No matter which part of the world you come from, this is the one place you must visit in your lifetime – to be reminded and re-educated of life’s fragility and the danger of the human vulnerability.
In 100 days, an estimated 1,000,000 Rwandans were killed in the genocide. Imagine what the world would be if we actually spent 100 days making love, and not war. I was just a kid during the Rwanda Genocide but I was conscious of what was going on, and since vowed to visit the memorial at my first chance in Kigali.
I am in Kigali for only 24 hours. As soon as I arrive in Rwanda, I ask our hosts right at the airport about how far the Genocide Memorial is and if it opens on Sundays. Thankfully, they open on Sundays too.
Read about my 24 hours in Kigali
Accompanied by Sauti Sol and some of their band members, we head over to the memorial on Sunday afternoon. I am so touched that the management stayed open past working hours, for us. We are met and welcomed by the best historian and guide I’ve met in my history of visiting museums and places – Bonheur Pacifique. Quite the name!
The remains of over 250,000 have been buried here at the Genocide Memorial, set up to prevent mass atrocity and genocide through education. I am impressed by the structural prowess behind it and the neatness and cleanliness of the memorial. Nestled above one of Rwanda’s many hills, overlooking the beautiful picturesque view of Kigali city, this has become Rwandans place of reuniting with the ones they lost in the genocide. I am embraced by a feeling of serenity, peace and purity soon after walking in. I am suddenly empowered to be strong-minded and brave. I am ready to learn about the genocide atrocity. Something tells me that I won’t sob here, today.
Honouring Rwanda’s Lost Souls
We start the visit by watching a short film at a small and intimate film room with wooden benches. The film is about survivors of the genocide, recalling the events that lead to losing their families, and how they have since found closure at the memorial. I am very touched by the story of a middle-aged man recounting how his whole family was slaughtered in a stadium, where they had been seeking refuge. “I looked over and saw my mother bleeding. She raised her dress to show me my small brother lying beneath her – dead. When I started to cry, she told me to shut up. And if I were to die, then I’d rather do it with grace. I ran off and never looked back. That was the last time I saw my family alive.” I am crying writing this because it pains me. At the memorial, however, I only shed one tear because there was a big voice of reason that asked me to remain strong for these poor people. Another woman recounts how her family’s beloved neighbours turned against them during the genocide, ending up murdering her siblings and parents, retorting that she will never trust a friend. At the end of the film, all the survivors praise the memorial as the place where they unite with the loved ones they lost.
We then head over to the mass grave, situated in the garden area, to lay a wreath of flowers – the first thing done for anyone who comes here, states Bonheur. I haven’t even gone into the memorial yet I am so overwhelmed by the spirits here. I deeply empathise with their families and hope that they have found rest. The black and white colours on top of the wooden coffins represent “mourning and commemoration designed to reflect where the country has been and the brighter future that we are working towards,” says Bonheur. We all hold hands as Bien leads us in prayer.
Rwandan Genocide history | Role of Colonialists
We then head inside the building into the memorial’s archive where Bonheur takes us through Rwanda’s history before the wahala. It is eye-opening to peak into pre-colonial Rwanda when Rwandese people had no tribe and spoke only one language: sharing peace, love, unity, collaboration and one culture. Trouble began when the white man came to divide to rule. German and Belgian colonialists wearing anthropology masks in disguise were on a mission to split Rwandans. “Colonialists used social and economic stratification as their strong points of dividing Rwandans.” By 1932, the first Rwandese ID cards were introduced. Identification was based on physical features including height, length of nose, colours of the eyes, and wealth. “If you had more than 10 cows, then you were a Tutsi and it meant that you were rich. Hutus had less cows. Long noses indicated that you were a Tutsi and the short ones made one a Hutu.”
What this means is that you could be in a family with siblings who were half Tutsi or Hutu.
Over the next couple of decades, Rwandans go through a series of fascist governments and propaganda filled media to an extent that social revolution becomes a basic need. By the time the French colonisers take over Rwanda from the Belgians, there was already distinct animosity between the two tribes. From the 50s, Tutsis were singled out from the country’s system – it was total segregation. By the early 90s many Tutsis had fled the country and were ready to start a civil war against the country. Anything and everything that went wrong in the country would be blamed on Tutsis. “You are a Tutsi, you are a cockroach and you are a snake ” –Tutsis had to be reminded. “If you were Rwandan and you didn’t attack the Tutsi, then you were going against nationalism. This is the process that led to the institutionalism of the Genocide of Rwanda,” says Bonheur, adding, “This was taught in schools and every level of the country.”
“The country smelled of death, dogs were [mauling human remains]. Everything was dead, physical or otherwise.” – Bonheur sets the scene. “Families were completely wiped out without anything to document them. The country smelled like death, it was total turmoil and chaos. For 100 days, that’s what we woke up to – killing people. People looked for hiding places.” We are taken through the tools and weapons that were used to kill people. They included machetes, clubs, chains, bricks, stones and classic guns. Rwanda’s ministry of agriculture then imported clubs from China to facilitate the war. In schools, children were given assignments to make tools to facilitate the genocide, unbeknownst to them.
Mass raping of women was prevalent during the genocide. The chosen men to rape had been prior identified as HIV+ This was to ensure that women were left permanently scared had they survived the genocide, and the ordeal. “The genocidaires had been more successful in their evil aims than anyone would have dared to believe. Rwanda was dead”– writes the memorial.
Pictures in this part of the memorial are very graphic.
BONUS: My condolences and love to all the lost souls and survivors. A huge thanks to my Kigali connect: Bruce, Bonheur and Nelson. For more, read the Genocide Memorial’s site
Read last part of my tales on Visiting Kigali Memorial Centre here.