Following the trail of genocide, Kigali to Butare
Trip Start Feb 20, 2007
38Trip End Jun 2007
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It is completely understandable that people don't want to talk about what happened, but I did wonder if this silence is present between Rwandans themselves. I asked Yves about this one afternoon, and he said that they do talk about what happened amongst themselves sometimes, which I was glad to hear. When people have problems they need to talk about them, and in some way Rwanda must have a collective societal psychological problem, which it should at least attempt to resolve internally. This problem, however, brings memories that one could argue are possibly better suppressed. Who wants to remember, or talk of how they saw their mother being raped in front of them, or of how their next door neighbour hacked their father's head open with a machete?
I came back to Kigali on Sunday, and spent the afternoon reading and writing, as everything was shut down, due to a combination of it being Easter Sunday and also the second day of the week of mourning for the genocide. I had hoped to buy myself a bar of chocolate somewhere and pretend the Easter bunny had visited, but I had trouble even finding somewhere to buy water, let alone chocolate. To add to my woes, my hotel room was infested with the biggest cockroaches I have ever seen, and many angry mosquitoes.
The next day I took a matatu out of town to visit two genocide memorial sites about 30km from Kigali, Ntarama and Nyamata. The first I went to, Ntarama, was a church about two kilometres off the main road. I had to walk along a lovely tree-shaded dirt track to get to it, through scenes of pleasant village life, where children waved and adults smiled
Upon arrival I was shown inside the church by a pleasant man, and saw the contents of the building, about twenty cases of shelves, each filled with skulls. I walked up and down the aisle, looking at this disturbing sight, seeing many skulls of children among them. About half of the skulls were split open from where a machete had come down on it. I saw one skull with what looked like an arrow, or spear head, sticking out of the top. At the front of the room there was a huge pile of bones, partially covered with plastic sheeting. There were bloodstains on the floor of the church.
I was then led outside to an outhouse, where I was shown the rest of the bones, piled about a metre high. In another room I saw there were the clothes of the victims, piled high, and hanging from the ceiling. Up until this point I couldn't feel anything, emotionally, except a sense of shock. I found it difficult to actually take in what had happened here, and to imagine it. But, just as in the Killing Fields, in Cambodia, where you could see pieces of clothing uncovered in the mass graves, here seeing the clothing of these poor people, stained with blood, brought a lump in my throat. I find that seeing a skull, or bones, of someone killed has the effect of putting an emotional screen between me and that person. Every skull is alike, and seeing one saves me from having to confront the face that covered it, or to think of the mind it contained
I walked out of this scene in shock, not reacting as I thought I would, not feeling how I thought I would, or should. I think there was simply too much to take in, the scale of what happened was too much for me to imagine, or even to begin to process, and I essentially shut down emotionally, and chose to suppress whatever feelings surfaced, rather than deal with them. How apt that I, who only saw skulls of people I didn't know, thirteen years after they were killed, couldn't deal with what I felt, when I had previously paternally mused that it is unhealthy for Rwandans to suppress their memories of what they actually saw, and heard.
The next site, Nyamata, was about five kilometres away, which I covered on the back of a bicycle, admiring the hilly scenery, and trying to banish the images I had just seen from my mind
The next day I went to the Kigali Memorial Centre, the national genocide museum. This two story building housed exhibits explaining the history of what happened, with a very personal slant to things. The first corridor downstairs explained Rwanda's colonial history, and how German and then Belgian regimes sowed the seeds of Tutsi-Hutu problems. It then went on to discuss post-independence Rwanda, and the massacres of 1959 and of the seventies. It continued by talking of the politics of the early nineties, and the warning signs of what was to come, with frequent mass killings of Tutsis.
The displays on the genocide itself were particularly moving, with photographs accompanied by extremely emotive language describing what happened. There were brief videos, too, giving testimony from survivors as to what happened, how they are still alive, and how they knew the killers before 1994, as neighbours and friends. One video showed a prisoner, dressed in pink, being interviewed and asked who he had killed, and how. The most disturbing video of all showed footage that must have been taken in a hospital, mainly displaying children's head wounds, from machete strikes
The most difficult thing for me to see here was not, in fact, any image or video, but two Rwandan women who were ahead of me in the museum. They both separately ended up breaking down in tears, falling to the ground, sobbing, before reaching the end of the exhibits. These people must have seen the genocide happen, or had friends and family killed. I couldn't even imagine how difficult it was for them to come here today and relive everything. I almost felt embarrassed when I nearly started to cry myself, after seeing this. What right did I have to shed tears? I was just a tourist here, interested in what happened, taking the typical western view of trying to "understand" what happened. Suddenly all my worries of what I "should" be feeling seemed resolved. To cry, here, would have felt wrong. What happened was one of the most terrible things to have ever happened on earth, and of course it is acceptable to feel shock, anger, or disbelief at what happened. But I feel I had no right to cry, as I had not lived through what happened. Any attempts to try to "understand" what happened are pointless, I never will. I only hope that the Rwandans' mental wounds will heal with time. It is often said by survivors that those who died were the lucky ones, because they don't have to live with the memories, nightmares and depression
Another room contained hundreds of photos of those who were killed, normal people - men, women and children, of all ages. These smiling faces which were everywhere I looked were haunting. The sound of a woman sobbing behind me combined with this made me leave the room before I had finished looking at it all, it just became too much. The next room contained children's skulls, and the next had clothes hanging in a way that suggested a human form, those of women and boys, men and girls. Upstairs there was an exhibit dedicated to the children whose innocent lives were so pointlessly taken. The displays had a picture of a child, and alongside was written something like "Name: Julius Ngeze, Age: 7; Favourite food: Chips; Best friend: His mother; Liked: watching TV, playing with friends; Last thing he saw: His mother being raped and hacked to death by machete; Cause of death: Machete strike to the head". Seeing child after child, each with a normal life, ended so inhumanely, again became too much, and I had to leave the room, skipping the last few. The final room was about world genocide, and had exhibits on those in Nazi Germany, Armenia, the Balkans, Cambodia and Namibia.
That afternoon I took a bus to Butare, about two hours north of Kigali, which was on my way to Burundi. Here I stopped for a night so that I could visit the genocide sight near Gikongoro. When I arrived at my hotel and asked for where I could get transport out there, I was told by a lovely old woman that today might be an interesting day to go there, as President Paul Kagame was attending a memorial service there this very minute. To prove this she pointed at the television she was watching, and, sure enough, Kagame was there, addressing a huge crowd at the site
So, excited, I ran down to the matatu park and squashed into one for an hour's drive to Gikongoro. Once there I paid a boy to give me a lift on the back of his bicycle down the hill to the memorial site. To my disappointment there were no crowds there; I later learned that the old lady had been mistaken, what was shown on the television was a rerun of last Saturday's ceremony.
I was led inside by an elderly man who had a huge dent in his forehead which must have been from a healed machete wound. He told me he was one of only four who survived the massacre of 50,000 people at this site on April 29th, 1994. Fifty thousand. All his children, his family, and his friends had been killed. This site was the most disturbing of all - it consists of four blocks of six rooms, each containing about forty bodies, preserved as they were found in white powdered lime. As I entered the first of these rooms I almost gasped at what lay before me. On tables around the room lay bodies, half decayed, left in their final positions, as they had died. The body language of the people was that of pain, and anguish. Here I could see clearly whose head had been hacked open, or whose feet severed off, so that they could not run away
I have struggled to understand my feelings and reactions to all I saw and experienced in my last few days in Rwanda, visiting these sights. I don't think I do understand them, perhaps because they are feelings I have never encountered before. They are certainly feelings I do not want to have again. I have struggled, and failed, to some extent, to record my feelings here; how am I to accurately express what I felt if I can't even process it myself? It is important, though, to write what I felt alongside what I saw, as it was an equal part of the experiences I have had.
Upon leaving the site I noticed that the skies were after blackening, and flashes of bright lightening illuminated the distant hills. Rain was coming, and I had a half-hour walk ahead of me
The general dropped me at the matatu park, and quizzed me as to what my "mission" was in coming to Rwanda, why the genocide interested me, and what I thought of the memorial I had just seen and what had happened there. He then not only insisted on paying for my matatu fare back to Butare, but also told the driver to leave immediately and drop me to the door of my hotel, without picking up any passangers. I protested, saying this wasn't at all necessary, but he insisted, eager, I think, to show his influence. As soon as the matatu had rounded the corner we stopped, waited for a minute, and drove back to collect passengers, which I was actually happy about. My comfort was gladly sacrificed for the driver's earnings. Once again, however, I was surprised at how far Africans will go to extend hospitality, and to make you feel welcome in their country.