Rwanda is commonly described as the “Land of a Thousand Hills.” It is a country of mountains, hills and rolling earth with hardworking farmers laboring on patchwork fields as far as your eyes can see. It is a country of extremes with proud boulangeries operating in flurries of French and mighty silverback gorillas. And unfortunately, as we all know, it is also a country of genocide. Describing Rwanda today and ignoring the fallout from the genocide wouldn't paint an accurate picture, only an unacceptably incomplete one. Sometimes when you visit a museum, you only glance fleetingly at some exhibits and occasionally stop to perhaps read a plaque or two before strolling through to see what the hype was all about. Sometimes though, you let yourself become totally engulfed in the pictures, you read every narration, you watch each film in its entirety, and you stare at every murdered face as if you had seen it somewhere in some life before. Stumbling into this small, landlocked country, I set aside an hour or two on my first morning to visit the two small floors of the famous Kigali Genocide Memorial museum. I left nearly four hours later.
Photo: Amy Yu
(click to enlarge)
Rwanda was first colonized by Germany in the early 1900's when it was inhabited peacefully by three tribes. Post WWI, Rwanda came under control of the Belgians and thus French influence. In 1932, the colonial powers made the first divisions between Tutsis and Hutus. Anybody with ten cows (no, seriously) was deemed a Tutsi, and anybody with less was deemed a Hutu. It didn’t matter if your cows had just given birth or that you only had five cows the next week, and it didn’t matter what tribe you belonged to before this official division. The Belgians implemented an ID card system that clearly labeled you as one or the other. Over the years, Tutsis climbed the class system and became highly favored for jobs, approvals, positions, etc. A few years before Rwanda's independence (circa 1960), a Belgian army official decided to build a heavily Hutu army and, intentionally or not, military power shifted dramatically in favor of the Hutus. Two years later, Rwanda gained independence and the dam broke - Hutus (85%) unleashed a discrimination against the Tutsis (15%) that grew out of decades of resentment. Killings, abuse, "practice massacres" ensued over the next thirty years, and a country which once spoke the same language, told the same tribal myths, and shared the same families was completely torn apart. The French government, all the while, underwrote Hutu arms deals with Egypt, and sent arms and supported the training of the Hutu militia in these endeavors. Hutu propaganda infiltrated the entire country and the “Hutu 10 Commandments” permeated Rwanda’s psyche. Even moderate Hutus were no longer safe themselves. If a Hutu married, did business with, sheltered, or befriended a Tutsi, he was just as guilty as the Tutsi himself.
The actual Genocide transpired in 1994. Over one million Tutsis were slaughtered outright. Nearly 75% of Rwandans were displaced. Masses became refugees in Zaire, Uganda, Tanzania, and the Congo. The international community, including the US, received warnings. But when the genocide hit and raged for 100 days, no one did a thing about it. The UN actually pulled head count from the area at a time when troops that were sent to evacuate foreigners and diplomatic personnel would have been enough to stop the genocide itself. Hutu husbands murdered Tutsi wives, Hutu mothers slaughtered their Tutsi children. All normal ingredients of genocide were present: rape, guns, machetes, babies being smashed into walls, torture, burning, forced killings, friends betraying friends, family betraying family. Priests betrayed entire congregations and burned their own churches full of people fleeing to assumed safety. No Tutsi was spared. From the elderly to the babies, everybody was killed in ways similarly horrifying beyond comprehension.
Photo: Amy Yu
(click to enlarge)
Post-genocide refugee populations of Hutus and Tutsis are scared to return to Rwanda. In fact, these refugees are now the main proponents of wars like the one raging in neighboring Congo. Tutsis are repeatedly discouraged from returning home for fear that the genocidal violence has not ended. And, to be frank, they have nothing to return to. Hutus fear blame, guilt, and punishment. The country, in short, is a mess. Of course, the current president is working on promoting a “One Country-One Peoples” sort of deal. There are no longer Hutus and Tutsis, but only Rwandans. Walking the streets here in Kigali, the atmosphere is strangely muted and suppressed. The city center is quiet and eerily calm, shrouded in a blanket of reserve so uncharacteristic of an African capital. The air is thick and sterile. This is a country recovering from genocide and awkwardly struggling in self-repair. Kigali was in the thick of it - the epicenter of hate proliferation. Bodies during the genocide were piled up in the streets of Kigali…piles and piles…bodies strewn everywhere. The streets now have been cleared of course, but I can't help but imagine where piles may have lay as I ride on a motorbike down to the post office. You see who must have been a Hutu walking here alongside a Tutsi there, but when they laugh, are they really laughing? Have the Tutsis really forgiven? It was described that not all Hutus were evil, “perhaps 90% were evil, 5% were neutral, and 5% were good.” The genocide touched every Rwandan from the capital to the rurals.
Every Rwandan in his family has somebody who was a victim or was a perpetrator. Every Rwandan, everybody I see in the streets here in Kigali was affected. You cannot escape understanding that the genocide was just that widespread. It's probably not right for me to wonder like this, but I can't help it. My mototaxi driver looks about 30, which puts him at 15 around the time of the genocide. Was he hiding? Did he see his mother killed in front of him? Or perhaps, he was one of the infamous youth militia and he himself had hacked several children up? Did he rat out a neighbor? How did he get that horrible permanent rip in his nostril? And what about the guy who checked me into my cage of a hotel room? What about the guy sitting next to me on the bus? That group of teenage guys always huddled in front of the internet cafe I go to? Are they all genocide orphans? Do they all live with strangers who took in groups of orphans because it is what they hoped someone might do for their children if they were killed? What about him, and him, and him? You just don't know. Once you are actually aware of what happened and the aftermath consequences, the questions are never-ending.
Even harder still is to voice any of my questions about the genocide. Obviously, you must be sensitive and out of respect you can't just walk around asking: "So, you a Hutu or a Tutsi? Anybody in your family killed? You kill anybody? Do you have friends on the other side right now?" I wonder and I wonder. I stare at people and I wonder. I walk with people and I wonder. However I know that my wondering now is less important than the fact that this man may have seen his mother raped, tortured, and hacked to death when he was but a child. Or what if this man, brainwashed and in rage, smashed babies against the wall? What the hell would he say? How would he respond to my wondering? I also wonder, wonder, wonder about exactly how much has been forgiven? Fourteen years is not that long. Most of the Rwandans walking the street now lived through those horrible years. Can you really forgive the neighbor who ratted you out, led the group to your house and chopped up your children and your wife? What if you don't even know whom you are to forgive? Imagine the internal struggle these people must live with today.
Photo: Amy Yu
(click to enlarge)
Being here now, it is truly mind-blowing that something like this could have transpired only little more than 10 years ago. You think about it, and while these absolute atrocities were unfolding here in Africa, I was a 10-year old playing in the yard with my little brother in safe America. Personally, I suppose visiting Rwanda firsthand brought me to a more tangible awareness of the genocide. We see these things in our newspapers but we aren't really reading, and we sure aren't really caring. We don't know these people. Sure it sucks for them, but this is a problem that is far, far away and isn’t ours. I'm not much of a bleeding heart or one to run around and preach about all the horrible wars raging in our imperfect world, but one outstanding feature of the Rwandan Genocide is that nobody internationally gave a damn. It's as if we automatically brushed it off like "Oh, in Africa? Again? More black people getting raided, raped and killed.... sigh, too bad..." And this isn't thinking that has stopped in recent years, think Darfur, think about what's happening in the Congo?
We need to remember that the people here in Africa are just as much people as you or me. It sounds unnecessary to even articulate and emphasize it, but I know many people really don't believe that. You don't believe it until you meet the people, see the people, befriend and talk to the people. They don't have as much money as we do, they don't dress as well and they may not be as educated. But they laugh at the same jokes, they love their families like we do, they work extremely hard (if not much harder) than we do at staying alive. You see it in their eyes, you feel it in their embraces, you hear it in their laughter. They have just as much of a right to be alive and to be cared about as anybody else in this world. Just because they are off on a "lawless, problematic, dark" continent doesn't mean that they don't exist.
The second floor of the Memorial houses an excellent exhibit putting Rwanda into context with other Genocides of the past. It is not until I see this exhibit that I realize how too common genocide actually is in our world and that I have already perchance traveled to too many countries of genocide: Germany, Poland, Cambodia, Turkey, Namibia, Bosnia... Last month I was in Israel/Palestine. And now, Rwanda. That's nearly a genocide visited on most continents! It's not often that I am sad, and certainly not often that I am sad when traveling, but I suppose you have to see it to believe it or in this case to feel it. If you saw this firsthand too, you would undoubtedly feel sadness as well. Genocide is a ghastly issue in our world today that, as primitive and seemingly beneath our “evolvement”, it seems is very much still a problem. I am frightened to discover how many more countries of genocide a common traveler could yet wander into.