17 March 2013- Kibuye, Rwanda
Rwanda feels heavy, so heavy to us. From as soon as we arrived we were both thinking it and a bit later expressed it to each other. Every person, where were these people….. did they suffer, or worse were they perpetrator of the genocide in 1994? I feel this needs a separate post, it can’t go with anything else.
There is nothing we can say about the Rwandan genocide that has not been written about time and time again. What everyone knows is that almost a million men, women and children were brutally murdered in 100 days in 1994. There was unimaginable horror and brutality perpetrated by both government trained forces and everyday people.
We went to the Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali. We arrived at the rather non descript building and were patted down by security and walked to reception. I had a pretty heavy feeling knowing it would be full on when we were greeted by a man giving us a couple of minutes description of what we could expect- “Welcome, this is a memorial opened in 2004 as a memorial to the people killed. You can walk through the building and then over there is the mass grave where 250,000 bodies are, the people who were killed on or near this site.” My mind spun and I felt a bit like throwing up. We had no idea there was such a large mass grave here. This place is not a museum it is a memorial. It shows the cost of ignorance and ignoring.
I have read a lot about Rwanda, it is a place I have been interested in for years. Olly has been recently reading about the history as well so we both pretty much knew the factual details and events presented on panels with text and photos that lead up to the events. Rwanda is very committed to not forgetting or letting anyone forget.
It was very distressing and incredibly overwhelming. There were times I found it physically hard to walk to the next room and much of the time I felt short of breath. I realised much later I held my breath most of the time. People silently walk through – there is nothing to say. The story of how the genocide occurred- what happened before during and after. It makes the very stark point the violence was not sudden or sporadic it was a meticulously planned event that was almost unbelievably ‘successful’.
Although the panels detailing the events leading to the genocide are disturbing it was the ‘other rooms’ that were completely shattering. I walked around a corner into a room full of wires stung across the walls and snap shots of individual people clipped to the wires, thousands of photos that families had donated. Of course these were only a fraction of the victims. It felt like someone punched me in the stomach. At the end there is a room called The Children’s Room. When you first walk in there is a plaque that reads something like ” To our beautiful children, who should have been our future” There are three small rooms each with a couple of life-size photos of different children and with a small simple sign under each photo listing their favourite food, their favourite sport or toy and then the way in which they were murdered. I wanted to lie down on the floor and curl up. The faces and a snapshot of them, a few of the many thousands killed.
It took us both awhile to speak afterwards but of course we did. We sat in the garden and then finally talked about our thoughts about the place. Then we went back out into the city, which seems both impossible and necessary. After seeing the memorial you have to see Rwanda alive, and it is. People are living and it is a seemingly thriving incredible place. Less than twenty years ago, 2/3 of the population was either dead or in refugee camps in other countries. Many more were injured, the country’s infrastructure was completely destroyed, many many children were orphaned, many women had been raped and contracted HIV and of course nearly everyone was traumatized beyond belief. And now its seems to be a safe, clean, relatively prosperous, stable country. Its incredible. And people are living. If you came here and didn’t know (and ignored the memorials) you would see people living just like anywhere else. Although after leaving the memorial I was struggling to understand how. It just feels so heavy to us.
We have also visited two churches outside of the city, these are now memorials as well. They were much rawer, no signs explaining anything- just piles and piles of clothing and the bones of the thousands and thousand of people who were killed there neatly stacked. One has been left exactly as it was (except the bones were removed and are now stacked up in one area of the church). Many many people sought sanctuary in churches hoping they would be safe- they were not. You can see where grenades were thrown in, you can see bullet holes on the walls and through the stained glass windows. Some of what you see I don’t feel able to type. Visiting on a Sunday we could hear the music from a new church that has replaced this one, very near by. People walking past, kids riding bikes, a church choir singing. So weird to hear and see life, it also brings you back when you step outside and you see life not just death.
A guys who works at one of the churches showed us around a little today. He said they will always have the memorials so people never forget, he also pointed out it is not just Rwandan history but the world’s history. The story of how the world was involved (or not as the case may be) is a whole other disturbing tale.
The final place we visited we sat for ages on a bench outside. Just sat there. Tight chest, tight heart.
Hatred is so powerful, but it seems resilience is more powerful.