100 Days of Madness

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Friday, January 14, 2011

Just as a bit of a prelude to this blog entry, we wanted to say this has been the most difficult we have had to write so far on the trip. We came to Rwanda having read so much about the horrors of the genocide that we really felt as though we wanted to focus on the positives of the post-violence rebuilding of the nation. However the reality is that we would be doing the country (and the victims) a great disservice if we pretended like the genocide never happened. It is difficult reading, but we hope that we in some way encapsulate both the good and the bad of this fascinating country.

We left Kivu behind us and headed through Nguywe National Park, one of the world's most significant chimpanzee habitats. It was unfortunate that we had to simply transit through the park (due to the $50 entry fees, still feeling the financial pinch after the gorillas) but luckily Nguywe’s Colubus monkey’s were out in force along the roadside...a nice, gratis substitute for missing out on the chimps. 100km of stunning, dense jungle later we exited the park and were met by the wonderful sight of a beautiful, pothole-free, stretch of tar to lead us on our way towards Huye.

A few kilometres before reaching our abode for the night, we made a pit-stop at Gikorongo, a fairly non-descript settlement on the outskirts of Huye. Our only reason for paying the town anything more than a fleeting visit was to offer our respects at its genocide memorial. We were only left with one problem...finding the bloody thing! For once our trusty GPS was fresh out of ideas and the Lonely Planet directions of 2km "beyond town", completely overlooked the fact that you can approach the town from any number of directions. We scoured the length of the town (and 2km beyond in every direction) and still were unable to track down the memorial; thanks for nothing LP. Knowing that the sites are still a sensitive issue, Bry quietly enquired at a petrol station and the attendant gestured us back out towards the west of town.

Although we knew we were tracking roughly the right direction, we still felt no closer to locating the memorial and resorted to asking the locals for further directions. Oddly, everyone we asked seemed sheepish and was unable to assist. It then dawned upon us that many of these middle-aged, exceptionally ordinary men could have been involved in the atrocities that occurred in Gikorongo. It was a chilling thought to picture these veggie stall owners, taxi drivers and street hawkers as perpetrators of such evil hatred, but unfortunately that is the reality of what happened across Rwanda. We searched for a further 20 minutes and were ready to abandon hope when a young guy on a taxi-bicycle recognised the confused look on the muzungu faces and without saying a word, beckoned us to follow him. He guided us straight to the gates of the memorial and refused to take a tip until we forced him to accept it as a token of our gratitude, without him there was no mission we would have found the place. Just for the record it is 2km NORTH-WEST of town!

Now is probably the time to introduce a PG warning since some of the following is pretty disturbing. But genocide is obviously not a fluffy subject and while Auschwitz had its gas chambers and the Khmer Rouge its killing fields, Rwanda had Gikorongo. It is not a story that is easily told, but one which must not be allowed to fade away in the minds of the world and in particular Rwandans.

We were welcomed warmly to the school by Claudine, one of the memorial’s guides, who led us on a tour around the grounds of the school, which was still under construction when the 1994 genocide violence erupted. She explained to us that local Tutsi’s were told by government officials that the school had been designated a safe haven, so they flocked to the grounds seeking what they believed to be a refuge. Within a matter of weeks a crowd of thousands had gathered at the school, but little did they know that they had walked straight into a trap. The local authorities promptly shut off the water and electricity supplies and sent in the Interahamwe killing squads. Claudine informed Bry, (in French) of how many people were killed at the school. I didn’t require a translation; the look on his face said it all. The numbers are quite simply staggering: 50,000 Tutsi’s were butchered within the grounds of the school in less than a fortnight. That equates to over 3,500 people per day being hacked to death by the blades of the killing squad’s machetes.

Our tour commenced with a casual stroll through the mass graves on the school grounds, where 18,000 unidentified victims of the massacre were laid to rest by the bulldozers of the Hutu militia. The sheer volume of numbers is overwhelming to say the least. From the graves we moved on to small brick dormitories behind the main school building, where exhumed bodies of hundreds of the victims are preserved in lime and placed on display. It is as horrendous as it sounds. Upon entering the dorms, your nostrils fill instantaneously with the thick, stagnant stench of death. Once we had steadied ourselves (and adapted to the odour) we were left rooted to the spot, in total silence, surveying the carnage that lay before us.

The skin of the victims, bleached by the lime, resembled porcelain and at times you had to remind yourself that these were once living people, rather than the creation of a demented Damien Hirst-like artist. It was only the sight of small personal effects, such as a clenched fist tightly grasping rosary beads in what would have been the victim’s final seconds of life, which brought home the human element of the tragedy. Almost every victim bore the signs of machete slashes around their ankles, a trademark of the Interahamwe as a means to prevent escape and inflict the maximum amount of pain and suffering for their victims. When we enquired if the families had given permission for the bodies of their loved ones to be exhumed in such a manner, Claudine told us that identification of the dead has been virtually impossible. The stark reality of the militia’s obliteration of entire families means DNA analysis is futile. The fact that there is no one left to identify the victims (except for those who perpetrated the atrocities) is one of the most poignant reminders of the genocide.

After viewing a couple more rooms, stacked full of bodies, our guide led us to Room #5, the most disturbing of them all; the baby room. It was exactly what it says on the tin, and one of the most haunting sights we have ever witnessed. Every child’s tiny skull was split with deep fractures or was completely caved in from being thrown headfirst against the walls of the very room in which we now found ourselves standing. Akin to the Nazi’s 'Jewish Solution’, the Interahamwe had made it their goal to eliminate the Tutsi bloodline, cleansing Rwanda of its ‘cockroaches’. This left women and children as their prime targets.

Claudine sensed that we had seen enough and there was no need to visit the 20+ other rooms filled with hundreds more bodies. Instead she took us on a walk through the gardens which are dotted with boards that discretely convey how badly Rwanda was let down by the outside world. “French soldiers were playing volley here”, was one such inscription. It didn’t mean much to us until our guide told us that we were standing on top of three more mass graves, where a few months after they were filled in, les soldats had played volleyball right on top of them as if nothing had happened. It is difficult to ascertain whether it was sheer ignorance or simply a blatant disregard for what had occurred at the site. However, the French soldier’s ignorance seems like a drop in the ocean when compared to the UN’s reluctance in pushing through a mandate allowing peacekeepers to engage the killing squads. During the 100 days of genocide the only UN bullets that ever left their barrels were aimed at the wild dogs which fed on the corpses littering the country’s streets. The movie, Shooting Dogs, captures this moment when a priest trying to convince a UN general to intervene poses the question, “Did the dogs open fire on UN troops or has New York passed a mandate that allows you to shoot them?” It highlights the futility of organisations like the UN who have the power, but not the balls, to act in situations like Rwanda.

After passing by the final mass grave on the grounds, from which many of the exhumed bodies had come, we filled out the visitor’s book, gave a small donation and went on our way. We left the technical collage feeling totally overwhelmed and slightly queasy. Let’s just say that lunch in Huye at the Ibis’ French restaurant (it wasn’t as fancy, or as French as it sounds) didn’t go down too well. Fortunately our spirits were lifted when we unexpectedly bumped into Stijn and Keimpe again. They had checked into a cheap hotel up the road so we decided to follow suit after a bite to eat and the Man U/Liverpool match. A more suspicious girlfriend might deduce Bry was timing our arrival into any African town (equipped with Sat TV) with Man Utd’s fixture list....lucky I am not that type of girlfriend! Honestly!

That night we revisited the Ibis for pizza with our Dutch buddies and ordered a round of giant Primus beers. “Chaud ou froid?” asks the barman, disproving the widely held theory that only Englishmen drink their beer warm. We had a great night catching up on Stijn and Keimpe’s gorilla adventure and recommended that they pay a visit to the Gikorongo memorial. They were heading to Kigali in a few days, so we knew it wouldn’t be the last we saw of them.

The following morning, Bry delved into Kwetu’s fuse box and managed to find the culprit for our indicators dying a few days previous, a faulty relay. With a new one freshly installed, and our indicators blinking contentedly again, Bry took to the wheel for what would be his first driving experience in an African capital (and therefore my first time navigating!) since Harare...and anyone who has been following our blog knows what happened on that occasion. Thankfully the drive to Kigali was a breeze, apart from Kwetu (and Bry) having to nimbly dodge the many idiotic pedestrians who stupidly step out onto (and even sleep on) the roads. Our first impressions as we pulled into the city were of a clean, affluent, buzzing capital. The pair of multi-storey, gleaming glass high-rises that sprouted from the city’s famed hillsides caught us both by surprise.

Due to Kigali’s lack of anything resembling decent budget accommodation we splashed out on a mid-range $40 per night room at the Dream Inn which included a huge bed, ensuite, TV and even the bonus of free wireless internet. Unfortunately the TV possessed only 2 working channels, CNN and Supersport, but needless to say Bry was as happy as a pig in mud. We nipped downstairs for lunch and found the whole bar transfixed by a news report on an amateur NI footballer, Matty Burrows, a family friend of Bryan’s who had been nominated for FIFA’s ‘goal of the year’ worldwide. Sitting in a bar in the middle of Rwanda watching him being interviewed was pretty surreal to say the least.

Once we had settled into the city Bry was determined to find his souvenir football shirt (from our blog photos I am sure you will have worked out he is collecting them) so while I caught up with my family on Skype he ventured through the backstreets of Kigali, walking 10kms in the blistering midday sun. After a couple of hours, all he could find was an Aussie rules style, sleeveless top. Anyone who knows Bry’s aversion to Aussie rules meant that this would usually be a disappointing return on a lot of hard work, but he arrived back at the hotel buzzing with excitement. It transpired that his search for a souvenir shirt, coincided with Rwanda‘s Under-17 team’s victory which sealed them a place in country’s first ever football world cup finals at any level. Fans were enthusiastically dancing in the streets while the hoards of minibuses created a crescendo of celebratory horn beeping. From the hotel room I had just assumed that Kigali had ridiculously loud, horn happy rush hour traffic!

The following afternoon we paid a visit to Hotel Des Mille Collines, a Kigali institution made infamous by the 1994 genocide. Its story is told through the Oscar-winning film ‘Hotel Rwanda’, which I am sure many of you will have seen. Paul Rusesabagina, who managed the hotel chain’s sister hotel in Kigali, was transferred to take the helm of the Mille Collines after the Belgian manager was evacuated back to the safety of Brussels in the early days of the genocide. Rusesabagina managed to save the lives of well over 1000 Tutsi’s and moderate Hutu’s from the Interahamwe and Rwandan security forces, by utilising his “little black book” of high-ranking government and law enforcement contacts. He used any means possible to keep the officials onside (and his refugees alive) which usually involved bribes of cash, whiskey, cigarettes and anything of value from the hotel’s vaults. The events of 1994 seemed like a lifetime ago as we sat by the swimming pool sipping ice cold beers with our lunch and it was easy to forget the pool’s deployment as a water reservoir which sustained the refugees during the siege. Just as at Gikorongo and the many other massacre sites around Rwanda, the refugees at the hotel helplessly awaited their inevitable slaughter. However at the Mille Collines, thanks to a “little black book” and the courageous actions of the manager, that day somehow never arrived. Their incredible story of survival is documented in Rusesabagina’s phenomenal autobiography, An Ordinary Man.

That evening we caught up with Stijn and Keimpe for our last supper together before the boys made their way through to Kenya and then headed home. It felt odd walking back to the hotel after dark without feeling at all threatened, a rarity in our experience of African cities. Before we said our goodbyes we did the obligatory, travellers book swap and were both grateful for some new reading material. After an action-packed 5 weeks, I think they got a real feel for Africa but no doubt, going home to reliable electricity, hot water and internet must be pleasant... Hope you guys are enjoying it!

The next morning we visited Kigali’s ‘must-see’ tourist attraction; the country’s landmark genocide memorial. While the displays were informative, the whole centre lacked any emotive human response. The numbers of people buried at the centre tops over a quarter of a million, yet their ‘wall of names’ records only 1,400 odd inscriptions. It is yet another reminder of the depressing reality that these bodies will never be identified. We felt as though the centre needed some way of expressing the magnitude of the fact that the site’s mass graves contained 250,000 people. To put it in Australian terms, the number of people buried in the Kigali site equates to two and a half capacity crowds at the MCG. Or for you football lovers out there, Bry says it is over 5 times the capacity of Anfield! Before we had visited the Gikorongo site, we held serious reservations about the gruesome nature of the memorial, but in our opinion it is the shock factor that really hits home the horrors of the genocide, something absent in the Kigali memorial. The cold, stark concrete tombs of the Kigali centre feel too clinical and functional to promote any discourse about what went on and to act as a deterrent to any potential relapse into ethnic or tribal conflict in Rwanda.

Now for a little bit more background on the genocide and another warning that some of the following is pretty disturbing.

There are numerous reasons why the Rwandan genocide was one of the most efficient in history, with 1,000,000 killed in 100 days. One of the most disturbing factors is that not only was it the Rwandan army and the Interahamwe death squads that butchered Tutsi’s nationwide, but ordinary Hutu’s (men, women and also young children) enthusiastically joined in the ‘cleansing’. The masses of Hutu murderers were driven by a deranged government who established a radio station in order to manipulate listeners with anti-Tutsi propaganda. Across the airwaves were messages encouraging Hutu’s to ‘do their duty and clean up their street’ (in other words, encouraging them to dispose of their Tutsi neighbours). These messages were accompanied by the daily roll call of Tutsi (and moderate Hutu) family’s along with their home addresses to facilitate a more effective slaughter.

The initial determining of the Tutsi/Hutu bloodlines seems to carry little logic, creating ethnic divides based on financial status, but the inheritance of the bloodline is simply decided by your paternal heritage. If your father is Hutu, you are Hutu. If he is Tutsi, so are you. Many marriages however were mixed and in many cases, this caused rifts between families. It was a war of pure hatred, fear and mob-mentality. Husbands killed their wives, children as young as 10 killed their best friends and mothers were forced to end the lives of their children before being murdered themselves.

16 years after the horrors of the genocide ended, you can see how far Rwanda has come in its recovery as a nation, but the roadsides are still dotted with chain gangs of prisoners clad in pink jumpsuits picking up litter, awaiting trial. Rwanda’s overstretched justice system has been unable to cope with the vast number of hearings and have resorted to community-based cahacas in an attempt the fast track the legal process. At the cahaca the suspect will stand in front of the village and present his defence while a select panel of elders decide upon the judgment, usually involving the guilty party handing over a number of cattle or goats to the victim’s family (pretty difficult when you consider whole family’s were murdered!). In the past cahacas had been traditionally used to settle minor land disputes and cattle rustling and it is difficult to determine as to whether they are an appropriate method of dealing with a crime of the magnitude of genocide. However, without these make-shift courts many of the suspects would spend their whole lives in prison awaiting trial. While a large majority deserve that injustice, many were just brainwashed pawns utilised by a repulsive government. It is a thankless task that the current administration faces in sorting out the justice system, but as with so much of Rwanda’s development since the genocide, in our view Kagame seems to be doing a decent job.

Before departing Kigali we paid a visit to a fantastic community-based project, Maison des Jeunes de Kimisagara, which provides access to sports and educational facilities for the poorest residents of the city’s townships and offer similar programmes right across the country. They were definitely one of the most deserving recipients of our footballs to date (thanks to Gary, Joan, Tessa and Keith Shorten for the donations) and we left Kigali on a high but were now left facing a dilemma. Do we attempt to make it through the dirt tracks of the Western Tanzania’s vast wilderness or head through the central lowlands to Dodoma? We calculated it would take around 4 days to transit through the tar roads of the centre, while the dirt tracks of the western route were an unknown quantity. At best it would take 7 days, but if the heavy rains come early and obliterate the roads....who knows, it could mean a detour of several thousand kilometres if the roads flood. But, it’s all part of the African adventure right! Next stop Tanzania.
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Bree on

Horrific is the only word I can think of, but it's great you're getting the story out there. I would have been about 8 when this was going on, so I don't really know much about it. It must have been so difficult to be in the rooms with the victims. All the best for your next step of getting to Tanzania! Keep safe xx

Amos on

You really have a heart of people Brian.
God bless and lead you.

Mark on

Sad really sad!

Looking forward reading the next chapter!

Was really nice meeting you guys and sharing similar experiences. Good luck with the rest of your journey & safe travels!!!

afrikanskies on

Thanks Mark once again for you and your families generous hospitality. We really enjoyed chatting to you guys about all of our travels and getting a tour through your bakkie! We will keep in touch! B&L

Paul Nelson on

That is a truly amazing blog writen up of a terrible historical event that the world never paid enough attention to. Must have been an incredible feeling being there and hearing firsthand what happened to so many.
Keep up the great work and enjoy the rest of your trip.

Mark on

Hi guys!

Need to update your report soon, before I go on pension....pleeeeeeeeeeeeeez!

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