Rwanda has a certain mystique to it. Known to most only for the atrocities that occurred over a hundred days in 1994, there is certainly more to the place than that.
It is a physically small country with Kigali, the capital, being chosen as it was at the centre of the ‘Pays de Mille Collines’ or land of a thousand hills. It was only a couple of hours from the border of Uganda in a matatu (shared minivan), although that was more than enough with significant premiums on leg room.
These days, Kigali is a well heeled city spread over several rolling hills. The angst at the bus station was much more minimal, the Boda Bodas (motorbikes) all had helmets for the passengers, road rules were in place, police tread their beat on the footpath and even the roads had LED lit cats eyes. This was certainly a city out of keeping with its neighbours and its recent past.
The events of 2 decades ago has unsurprisingly left a major scar on the national psyche. The events leading up to the merciless slaughter of civilians by their neighbours is well documented at one of the major stops in Kigali – the Kigali Genocide Memorial. It was chilling to read how normally peaceful people cold be indoctrinated with hate, jealousy and mob mentality to create one of the worlds more horrific periods of history. The two main ethnic divisions in Rwanda and Burundi are the Hutu (~85%) and Tutsi (~15%). During Belgian colonial times, the Tutsi had been designated as the ruling class, mainly in order to keep the larger Hutu majority in check. Following a Tutsi push towards independence, the Belgians transferred power to the Hutu, with subsequent slaughter of tens to hundreds of thousand Tutsis. This resulted in about 150,000 more fleeing to Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. Following independence, the Hutu majority retook power. Further tensions flared in the decades following in conjunction with neighbouring Burundi. As power changed hands in Uganda during the 1980s, the Tutsi Paul Kagame rose to prominence in Uganda, creating the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) which went on to invade Rwanda in October 1990. French, Belgian and Congolese peacekeepers flew in, whilst the Hutu dominated Rwandan army along with Congolese Hutus went on persecute any Tutsi or collaborating Hutu thought to have connection with the RPF. More Tutsis fled to Uganda, only strengthening the RPF, which reinvaded Rwanda in 1991. Civil war continued for a couple more years before being brought to the peace table in Arusha, Tanzania.
In the interim, Hutu extremists had been promoting anti Tutsi sentiment via radio and other media. Propaganda purporting what was potentially going to happen if the Tutsi came to power induced a sense of fear. In the interim, the French had been arming the Rwandan army alongside a loan they were providing them for the purchase of the arms. This was despite the head of the Rwandan UN task force Lt Col Romeo Dallaire being informed of the brewing plans of the Hutu extremists and their ‘Interhamwe’ militia that had been in training for over a year. Dallaire had been trying to seek extra support and mandate to quell the tensions but these went unheeded by UN hierarchy. On 6 April 1994, the plane carrying President Habyarimana and the Burundi president, was shot down on approach to Kigali airport, triggering the bloodshed. Ten Belgian peacekeepers were killed early on, prompting withdrawal of the rest of the peacekeepers. The world then watched (or more importantly didn’t watch) as the Rwandan army and the Interhamwe roamed the streets of Kigali and then out into the countryside, hacking to death and Tutsi they could find as well as any Hutu suspected of being a moderate or protecting the Tutsi.
The memorial details some of the horrific ways that neighbours turned on each other, family friends arrived with machetes to murder those who they had shared countless meals with together previously, and most gruesomely, the atrocities committed against children.
The final exhibit in the museum has a very emotive section on some of the children, including their names, photos, favourite food, favourite toy and they way they were murdered, with terms like ‘head smashed against wall’ firmly imprinted in my memory. No location was spared in the bloodshed, with several churches being the site of some of the worst bloodshed as people sought refuge. Although we didn’t have time to visit these, many of them of them have been left untouched, including a college in the south of the country where several hundred bodies still lie strewn on the ground, preserved with limestone, but only a small proportion of the the thousands murdered.
The Kigali memorial features a section on other genocides over the last century, including the reign of Pol Pot, massacres in Namibia, Armenia and the Holocaust. This provides a powerful reflection for the failings of the international community. One of the major drivers for the establishment of the UN was the horrors of the Holocaust, yet it proved incapable of doing anything. It is thought that the troops that flew into the country to evacuate the foreign nationals would have easily been enough to stop the bloodshed altogether, should their have been adequate political will.
“What I have come to realise as the root of it all, however, is the fundamental indifference of the world community to the plight of seven to eight million black Africans in a tiny country that had no strategic or resource value to any world power. An overpopulated little country that turned on itself and destroyed its own people, as the world watched and yet could not manage to find the political will to intervene” – Lieutenant-General Roméo Allain Dallaire (UNAMIR commander)
I had been travelling with another New Zealander, Hector, that I had met in Kampala. Whilst we hadn’t met previously, he had grown up just north or Wellington and had gone to a boarding intermediate school that a lot of my friends had attended so we knew several people in common. We were both heading south, although his start point had been the Middle East where he had been working in a freelance journalist, including several stints in rebel controlled Syria. The Middle East and its complexities had never been an area I had known much about, so I was able to learn a lot. To be honest, I had sidelined the conflict in my mind as ‘another Middle Eastern basket case’.
What was chilling was the parallels that could be drawn between the current Syrian conflict and the Rwandan genocide. Whilst we were travelling together, the USA announced the chemical weapons attacks on civilians by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and then Hector received pictures taken by a friend from a town he had been in with the rebels, showing streets littered with children, women and men, butchered by either government forces or the militia it supports. Although the context is slightly different in that established civil war has been raging, this is not traditional warfare between two well armed foes. It is AK-47s vs tanks, RPGs versus modern fighter jets, with the resistance force forming after a brutal crack down by al-Assad’s forces on the majority who were staging the uprising.
The Boston bombings occurred at a similar time, and although a tragedy striking at the end of a iconic event, the comparative news coverage given to this compared to an public indifference to tragedy occurring in a non strategically important country. An article Hector had written for the Huffington Post on the similarities was deemed too emotive to call the current Syrian situation genocide, despite if fulfilling the UN’s definition. The west were happy to cheer on uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring, and the west was even happy to intervene in Libya, when the overthrowing of another tyrant didn’t go so well, but I guess Libya’s oil reserves and ‘western interests’ made a bit of a difference. Whilst intervening in foreign conflicts is a problematic one often with unintended consequences, we have fought world wars against tyranny and human right abuses, so surely we could at least stand up to major trading partners like China who continue to veto UN security council resolutions against trying to protect civilians against a tyrant who will probably in due course have his edifice standing in Madame Toussades House of Horrors alongside other architects of human suffering.
When we visit memorials about the Holocaust or Rwandan genocide, and read proclamations about never again, do we really mean it, or are we just pandering to an unfounded moral compass. The equality of the value of life certainly has a long way to go.
Rwanda has turned a big corner in the last 20 years. Ethnic divisions have been merged into a national Rwandan identity, and although progress has been massive, the past is not forgotten. An annual 100 days of mourning is a reflection of the gravity of this event on the national psyche. We enjoyed a couple of beers poolside at the swanky Hotel de Mille Collines, made famous by manager Paul Rusesabagina’s heroic efforts to shelter hundreds of Tutsi and moderate Hutu from the marauding Interhamwe, depicted in Hotel Rwanda. The country has prospered with inflowing of aid and development money (probably a decent chunk of guilt money), and rather than being siloed into specific programs, their has been a focus on strengthening the whole of the national infrastructure. It is hard to believe driving around the calm streets of Kigali today, greeted by friendly Rwandans, that less than 20 years ago, those same streets were covered in corpses, being eaten by dogs.