No words for Rwanda

Trip Start Jan 26, 2007
Trip End Feb 06, 2008

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Flag of Rwanda  ,
Sunday, July 29, 2007

No words for Rwanda, or a bunch of descriptive words that won't describe my feelings but just the path I took. Because the recent history here makes you speechless, plain and simple. There's nothing much to say after visiting any genocide memorial, but I'll say some things anyway.

I flew into Rwanda. The hills from the plane looked like a patchwork quilt, sewed together with thread of dark green bush, and draped over lumpy earth that stretched as far as I could see. My only knowledge of the country came from my experience in the Tribunal in Arusha and some Lonely Planet stuff.

The first thing that struck me upon entering was the lack of bustle in the airport. No touts, no crowds, no taxis even. After changing some money and waiting for 20 minutes, a Belgian woman offered to give another American and me a ride into the city center. After a switch of cars, another man, who had also hitched, ended up driving us into the center. My shabby hotel was hard to find, but people on the street were quite helpful in directing us. Then, when I found the hotel full, the 'concierge' walked me to two others until I found accommodation. The worst I have yet experienced. However, for lack of a strong budget tourism trade, Kigali's other options are limited. So I stayed for three miserable nights.

Despite the poor hotel, I was in a good mood after how well Rwandans or expats had treated me the day before. I set out to try to sneak a Gorilla tracking permit from someone who cancelled. The city was shut down, however. Nothing was open. I thought, maybe it's a Saturday thing. I got out of one guy that something was going on, possibly nationwide, until noon, or maybe all day. French is the second language here behind Kinyarwandan, and my French is basically nonexistent. Occasional English strugglers try their best, and are sometimes most helpful. In fact, I would say that Rwandans have been great, mostly. Helpful, friendly, eager to interact and eager to put the horrible past behind them.

I ran into another traveller named Greg in my dump hotel. He and I got along quite well, and figured out that the lack of open stores had good reason. On the last Saturday of every month, every Rwandan is required to perform community service for a half day. Stores can be fined if opened before noon. This is similar also to the weekly half days devoted to the local Gacaca trials that are prosecuting genocide perpetrators regionally across the country. Pronounced: gah CHA cha. The country has a strong community feel to it, as people sacrifice many days a month for the greater good. Some call it socialism, and some criticize this government for it, but the people have made amazing strides, so the picture is blurry.

At noon, I headed to the wildlife office, expecting to be rejected in my attempt to sneak into a fully booked gorilla tracking high season. Within 3 minutes, I had my hands on a tracking permit for August 31, three days away. I was a lucky standby, as someone had recently cancelled due to illness. I did a little air punch dance in the office and Greg and I figured out what to do with the rest of the day.

We decided to visit one of the genocide memorials about 30km away from Kigali. Many churches in the countryside were packed full of fleeing Rwandans during the crazy months in 1994. Many subsequently became sites of horrific massacre. A few have been modified, or barely touched, to serve as memorials for the dead. We figured out our way to the minibus station, figured out our way onto the minibus, tried our best to ignore the billions of 'mzungu' calls on the street, the thousands of sentences beginning and ending with 'mzungu' in the minibus. People aren't so used to travellers, especially white ones, especially those who use the cheap minibuses. Thus, in Kigali and indeed all over the country, you are immediately labeled mzungu. It gets very annoying. You have no identity, and you are called at like a dog, and then treated like an ATM. This is at its worst. At its best, the calls lead into a nice friendly and helpful conversation or interaction. But often, especially in rural areas, you're just an object to be labeled and gawked at.

Anyway, the memorial. It took us about 20 minutes to figure out we walked the wrong way on the road into this tiny town, even with a cliche crowd of locals following us and calling us mzungu. We finally turned around, a group of 8 year old gawkers and groupies turning into a group of high schoolers, who could speak some English. We arranged a bicycle taxi, or riding on the back of a bicycle, to the memorial.

There is a curator of the ex church, who showed us around the place, handing relevant laminated cards with English explanations. Here is the steel barred door where soldiers, or rebels, or whoever, threw a grenade to gain entry to the church, filled with 2000 or so people. Here is the altar, there is the blood on the altar cloth, still preserved as a dried brown stain after 13 years. The curator augmented with matter of fact points. šest la blood. šest la bullets, for the holes in the walls and all through the tin cieling. šest la wall, still bloodstained, where the killers smashed children's heads to kill them when they were tired of their guns, or something. šest la brains, pieces of brain still on the brick wall, the brains and blood of tens or hundreds of children, swung by the feet, smashed to death. Downstairs, šest la skulls and bones of some victims. piled in an organized fashion, as a remembrance tool, a crypt. More crypts in the back, filled with more shelves of skulls, visible machete wounds, or unnaturally collapsed. Coffins apparently piled with families or something. Cement slabs above ground, commemorating mass graves that were dug ostensibly for latrines and then used to toss people in. Stones were thrown until no more noises came out, then the holes were filled in.

This was just one church. 10,000 people in the vicinity were killed in a matter of hours.

The next day, I went to the Kigali memorial centre, where I hoped some of this would be, not explained, but at least clarified. I found no such clarity. As is typical of the region, the actors are many. There are rebels and interim governments and colonists and colonial remnants. Some rebels become the government and governmental forces turn rebel. Colonial powers are blamed as local politicians treat their own society better or worse. There are multinational bureaucracies, paralyzed by process even as noble speeches are made. There are the seeds of discontent, there is the germination of separation. There is blood on all hands. There is blood everywhere. I could write a timeline, because I got some information about that. But I couldn't tell you how any of that led to 800,000 people being murdered in a few months, how neighbors turned on neighbors. How a priest gave the order to bulldoze his own congregation, holed up inside the building, killing thousands brutally and quite uninstantaneously.

A veritable carnival of death, any which way anyone pleased.

So what next? Messages of hope at the end of the exhibits. Rememberances, proclamations of Never Again, again. All the while, in the DR Congo next door, women and children are being raped and killed wholesale. The Hutu extremists, I guess, who spearheaded the Rwandan genocide, hide in the hills and do whatever it is hiding extremists do. Kill and rape, I guess. Some of them call themselves Interahamwe, or those who kill together. As far as I could tell, that name could have encompassed all of Rwanda, and maybe humanity, too.

People find hope in the hero stories, in the reconciliations, in the progress made. Rwanda has its fair share of good stories, and certainly has made a ton of progress. In other countries, there is progress as well. The UN finally is sending a peacekeeping force to Darfur, Sudan, for example. But man, oh man. When you're sitting in a dark room full of crushed skulls, ghostly silhouetted faces painted on walls, browning, curling photographs hung on strings, it's tough to find solace in anything, anywhere.

So what we must do, in the face of the evil of our own race, is just to keep trying for good. And as long as we keep trying, well, we're going somewhere, I guess.

After this depressing day, I went and ate a delicious meal of Indian food at the same place Greg and I had gone the night before. That felt pretty good in my stomach and an Orange Fanta topped it all off. I went back to my disgusting hotel room, listened to some music, fell asleep to the buzzing symphony of hungry mosquitos. The next day, I headed off to rural northwestern Rwanda for a date with the legendary mountain gorillas. I was looking for something to renew my faith in Life, I guess.
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