized societies I had seen yet.

After a few days in awe of what is Kigali, I finally mustered up the energy to achieve what I had come to Rwanda to do –learn more about the genocide. I hired a boda boda (tiny scooter motorcycles and in Rwanda they actually give you helmets) to drive me down the 1 mile of winding green hills until I reached the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum.

I entered the stairs of the museum and felt a wave of heavy solemnness take over. I glanced across the courtyard and saw the torch that represents the eternal flame that will always burn for the genocide victims. On the other side were rows of Rwandans sitting on wooden benches mourning their loved ones.  Some appeared to be numb, others cried, most tried to comfort their parents or siblings; they all wore purple ribbons or t-shirts representing remembrance and commemoration of the genocide.

I crossed the courtyard of the museum, passing the mourners and unsure of the appropriate protocol for places of grieving; I was curious to look and acknowledge their pain yet uncomfortable with intruding on others’ traumatic recollections.

I made it to the entry of the museum and approached the reception desk.  As the staff person was explaining the set-up of the museum I heard a screeching wail come from the stairs. I turned to see a woman almost fainting being dragged up the stairs by two men as she howled and cried.  I have never heard screams filled with so much pain and terror.  The museum receptionist leaned into me and explained, “This woman, like many others, lost her son in the genocide. The museum triggered all her traumatic memories. If it’s too hard for you to see you can just look away.”  The truth is I did want to look away – seeing someone else in that much pain was in fact too hard to see.  Yet, that was the reason why the genocide happened in the first place; the whole world looked away. So for the first time since I arrived in Rwanda, I bore witness to the pain as the scars of the genocide rose to the surface and hit me like a ton of bricks.

The Rwandan Genocide

The killings began in April of 1994 and lasted for 100 days. In the course of 100 days, 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally killed making it one of the most tragic and violent incidents of ethnic cleansing our world has seen. Women were raped, children’s heads were bashed in and millions were killed with machetes and other low-grade weapons.  Each year, April (coincidentally the same month I arrived in the country) marks the beginning of the time of commemoration that Rwandans observe to remember the tragedy that struck their country; this year marked the 17th anniversary.

As I walked through the museum I asked myself the same questions I asked in the killing fields in Cambodia. How can human beings inflict this sort of cruelty upon one another? How are mass killings of this scale executed and why couldn’t anyone stop it?

The more time I spent in Rwanda, the more I began to understand. The genocide didn’t just happen but was being designed for decades. Early in Rwanda’s history all people of the land were one. Soon after, ethnic separations began and divided people in Hutus (the majority) and Tutsis (the minority). Though the colonizers did not invent these distinctions, Belgian colonialism played a major role in establishing the tensions between the Tutsi and Hutu people as they conquered and divided. Under Belgian rule, ID cards were issued to separate ethnic groups and a system of granting privilege to Tutsis was established – those who owned land or a cow were named Tutsis, while laborers were Hutus. Though not consistently the case, Tutsis also tended to have lighter skin and more European features as compared to Hutus who had more tribal African features. After colonialism ended, Europeans continued their legacy by putting a small number of Tutsis in power. This created a great deal of resentment among the Hutu majority and propaganda through media was used to generate hate and fear of Tutsis. A plan to transfer power from Tutsis to Hutus began in the 60’s and by the early 90’s had transformed into a full-fledged plot to ethnically cleanse all Tutsis from Rwanda. A list of Tutsi names was circulated by the Hutu Militia, or the Interhamwe, and an order that all Tutsis must be “cut down like tall trees” was made.

On April 6, 1994, the airplane carrying the then Rwandan and Burundi Presidents, was shot down as it prepared to land in Kigali, killing everyone on board; the attack and deaths of the two Hutu presidents served as the catalyst for the genocide. From this day, the Interhamwe systematically set out to murder all the Tutsis they could reach along with the moderates Hutus that did not corroborate with their plan. They incited Hutu civilians to participate in the killings using radio broadcasts to tell them to kill their Tutsi neighbors. Though UN officials in Rwanda gave warning of the preparations of the genocide to the headquarters, the UN did not take these warnings seriously and then pulled their peacekeepers out of the country once the violence broke out, turning their backs on Rwanda.

The now lakeside resort town of Gisyeni, a place I visited during my time in Rwanda, was the first location of killings on a genocidal scale and was also the center of anti-Tutsi sentiment. This spread quickly and once the genocide was underway, road blocks were employed to trap Tutsis. Since Tutsis had already become geographically segregated execution plans were easy to carry out. Most victims were killed in their own villages, homes, churches and school buildings, often by their neighbors and fellow villagers. The militia typically murdered victims by machetes, although rifles and other weapons were also used.  In the course of 100 days 1 million people were massacred; that means 10,000 murders every day, 400 every hour,  and 7 every minute. Only 300,000 Tutsis survived as the country lost 20% of its population.

Faces Behind the Genocide

I visited the Kigali Genocide Museum twice during my time in Rwanda trying to soak up as much as I could about the Tutsi genocide but still, I was determined to learn more. I called Kolfi, the taxi driver who picked me up at the airport, and asked if he would be willing to take me around to some of the various memorial sites; he warmly agreed.

The next day he arrived in his car and explained that first he will take me to a church about an hour from Kigali. On the way there we spoke very little as he played some native Rwandan music for me on his car stereo in the same cheerful way he did the day I met him. We arrived at the site and as I approached the entrance I saw Kolfi following behind. Unsure of his connection to the genocide I told him he did not have to come with me as it may be too graphic. He nodded but followed me anyway.

I entered a small village church where 10,000 people were murdered in one day. Bullet holes covered the walls and ceilings. I looked at the pews piled high with the victims’ clothes. I walked around and picked up their items one by one: watches, necklaces, ID Cards, children’s jackets, and blankets. I felt oddly detached. I couldn’t make the connection that these people had come to the church for refuge and were murdered a week later and now, only their belongings remain. I walked down the stairs to what use to be the bathroom of the church. Now it is occupied by a tall bookcase full of mutated skulls. I looked at the thousands of skulls and eventually built up the courage to reach in and pick one up. The jaw was bashed in, head cracked, and the remaining parts mutated. As I held the skull in my hand I felt numb – I wanted to cry but tears wouldn’t fall, I wanted to scream but no sound would come out. I turned to see Kolfi standing behind me as he watched me put the skull back in the case and said, “Come on Roxana, let’s go. We still have more to see.”

We got back in the car and as soon as we started driving Kolfi said, “What I remember about that time was the dogs were healthy and full.”  I assumed this was from consuming human flesh.  I was silent. He quickly changed the subject and asked me if I had gone to see the gorillas (the major tourist attraction in Rwanda) or trekking in the mountains. I responded no and said I had come to Rwanda to see this. Surprised he nodded his head and said, “Thank you, for seeing our history.”

We arrived at the next site, again another church. The guide seemed grim and sad as she gave me a tour of the memorial. She showed me the suitcases and items such as pots and pans families had brought with them from their homes to the church. She said, “No one thought they would die. They had always been safe in the church and they had no reason to believe this time would be any different.” The difference was that many of the priests and pastors were forced into collaborating with the Interhamwe and disclosed the churches where Tutsis were hiding. I walked into one of the backrooms with a huge hole in the brick wall. The guide explained a grenade had been thrown at the room killing thousands at once. We walked inside of the room beside it and she said, “This was the Sunday school for the church but once the soldiers arrived, they used this room to murder the children.” I could still see the stains of blood on the brick wall.

We left the memorial and again Kolfi was quiet. I asked him if he wanted to go to lunch and suddenly in broken English he pointed to a river and said, “See that. I almost died there. This whole river was filled with human blood. The soldiers caught me and put a machete to my head.” He leaned over and bowed his head to show me the scar. His optimistic nature, that was ever so present when I first met him, suddenly disappeared and he was brought back to a place of pain and tragedy.

He continued, “They thought I was dead and they had done their job so they left me and honestly, I thought I was dead as well. But I wasn’t. Somehow I survived.  I dragged myself away and got some help and then escaped the country. That is the only reason I am alive today.”

Every person in Rwanda today has a story like Kolfi’s. As my time in the country progressed I heard more narratives that echoed his experience and further solidified the magnitude of tragedy that took place in this country: Jocelyn, a Tutsi whose family escaped to Ethiopia for refuge and is now a journalist telling the stories of others whose lives are determined by their ethnicity.  Hubert, also a Tutsi, born and raised in neighboring Burundi, forced to escape to France when the genocide hit both countries, with no choice but to live in a country (France) that was providing the weapons to kill his own people. Finally, Aileen and Serge, a young Tutsi couple who moved from the Congo back home to Rwanda after two generations of being refugees. These people all make up the Rwandan diaspora and as I spoke to each of them, I realized there is something that children of all diasporas like myself share. We live in the gray. Like me, they all felt deeply connected to a country they could not see or visit for  most of their lives, yet never felt accepted or at home in their birth country.

During my stay, Serge and Aileen invited me to visit a small girl’s school built by wealthy Seattleites where Aileen worked. On the hour drive through the countryside, Serge would point to various schools and churches along the way strewn with purple ribbon and the words ‘never again’ as he explained, “This is where thousands were massacred in one day.” I still had not become accustomed to these words. Noticing how distraught I was, Serge went on to say, “If we weren’t in the Congo we would all be dead now as well. My mother came from a family of 17. Of all 17 of her siblings only two of them have survived: my mother and one of her brothers.” I realized this is the meaning of whole families and generations of people have been wiped out. He continued on to tell me, “Death is no longer the same meaning or tragedy for us as it is for you in the west. We have become accustomed to it. We have lost so much in our lifetime that we have almost become numb. Death has become a part of our lives. We don’t feel the sting of it anymore.” I was confused and conflicted. What are the implications of this? That people have become immune to pain? That their pain is less significant than ours in the west? That they have been forced to adapt by making numbness their coping mechanism?

Feeling that I had reached a point of comfort and trust with Serge I asked him the question that everyone warned me never to bring up. I said, “How often do you ask someone what group they belong to? Do you tell people you are a Tutsi?” He responded, “We prefer not to talk about it because there is still too much pain and also that’s how Rwandans deal with things. We let emotions bubble under the surface until they explode which is why the genocide happened in the first place. But in this case, the wounds have not healed. If I tell a Hutu I am a Tutsi it is possible that his uncle may have killed my aunt. It is too fresh so it’s better to leave the wounds alone at least for a generation. Some people may think it is avoiding but ignoring and not confronting it….giving it time to heal, is the only option we have.”

I then asked him what he sees for the future of Rwanda – what will the experience of his children be? He said, “The next generation will be different. Our children don’t see these differences or even understand them which gives us hope. Now, everyone is a Rwandan, period.” Interestingly, the coming generation is having the reverse experience – instead of ethnic differences being at the forefront, they are almost totally ignored. In terms of identity, Serge and Aileen’s children are also having an opposite experience. Though Aileen and Serge’s experience as a Rwandan was somewhat removed as they navigated life as an immigrant in the Congo, their children are growing up in Rwanda, their country of origin and feel even more connected to their homeland then their parents. I thought about how it would feel if the regime changed in Iran and I was to move back and my children were to be raised in our home country, feeling more Iranian than myself.

I shared this with Serge. I told him that although I could never understand the trauma his family and country had experienced, somehow I could relate to the feeling of not having a home anywhere and being torn between where you really belong. He listened intently and then said, “You know what Roxana, here’s what I think about that….if you have money, education, and a good career, you have the opportunity to transform the complexity of identity, and turn the experience of being a displaced person into a strength, just as you and I have. But if you remain in poverty you will oppress this and the pain will bring you down. So our only option is making it in life, otherwise the pain is too much to bear.”  I was left thinking hasn’t it already been too much?

Rwanda Moving Forward

Clearly, Rwanda has come a long way since 1994 but the scars still run deep and the past cannot be forgotten. Unlike other post-conflict countries, Rwanda has miraculously rebuilt itself in a short time, making it one of the fastest growing economies in all of Africa. Much of this is due to the efforts of President Paul Kagame who has pushed for development and moving past the tragedy of ‘94. He also has worked to eliminate corruption, minimize poverty, and most importantly cultivate respect and trust in Rwandan citizens.  Just like for Hubert, Jocelyn, Serge and Aileen, Rwandans are now proud of their country and want to be a part of bringing it back to life. They want to be remembered not only as that tiny country in East Africa that experienced a genocide but for how they have risen from that and overcome the ethnic tensions that once dictated their lives.

So instead of focusing on the tragedy, it’s time we start looking to Rwanda to learn how we can improve our own societies: seeing the innovative ways they are dealing with their prison population, how they have strategically used investments to alleviate poverty, and how they have built a bridge between people once deeply divided. Most importantly, we need to look to Rwanda to remind us what happens when we turn our backs and look away. ‘Never again’ is the hope, now it’s up to us to make sure that hope is in fact a reality, not just in Rwanda, but everywhere in the world.

To learn more about the Rwanda and the horrors of the Tutsi genocide:

  • Strength in What Remains by Tracey Kidder 
  • A Thousand Hills :Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It by Stephen Kinzer 
  • We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch
  • Hotel Rwanda (film)
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