Every year Rwanda commemorates the horrific events of 1994, which in Rwanda are officially called the Genocide against the Tutsi. Around 800,000 people died during a mass slaughter over just 100 days.It all started on 7th April and every year on this day Rwandans commemorate this painful period of their nation’s very recent history. This annual remembrance lasts for 100 days as well and formally ends in July. It’s a sensitive time as nearly everyone relives their trauma, and every family in Rwanda was touched by the Genocide. There are still many people who lost all of their family members and are sole survivors. Countless books and analyses have been written, and films and documentaries made about the cause of the Genocide and what was happening during those 3 months of absolute horror so I won’t go into much detail here. At the end of this post is a list of books worth reading and some films worth watching if you’re interested in finding out more.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial is located near the city centre and it’s very quick and easy to get to by car or taxi. The entrance fee is $15 and you get an audio guide for free. You can also book a guided tour for a group of at least 4 people. Some of the guides are survivors of the Genocide and therefore offer a more personal account of the events (this reminds me of tours of the prison on Robben Island in Cape Town where the guides are former prisoners and many knew Nelson Mandela personally). I went for the audio guide this time but will definitely go back to do the guided group tour as well.
The tour begins with a short film which gives you some general background information about the Genocide. Even though I have done quite a lot of research about it, it still is this sort of thing that leaves you speechless. The main piece of mind-boggling information is that over 250,000 bodies are buried at the Memorial… The exact number is not known as many remains are still unidentified. You need to remember that whole families were killed so there may not have been anyone left to look for a lost relative…
The next stop is the Museum – and it’s a very good exhibition that takes the visitor through Rwanda’s history dating back to colonial times all the way to the present. The captions are in Kinyarwanda, English and French. There are a lot of photographs, some of them showing drastic images, and TV screens on which you can watch testimonies of survivors. The audio guide is a good additional source of information. I spent an hour and a half reading through a lot of text but it is definitely worth taking your time. At the end there are three rooms which are extremely disturbing: one with dozens of photographs of children who perished (donated to the Memorial by their family members), one with human skulls and bones found at the site of the Memorial, and one with clothes, also uncovered there. If you have been to Auschwitz, you will know how it feels to see this sort of thing. There is one more room at the Museum, the Children’s Room, which I found even more painful to be in than the other three. Its walls are painted bright orange so it looks very cheerful and sunny when you walk in. It’s anything but. Here, you will find enlarged photos of just a few children who represent all those that were killed. Their names are printed in huge letters above the pictures, mostly showing smiling toddlers and happy kids, and in front of them are plaques with some information about each child: what they were like (quiet? talkative? full of energy?), what their favourite food was, their favourite games, and what age they were at the time of death, and how they died. I have a huge lump in my throat just writing about it right now.
After this emotionally exhausting tour you walk out of the building into the gardens. It’s beautiful and peaceful there, very green and well maintained, but then you realise that those huge slabs of concrete are the mass graves. There is a Wall of Names which looks a bit strange, as if it hasn’t been finished, as there are certainly not 250,000 names on it. And that’s precisely it: it’s not finished because the bodies are still being identified. Some may never be identified. But at least they found a beautiful resting place…
There is also a series of smaller gardens, called the Gardens of Reflection. Three of them are linked and were designed to show Unity, Division and Reconciliation. Unfortunately the fountains weren’t working as the whole site of the Memorial is still being improved and some building and construction continues.
Visiting the Memorial certainly isn’t the easiest thing to do on a Sunday afternoon but it is a must see when visiting Rwanda. The Genocide is very much alive in people’s minds so getting to know this part of their history is very important. Especially that it’s one of the biggest, most shameful stains on the international community’s conscience as it could have been prevented… Below are some photos from the Memorial, followed by a short list of books and films you may find interesting.
Recommended books and films (in no particular order). This list is by no means extensive – these are just books I have read or have on my shelf/Kindle to read. I will be adding reviews on this blog as well.
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch
Shake Hands With The Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Romeo Dallaire, the famous general leading the UN peacekeeping mission to Rwanda. You have probably heard of, or seen, the film based on this book.
Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey by Fergal Keane
Jean Hatzfeld’s trilogy: Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak, Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak, and The Antelope’s Strategy: Living in Rwanda After the Genocide. Hatzfeld’s most recent book on Rwanda hasn’t been translated into English yet (it’s called “Englebert des collines” and I have it in Polish).
When The Hills Ask For Your Blood: A Personal Story by David Belton, a BBC journalist who was reporting from Rwanda during and after the Genocide. He co-wrote the story for the film Shooting Dogs.
The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide by Gerard Prunier.
An Ordinary Man: The True Story Behind Hotel Rwanda by Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of the Mille Collines hotel which became known as Hotel Rwanda.
Hotel Rwanda (I guess nearly everyone has seen it!); Shake Hands with the Devil; Shooting Dogs; Sometimes in April.
The BBC aired a documentary in 2014 called Rwanda’s Untold Story. It sparked a lot of controversy in Rwanda and in academic circles around the world as it suggests that the current president Paul Kagame may have been involved in the shooting-down of the presidential plane in 1994, the event that triggered the Genocide. Kagame vehemently rejected these claims. You can watch the documentary here and read about what happened after it was broadcast here.