Saturday, July 9, 2011

Country of a thousand hills.

Sunday, July 3

I thought Sunday would be a free day to get settled in, rest and prepare for the busy program ahead of us. Not so. The bus picked us up at 8 a.m. for a tour of Kigali, which included visits to the Memorial of Belgian Soldiers and the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center. It was a very educational day, but it was also emotional because it was the first real glimpse of how difficult studying the genocide will be.

History of Kigali

According to our tour guide, the capital of Rwanda used to be very close to the Burundi border. However, a governor in the early 20th century thought the capital should be more centralized and far away from other nations. While looking for a new capital location, he fell in love with Kigali because of its beautiful hills. The city of Kigali is actually named after Mount Kigali, and the word means "big" or "wide."

"It is not a country of a thousand hills," our tour guide joked. "It is a country of many hills. Too many to count."

The view of the city from the Kigali Memorial Center.

Genocide Memorial of Belgian Soldiers at Camp Kigali

We actually drove by the Hotel des Mille Collines (featured in Hotel Rwanda) on the way to this site. We also learned about the various inaccuracies presented in the film, but I'll get into that in a later post. The Belgian Memorial commemorates some of the first deaths of the genocide, those of ten United Nations Blue Berets who were executed at Camp Kigali.

One solider was able to escape, but he came back to rescue the others who were bound inside. He was shot down outside the door (hence all the bullet holes in the above picture). The other nine were later killed with two grenades thrown inside the building, indicative of the overkill and torture methods used against the Tutsi during the genocide.

These ten pillars (above) memorialize the ten Belgian soldiers who lost their lives at Camp Kigali. If you look closely, the notches on each pillar represent the age of each solider. The camp now houses educational displays about genocide in Rwanda and around the world.

Kigali Genocide Memorial Center

The Kigali Memorial Center is the largest genocide memorial site in Rwanda. It is the home of 14 mass graves for over 259,000 victims, all from Kigali. Even now, Rwandans can bring the remains of their relatives to the center and have them buried in the graves. Visiting the center was my first powerful realization that some of my experiences in Rwanda would be difficult - very difficult.

Many of the flowers on the mass graves bear the phrase "Never Again."

Inside the memorial center, I was able to walk through a timeline of the genocide from the tensions caused by colonization to the end of the genocide on July 4, 1994. The exhibit included pictures and captions that expressed the immense tragedy of 1994. While reading about the atrocious acts committed during the genocide, words such as these came up quite often: humiliated, sliced, smashed, pulverized, discarded, mutilated, clubbed.

I also read horrendous stories about specific events. For example, a Catholic priest gave the order for his church to be bulldozed ... with over 2,000 members of his own congregation hiding inside. There was also a chain on display that had been used to tie two Tutsi together before they were buried alive. The chain was recovered when the bodies were exhumed.

"If you knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me." - Felicien Ntagengwa

After reaching the end of the timeline, there were small circular rooms containing personal effects of victims, photographs of victims provided by their families, and even a room with over 100 human skulls and various other bones. Perhaps even more difficult than the ground floor of the center was the upstairs level, where there was a hallway devoted to commemorating children of the genocide.

The hallway contained large photographs of many young victims of the genocide. Next to biographical facts like "Favorite Food" and "Best Friend," there were categories such as "Last Words" and "Cause of Death." Some of these heartbreaking details included a child whose last words were, "Mum, where can I run to?" A pair of sisters, aged 6 and 7, were killed by "a grenade thrown in their shower," and a 9-month-old's cause of death was listed as, "machete in his mother's arms."
"Education has become our way forward.... We need to learn about the past; we also need to learn from it." - Kigali Memorial Center

Avega Service

After lunch and a short rest, we attended a memorial service at Avega, an organization for widows, widowers and orphans of the genocide. It was all in Kinyarwanda (the Rwandan language), so we had to depend on the IGSC students for translation, but there was one part that could cross any language barrier:

A group of children went on stage and sat talking in little circles. After a minute, another group of children ran up to the stage, yelling and wielding their arms like machetes. The first group of children screamed and scrambled and crawled on the floor trying to escape. Eventually, the boys from the second group picked the children up over their shoulders and ran out of the room. There was only one girl left on stage, and she took the mike and began speaking quickly in Kinyarwanda, like slam poetry. 

Obviously, I knew from watching that the skit was a reenactment of the 1994 genocide, but a Rwandan student from IGSC added that all the children in the skit were orphans of the genocide. 


Overall, Sunday was a profound experience. It really set the pace for the type of things we would be seeing during our two to three weeks here. I am so glad I had the opportunity to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center, but I would probably never go again. I've been to the Holocaust Museum in D.C., but this experience was completely different. I don't know if that's because the Kigali Memorial Center is actually located where the genocide took place, or because the Rwandan tragedy is much more recent, or because I've been able to actually meet and speak with Tutsi survivors since I have arrived in the country, but I definitely felt a stronger reaction to the memorial sites here.

1 comment:

Abby said...

I'm loving hearing about your experiences in Rwanda - a lot of interesting and moving stuff. Keep up the good work, sissy!