Finger Post Travel (August 13, 2017)
(Kigali, Rwanda, July 25-27, 2017)
I had three days in Rwanda , not nearly enough time to give the country the attention it deserved. And one of those days was spent in recovery, nursing what felt like a mild case of food poisoning but was probably just a natural reaction to eating raw meat from a street butcher in Addis Ababa.
My plans to go on a gorilla trek was derailed by the $1,500 gorilla permit, and my plan to do the canopy walk at over the Nyungwe Forest was derailed by the loss one of my three days due to illness.
Hell, even my quest to meet Paul Kagame had hit a roadblock.
But in the end, you can visit Rwanda and skip out on the gorillas and the canopy walk. But any trip to Rwanda will most likely involve coming face to face with the one thing that defines the nation in the eyes of Westerners: genocide.
That is, unless you don’t want to.
You can ignore the dark pages in Rwanda’s history, and Rwanda will even help you do that…if that’s what you really want. Kigali is funny that way. You can make a pit stop at the Hotel des Mille Collines, with its friendly staff and awesome breakfast buffet, and then head west to find mountain gorillas or south to do the canopy walk over the Nyungwe Forest and then fly back home. And you’d be none the wiser that anything bad ever happened in Rwanda. If you haven’t figured out from my last post, Rwanda cleaned itself up nicely.
But despite the fact that Rwanda is willing to let you forget that it was a nation that sadly hosted the most horrific incident of genocide in modern history, they also aren’t willing to brush it under the rug either. They don’t want the world to forget, and if you are willing to step out of your comfort zone, they will make sure that you become witness to the scars of the 1994 genocide.
So after my quest to meet Paul Kagame ended in failure, I decided that I would do a cultural tour of Kigali. In the end that would mean I would go and visit the places that, tragically, would forever be associated with the mass slaughter of over 800,000 innocent Rwandans over a period of three months in 1994. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but at the very least I was hoping to maybe understand how a country full of the warmest and friendliest people could ever become a breading ground for such carnage. This desire became only more pronounced after I arrived in Rwanda. Tragically the West saw the genocide in Rwanda as African tribalism at its worst in 1994. “There was nothing that we could do to stop the slaughter”, or so we told ourselves as we justified our inaction. But once you go to Rwanda you realize that isn’t the case. Once you meet the Rwandan people you come to an uncomfortable truth: if it can happen to them it can happen to anyone. They aren’t barbarians. They aren’t monsters. They aren’t even jerks. They are warm, friendly, people who are probably more relatable to Americans than just about any nation Africa.
After hitting the breakfast buffet at the Hotel des Mille Collines (which incidentally was excellent, and not in an “I just ate raw meat and got sick and all I want is some raisin bran and a piece of toast” sort of way. It really was a great breakfast) I called Alex and told him of my plans. I deferred to Alex’s expertise to a certain extent but I made clear that I wanted to go to the Kigali Genocide Memorial and the Camp Kigali Memorial, where ten Belgium peacekeepers were brutally murdered in the opening days of the conflict.
“And parliament?” Alex asked.
I was indifferent to visiting parliament, but Alex quickly informed me that the country had launched a new museum inside of the national parliament of Kigali: The Campaign Against Genocide Museum. Needless to say I was intrigued. I wondered what a museum inside of a functioning parliament would look like. Especially considering how the national parliament was the scene of some of the fieriest fighting of the war in 1994.
However we kicked off the tour with what would be the least impressive sight I visited in Kigali: The Kandt House Natural History Museum.
I would discover that tickets for the museum weren’t particularly cheap. Don’t get me wrong, in the big picture 6,000 Rwandan Francs (or about $7 USD) isn’t outrageous. But compared to Ethiopia, where their Natural History Museum cost a mere $0.42 and put Rwanda’s to shame, well, $7 did seem a tad bit high. I had been warned about Rwanda on Wikitravel, that it was a surprisingly expensive country. But even with that being said I found that prices in Rwanda were not necessarily unreasonable, and there was a fairly large strike zone when it came to prices in Kigali. They ranged from the extremely cheap to the slightly expensive. But nothing like you’d see in Japan…or Venezuela if you didn’t know about the black market exchange rate. For a ticket to two museums, this one and the Presidential Palace Museum, I coughed up 9,600 Francs (this after a 20% discount for buying both tickets at once), but I quickly found the gift shop at the natural history museum to be one of the best places to stock up on souvenirs in Africa. One large carved wooden statute set me back a mere 13,050 RWF (about $15) and had I had more space in my suitcase I would have bought several more.
But again, the museum was a letdown. It was mostly a collection of basic exhibits ranging in subject to the geography and minerals of Rwanda to the wildlife. Interestingly enough there was a room displaying a exhibit about the European who built the house: Richard Kandt. The exhibit was in German, so needless to say I couldn’t read any of it. But I could tell this exhibit was nonetheless unusual. There seemed to be genuine affection for Kandt, both from my guide and from the display. Again, I couldn’t read any of it, and when you don’t know what you’re looking at and just have to go with the general vibe of things, well, you can miss the mark.
Still, I left feeling under whelmed, and was also slightly irritated that photos were prohibited inside the museum. Nonetheless, things looked up once I got outside: the view of Kigali from the back of the museum was extraordinary, and the outdoor display of a stuffed gorilla gave me fond memories of a obscure Saturday Night skit from 1989 involving Leslie Neilsen being chased by a guy in a gorilla suit through London (funny the things you think about after eating raw meat in Ethiopia).
But it was time to move on. Alex then took me to the first stop on what I guess I’d have to call the “genocide” tour. The Camp Kigali Memorial, the sight of one of the most shocking moments of the 1994 genocide: the murder of ten Belgium soldiers on April 7, 1994 in the opening hours of the genocide. The Belgians were sent by Canadian General Romero Dallaire, head of the UN Peacekeeping force in Rwanda, to the home of the Rwandan Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana.
Uwilingiyimana was a political moderate who supported the peace accords with the Rwandan Patriotic Front. This sadly made her a prime target for the genocidal Interahamwe paramilitary organization in Rwanda. Initially Westerners saw the Rwandan Genocide as tribalism run amok in 1994: anarchy coupled with ancient hatreds leading to an indiscriminate and disorganized slaughter. But it soon became clear that this was not the case (to be honest, it should have been clear three months before the genocide occurred when an informant emerged to tell the U.N. that the Interahamwe was planning to kill 1,000 Tutsis every twenty minutes) . This was a well planned and well executed system of human extermination. And tragically for the Belgians soldiers, they were part of the plan. In 1999, after an independent inquiry into the actions of the UN, it was revealed that the Interahamwe had planned to kill the Belgian peace keepers from the start. They knew that Belgian blood would be the surest way to drive the UN out of Rwanda. The Interahamwe also needed to remove “moderate” Hutus in the government, which put a target on the back of Uwilingiyimana. In the chaotic opening hours of the Rwandan Genocide General Dallaire ordered ten Belgian peace keepers to accompany the Prime Minister to the radio station where she could call for calm after the assassination of Rwanda’s then president Juvenal Habyarimana on April 6th, 1994. They never made it. After the Rwandan Presidential Guard turned on the Prime Minister and the U.N. Peace Keepers, Uwilingiyimana and her husband would be executed at the Kigali U.N. volunteer compound.
For the ten young Belgium peace keepers, the horror was only beginning. After surrendering to the Presidential Guard, they were soon transported to Camp Kigali, and visiting Camp Kigali you can’t help but think of those frantic final hours for those Belgium peace keepers in 1994. But as is often the case with civil wars, the truth seems to be somewhat clouded. The 1999 UN independent report simply states that the ten peacekeepers were brutally murdered after surrendering. This account seems to be backed up by author and journalist Scott Peterson, who said the men were castrated and choked to death with their own genitals. But the building seems to want to tell another story. Of a few men who fought against impossible odds. According to this account, which is backed up by Wikipedia (a source that unfortunately has considerably more credibility when it comes to the Rwandan Genocide than the United Nations) three Blue Helmets would fight their way through a mob of hundreds of armed Hutus. One, Srg. Yannick Leroy, actually managed to disarm one of the armed Hutus and seize his AK-47 (I know we Americans are somewhat dismissive of our Belgium allies when it comes to their military prowess, but there is a special table of honor for that soldier in Valhalla). Sadly, by 1 PM, nearly eleven hours after he was sent to the Prime Minister’s home, Sergeant Leroy was dead. The last Belgium Blue Helmet, out of bullets and tragically abandoned by the United Nations, was killed by the mob at Camp Kigali.
The place is quiet now. Other than Alex and I the place is deserted when we arrive. But the bullet-hole riddled building tells its own story.
The Rwandans put up a plaque commemorating the ten soldiers who lost their lives, and also a monument to the men.
The strange thing is, even though the place is empty, I can’t help but feel claustrophobic while walking through the compound. You can’t help but feel how trapped those men must have felt when visiting Camp Kigali. Even if you are the only one there.
We then hit our next stop on the Rwandan “genocide history” tour: The Kigali Genocide Memorial.
I wasn’t sure what to expect at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, I had already been to the Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum in Addis Ababa earlier in the week, and I also had been to Auschwitz some twenty years ago. But despite seeing the Red Terror Museum and Camp Kigali, the museum was still a gut punch. Early on you see a sign saying that over 250,000 people are buried at the site. That small sign hit harder than anything else on the trip. The entire population of Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, and North Dakota were buried in an area smaller than Central Park…and this was less than a third of the people killed in only 100 days in 1994.
The museum inside gave a powerful account of the events that led to the genocide, from the colonial era all the way to the “Hutu Ten Commandments”, which really should have probably been taken more seriously than it ultimately was.
Also included were hundreds of haunting photos of the victims of the genocide, photos that carried even more of an impact then the ones I saw in Addis Ababa or Auschwitz. Because these folks were children of the 90s. They may have been of a different race and from a different country, but looking at the photos I could see myself and my friends In these pictures. This didn’t feel like history, this felt like my high school yearbook.
The Memorial also had a room where they discussed other instances of genocide that the world witnessed and ignored: Armenia, Nazi Germany, Yugoslavia, Cambodia, and Namibia. (I couldn’t find Rios Montt’s display, but I’m sure it was there somewhere…probably next to the Biafra display).
There was also a powerful display in the “Children’s Room”, with photos of some of the children killed during the genocide. As with Auschwitz, the image of children so senselessly murdered for no reason other than race was a shocking one…and a stark reminder of what manufactured hate and fear can do to ordinary people.
By this point the day was coming to a close and I decided to hire Alex to take me to Parliament the following day. I needed to absorb what I saw, and there were quite a few stops left that night and for my final day in Kigali.
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