Kigali, Rwanda. I’m sat with my thighs firmly squeezing the man in front of me, my body matches his movements. I occasionally grasp tightly, I’m not in control, but beneath his visor he has kind eyes so I feel safe. I’m sat on the back of a moto taxi, a common sight here in the capital. You can’t walk five feet without one beeping you or pulling along side. He weaves our way through the city and I can’t help but think that if we go down, the gravel rash on my hip (that’s cyclist talk for graze) will pale in comparison to the flaying I will receive. In actual fact, I am more likely to get sun burnt as we cruise through the brightly lit city. It reminds me of travelling in Asia during one summer at university, care free catching scooters around Phnom Penh or Saigon.
We arrive unscathed, but a little red, at my destination The Kigali Genocide Memorial. It’s a particularly moving place which is necessarily graphic. As you make your way through the exhibits, people murmur to one another under their breath in a respectful quiet as they flow from room to room. I will not feign to have an intermit knowledge of the events that preceded the 7 April 1994. Other than reading up on Rwanda before leaving the UK, the extent of my knowledge of the genocide that took place during the nineties was limited to the fact that there was an ethnic cleansing of the Tutsi people by the ruling class of the Hutu.
Following independence from Belgium in 1962 a social divide, which stemmed from so-called anthropological classing of the population by the colonial powers that be, was based on physical appearance and supposed physical ability and intellectual capacity. The ruling class, the Hutu, made up approximately 85% of the population and the remaining Tutsi became socially alienated, deemed inferior and unworthy. Propaganda brewed discord and mistrust between neighbours and family who had been living alongside one another for generations. Any Hutu with association with Tutsi, be it social or economic, would be deemed a traitor to their people; a society of fear of thou neighbour was orchestrated at a national level.
Something big was building in the country, pieces moving into place until checkmate. On the 6th April 1994 when returning from talks with the president of Brundi, the President Juvénal Habyarimana and the Brundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira were killed as their plane, in the approach to Kigali airport, was shot down. A militia deployed, road blocks controlled the flow of people, those who identified as Tutsi in their identification documents were persecuted, humiliated, beaten, raped and killed as the government led militia took to the streets. Just like during the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, schools, churches and public meeting points such as stadiums were used as venues to carry out mass genocide.
During this dark period of this vibrant countries recent history, an estimated two million refugees fled to the neighbouring states of Uganda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Over one million people lost their lives in the most brutal fashion as the militia swept the country with machete and blunt rudimentary instruments. You could write a dissertation on the causes and events of the genocide that occurred just over twenty years ago. But the signs were there for the global community to see, yet little to no steps where taken by the global community at large, or the United Nations.
Following the Holocaust, the United Nations introduced a convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948). This was largely ineffective and the international community have failed on numerous occasions to act in an effective manner time and again. Following the Kosovo crisis the Aegis Trust, located in the UK, was established with the aim of increasing the understanding of the causes and the consequences of genocide. It is dedicated to the survivors, education of the public, research for decision makers and remembrance of the victims of genocide.
Aegis focuses on the long term causes and the aftermath which will affect generations and is responsible for the creation of the Genocide Memorial in Kigali and the UK Holocaust Centre among others. It monitors and responds to genocide threats worldwide. Other organisations in this space include Human Rights Watch, Forum on Early Warning Response, International Alert, Prevent Genocide International and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
For the victims and their families, the memorial is a place to visit lost loved ones. Over 250,000 souls are buried here en masse. And for the people of the nation of Rwanda it is a place to learn, understand and heal after the atrocities of the past. The events of the 90s affect every member of the population and the scars both physical, mental and on a national level will take time to heal; generations. The healing starts with understanding.
It’s a place of education as well as remembrance. Whilst I walk round I am accompanied by a few other lonesome tourists, a grieving son, a platoon of soldiers in uniform, locals and a group of school children. The nation is taking steps to ensure that the national psyche is aware of the past and alert to the horrors that come from lack of acceptance. I think I am correct in saying that Rwanda is the one country which has installed in its national school curriculum peace education – first developed right here at the Memorial.
The last exhibit is the most moving, The Lost Children. Blurred photos of smiling faces of small children line the walls beneath which small details of their lives are out lined. It’s a simple exhibit.
Hubert, age: 2, favourite food: rice with sauce, killed by: gun shot.
Patrick, age: 5, favourite sport: riding bicycle, killed by: machete.
Yvanne and Yves, brother and sister, age: 5 & 3, daddy’s girl and mummy’s boy, killed by: hacked with machete at grandma’s.
Fillette, age: 2, favourite toy: doll, killed by: smashed against a wall.
It paints a harrowing image but at the entrance to the final exhibit, which is undoubtably the most moving aspect of the memorial for me is inscribed:
“Visitors come as Tutsi or Hutu to the memorial leave as one, Rwandan.”
We will remember them.
I leave you with this:
“This is our past and our future;
Our nightmares and our dreams;
Our fear and our hope;
Which is why we begin where we end…
With the country we live…”