A Visit to Rwanda, 20 Years After the Horror (Part One)

by Ken on September 21, 2014

Yesterday: Drove around Kigali in the morning. A very dynamic, energetic and orderly little city, full of well-kept shops with eager-looking proprietors parked in chairs out front, and a general feeling of upward striving. Diverse throngs milling among the brightly painted concrete buildings and modern high-rises—some of the men in djellabas, some of the women in hijabs or traditional African garb, but mostly folks in business suits or jeans. Hard to imagine that the place was a human-made hell just 20 years ago.

Then we went out to the countryside. Lush, rolling landscape of red earth, banana trees and eucalyptus, dotted with neat adobe houses. (If I believed in “trigger alerts,” I would insert one here.) First stop was a bridge over the Nyabarongo River, a muddy watercourse that leads to the Kagera River, which flows into Lake Victoria in Uganda, which empties into the Nile, which flows to Ethiopia. Because the Hutu genocidaires regarded the minority Tutsis as the descendants of Ethiopian migrants, they threw thousands of their victims’ corpses into the river in a symbolic bid to “send them back where they came from.” Many Tutsis hid with their children in the reeds along the banks, where they were hunted down and murdered. Our guides told us that after the slaughter, people in Uganda would sometimes find personal items like wallets and jewelry in the bellies of tilapia and perch; Tutsis long afterwards refused to eat fish, fearing inadvertent cannibalism.

We continued on to two churches where thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus fled for shelter, only to be attacked by soldiers, interahamwe militias, and mobs of ordinary citizens. At the first church, the pews were stacked three feet high with the bloodstained clothes of the victims. A mass grave in the churchyard held 50,000 corpses, neatly divided into shelves full of skulls or other skeletal components. The crania (many of them child-sized) were pierced with bullet holes or fractures made by machetes or clubs.

At the next church, the sanctuary held more piles of death-tainted clothing; downstairs was a glass mausoleum full of more skulls and bones, beneath which lay the coffin of a young woman who’d been gang-raped and then skewered (like many) from vagina to throat with a sharpened rod. The walls were full of blast holes made by grenades that were thrown inside, after which the killers went in and finished the job by hand. A collection of rusty knives and cudgels was displayed before the altar, over which was draped a purple banner with the slogan “If you had known me and known yourself, you never would have killed me.” I wondered about this, because many of the killers did know their victims, though perhaps not with sufficient depth; it’s arguable that the same goes for their degree of self-knowledge. This, of course, is the kind of deficiency that the group I’m reporting on—the Rwanda Center for Council—aims to correct.

There were also several outbuildings, including a kitchen hut where scores of trapped Tutsis were burned alive, and a Sunday school in which the classroom’s brick wall had a large, dark stain where children’s heads had been smashed against it. One of the rods used for skewering women was propped up nearby. Someone had hung a sheet for children to write messages to the victims—things like “je ne vous oblierais jamais, mes soeurs et frères.” After that, all of us Americans staggered out and found different places to sit and cry.

All this horror, however, is mitigated by Rwandans’ ongoing efforts to overcome the divisions of the past. (It should be noted that “Hutu” and “Tutsi” originally denoted fluid social castes; only in the 20th century were those categories hardened into ethnic identities by Belgian colonists, whose designation of the Tutsis as “racially superior” overseers stoked the resentments that Hutu demagogues exploited after independence.) The government is administering a range of programs to that end, and ordinary people are managing to coexist peacefully and rebuild together. Today, I sat in on a Council training session for members of reconciliation-centered NGOs… but it’s now past midnight, Kigali time. More to come soon.

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Sah February 17, 2016 at 4:10 pm

This tragic chptear in history reminds us that the noblest as well as the most horrifying potentials of humanity are latent within every culture, and perhaps within every human being. A friend of mine worked in Burundi and Rwanda (in the Peace Corps) a few years before the genocide, and she’s never been able to reconcile her fond memories with the subsequent news reports.

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