Kigali 15 Years Later

I’m not really sure how I want write about Kigali because it is a very beautiful city. It’s quite possibly the cleanest city in all of Africa and certainly the cleanest and safest capital city on the Continent. It is called “le ville des mille collines” or the city of 1000 hills and it is very hilly which adds to the aesthetic allure of the city. However, Kigali has a dark past that is inescapable. The city is haunted by memories of a cataclysmic genocide that took place just 15 short years ago. While the people seem to have tried to move on and put the pieces back together; as a visitor, there is nothing else you can think about as the city brings you face to face with the true evil of man.

Pretty much the first stop for anybody visiting Kigali has to be Kigali Memorial Centre which is where the genocide is brought to life and forever remembered. The building itself is situated in a pretty nondescript place in a seemingly quiet part of town with a pleasant outdoor area and is separated into two parts, upstairs and downstairs. Upstairs puts Rwanda’s genocide in historical perspective in a dedicated timeline to global genocides of the 20th century. Starting from the Germans extinguishing people in Namibia in 1904 through the Nazi Holocaust of World War 2; to the brutal Pol Pot led Khmer Rouge in Cambodia to the Balkan disaster of the 1990’s. It is very poignant and powerful. This just sets the stage for downstairs.
Downstairs is a timeline with full graphical pictures and comments about the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the history before. It calls out guilty parties including France and the United States but most of all, the United Nations. The world stood and watched as nearly 1 million Rwandans were brutally slaughtered in ways not thought possible.

There were graphic pictures of mass graves, actual piles of skulls and bones and clothes recovered from victims. There were quotes from survivors and from those that perished. There were pictures of children who have died and under their pictures it would list some of their likes and hobbies such as soccer or running and then the last caption would always be-method of death. The results would range from hacked to death by machete or grenade thrown into shower to beaten to death by club, stabbed in the eye, shot by a family member or burned alive. Some would say last memory-seeing his sister or mother raped and murdered before he himself was brutally killed.

This genocide was an atrocity on an epic scale. Nearly 1 million people died in 3 months. That’s all it took to extinguish nearly a whole race of people within Rwanda. An estimated 7 million of the 9 million people in Rwanda lost their homes and had to flee to neighboring countries and the refugee camps not knowing whether their family members were alive or dead.

A particularly resonant comment was from Apollon Katahizi when he says, “When they said ‘never again’ after the Holocaust, was it meant for some people and not for others?” It is so true because the rest of the world just didn’t want to get their hands dirty in a place like Rwanda that nobody cares about.

The French are the ones that actually armed and trained the militias that carried out the massacres. They also helped them escape to neighboring Zaire where they were able to regroup. The United States had just come off a complete debacle in Somalia in 1993 and then President Clinton couldn’t risk losing face or more US soldiers in an “insignificant” African country again. But the UN is the most to blame in my mind.

If you listen to Kofi Annan-the former Secretary General of the United Nations, talk about what happened in Rwanda under his watch, he’ll say “I could have and should have done more to stop the genocide.” Ya, no shit Kofi-that’s your job!

He had knowledge of and a written request from the chief UN general here in Rwanda to send more troops and give them to ability to squelch a potential uprising. Kofi responded negatively claiming insufficient information or something like that and never investigated further while actually taking troops out leaving only 250 I believe it was.

Meanwhile the worst disaster in generations took place while the world stood silent and watched people hacked to death; women raped by militants with AIDS where even those that weren’t killed are still scarred to this day with their poison; churches blown up with thousands of people inside seeking sanctuary; and children forced to kill their family members before they themselves were stabbed in the eye. The stories I read and saw on the videos were horrifying and inhuman. I don’t know what can make man turn into beast but it’s a very scary thought.

In another room they only have pictures, small photos of missing family members. It hauntingly reminded me of what it was like in New York City days and weeks after 9/11 when so many people hung up pictures of missing friends and family in the slim hopes that maybe they were OK.

This memorial is worth a trip to Rwanda alone and shouldn’t be missed. Like the killing fields in Phnom Penh or the mass grave sites in Kosovo or any of the Nazi concentration camps or Holocaust museums in Europe or the United States-these stories need to be told and remembered. People should never try to block these events out or forget because it is painful. The evil of man has proven to us that it is a very powerful force and unless there are checks and the International Community pays attention, this could happen again in a place like Rwanda or any of these African countries that nobody seems to care about. It’s very scary and a serious threat.

After the memorial I was in a mood where I just needed to sit and chill so I went to this place called Bourbon Coffee which is a cheap take off on Starbucks but it’s air conditioned and just sat down. Ironically, the American guy next to me and I start chatting and he is down here from the University of Connecticut of all places and is conducting a seminar to genocide victims about coping with it even 15 years later. I can’t even imagine the stuff you must hear from these victims I said. He told me some crazy stories that would make you cry so I won’t share them but it was stifling.

Then we were joined by a victim who is now 31 years old and he was telling me about his story. Again, it was so horrible and vibrant that I don’t feel like writing it but he basically saw his family tortured, murdered and raped and had grenades and bullets thrown and shot at him regularly. Now he is still haunted but seems to be doing alright and was all smiles and just wanted to hear about me and why I am in Rwanda. Man was I humbled.

On that note, I am going to relax now as I have to go to bed by about 7 or 8 as I have to wake up at 3am to ride up to the Parc National des Volcans to track the silverback gorillas. It should be a nice way to spend New Years Day and hopefully get some of these egregious images and anger out of my head.
Happy New Year to everybody and may 2010 be the best year ever for all! Stop smoking, work out more, get out there and travel or whatever your new year’s resolution is but mainly-remember how lucky you are…no matter how bad you think you have it sometimes or how cruel you think life can be, if you’re reading this from the comfort of your home or office, blackberry or wherever, then you’re life isn’t that bad and you are blessed. There are billions of people who are sick, starving and have nothing-not even hope. Just keep things in perspective and life won’t seem so hard sometimes. Happy New Year again and be safe tonight!

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  1. Happy new year to you Lee!

  2. Happy new year! Great posting. Hope your gorilla trekking turns out to be amazing for you — what a great way to start the year. Have fun.

  3. Tell us how you really feel! Wow what a great blog entry. I did some research after reading your entry and I can’t believe how the UN dropped the ball on Rwanda. Thanks for bringing this to light for me and happy new year.

    Also, I was at the killing fields in Cambodia. Those were brutal so I can just imagine how you felt in Kigali. Tough to stomach.

  4. Happy new year to you guys as well. i am just back from gorilla trekking and I am beat so will try to do a write up tomorrow if I can.

  5. Amazing story! I’ve just been emailed your webpage by a friend and have been reading for hours. Good luck and I look forward to following the rest of your trip through Africa!

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