The next day Bridger and I most quickly tried to check out of ghost hotel into the center of Kigali where we could walk to most places we wanted to be. Too bad we were trying to check out and there was nobody around and we called and manager lady didn't answer. We didn't pay yet but (unfortunately?) we are honest people so decided not to just totally skip out on the bill. While we were doing the old wait-around we met this super jazzy older black American guy who was in Rwanda because he was getting married to a Rwandan lady. Their wedding was on the upcoming Saturday and he invited us, complete with our very own invitation, if we were still around Kigali! Unfortunately we would not make it to his wedding but the very fact of being randomly invited to a wedding in Kigali was pretty exciting. We finally did get paid and checked out and were really pissed to find that even though we were paying in Rwandan Francs, since the hotel was formally priced in USD, we got dinged with a poor exchange rate and ended up paying several dollars extra! How is that even possible?! Whatever, we were out of there as soon as possible to another rather cheap (for Kigali standards which tends to be not so cheap), super basic concrete hotel just outside the centre of Kigali but it had a fan, included breakfast and great wifi (mostly because I think we were the only people staying there) so perfect for us. And it had a mirror as hotels do, which is unfortunate because it was here that I really realized what a state my already pre-travel hair had become after 7 months of travel. Seriously, don't expect me to come home with any hair. Once 4 months ago I braided it, one on each side, and the result was a dismal like 1 mm across at the bottom if that. With my already thin hair by nature, assaulted with salt water, sun and endless bobby pins and ponytails and other head paraphernalia, I wouldn't even dare a braid now, it's that bad. Either way, as much time as I've spent cursing my genetically cursed hair this trip, it was also really intersting because at this point I realized that the current state of my hair is like a perfect little road map of this trip. Every little bit of it represents some awesome and/or funny thing that was great for my life in spite of the trauma it was for my hair. I still have this big old thick (comparatively) piece about half as long (it's grown!) as all the rest in the back of my head from when I had to cut a chunk out because of "epic Thailand knot". I have two broken super short pieces on each side of my ears that stick straight out in a totally unruly way from where the snorkel/dive mask strap mercilessly ripped it out and basically the entire top half layer is stripped and broken about half way down my head because of pinning to the side with bobby pins or pony tailing up. More, the unfortunate consequence of parting my hair to one side instead of the middle is that I have more top hair on one side... strikingly obvious as on the right side of my head exists about half as much hair as on the left side of my head which is already about half the amount I had before this trip which was about half what I had once upon a time. But pretty well I'm not doing anything to it until I come home and can take the depressing hair head I have left in it's totally pure form into a hair stylist who will at least have the most possible to work with to somehow sort out how I can move forward from this mess. I pity this person who gets me in their chair.
Bridger and I had committed ourselves to learning as much about the war and the genocide as possible while visiting Rwanda, ground 0. Circa 1994 the UN, headed by Romeo Dallaire and supported by a very small handful of soldiers from other nations, had been present in Kigali primarily as an observer role to observe the peace treaty that had been signed between the Hutu government and Tutsi rebels in the civil war that had been ravaging the country for a few years prior. Their presence was strictly as peacekeepers. However, Romeo Dallaire, somewhere along the line obtained information from an informant something to the nature of that the Hutu's were stockpiling massive arms caches all over the country and formally registering the names and locations of Tutsis across the country, a sure sign that something was in the works to go down. Despite alarming higher UN officials to raid these caches and send more troops to Rwanda, his pleas were ignored. On April 6th, 1994 the plane of the Hutu president of Rwanda and the president of neighboring Burundi was shot down, killing all on board; it remains disputed whether this was done by the Tutsi rebels or the Hutu hardliners themselves in a bid to incite the genocide. Shortly after the plane was shot down, RTLM, the hate-mongering, propaganda spewing radio Rwandan radio station sounded the call to "cut down the tall trees", the secret signal to commence the genocide, again, another indication of the meticulous planning preceding this event. Within 24 hours the city, quite literally went up in smoke as both army and bands of armed, young, angry militias called the Interhamwe roadblocked and barricaded the city restricting the movement of everyone and began systematically hunting down and killing the Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus. The constitutional head of state was now the Prime Minister Madame Agathe who was being guarded at her home by the government soldiers of the Presidential Guard as well as UN Belgian soldiers had been tasked with collecting her and taking her to a radio station where she would make a national broadcast calling for peace. During the first day of the genocide, she nad her husband were assassinated by the Presidential Guard who then turned on the ten Belgian soldiers. Despite the chaos erupting in the city and against Romeo Dallaire's pleas to the contrary, the UN continued to remain under strict military mandate to maintain it's peacekeeping role and to "only fire when fired upon".
The 10 Belgian soldiers guarding the Prime Minister were captured, stripped of their weapons and transported to a Hutu military base in central Kigali. As the murderous mob set upon them, the Belgian soldiers armed with only two concealed handguns sought refuge in a concrete building and defended themselves for as long as they could as they waited for help that never came. In the end the Belgians were overcome, tortured, killed and mutilated in what would be revealed to be a calculated premeditated plan on the part of the Hutus to provoke Belgium's (the largest contributor of soldiers to UNAMIR, the UN mission in Rwanda) withdraw from Rwanda, leaving the country almost completely unprotected by the international community. The complete horrid and graphic nature of the attack on the Belgians is summarized on Wikipedia and I won't write of it here...not surprisingly, this plan worked...shortly after this event the Belgians withdrew from Rwanda. Today in the centre of Kigali stands "Camp Kigali", a monument commemorating the 10 Belgian soldiers at the very place that they fought and died in the first days of the genocide. Where the Genocide Museum was very informative and technical, "Camp Kigali" was eerie, very raw and emotional on a different level. The building continues to stand as it was during that time, pocketed....with bullet holes.
Ten statues were erected carved with the initials and age of each soldier. A plaque proudly displays the names of those Belgian lives lost. A barrier continues to quietly stand at the entrance to the camp, like a silent but ever present witness to the terror that occurred here.
After a very sobering visit to this memorial, we walked back to Hotel Des Mille Collines.
Prior to leaving on this trip, Bridger's friend Alex had given us a cash gift to "take ourselves out to dinner someplace that has a story to go with it". So being exceptionally fascinated by this hotel, we dressed our finest and went to the fine dining restaurant on the top floor which offered a bird's eye view into the pool courtyard and sweeping views across the infinite hills in which Kigali is spread across. A truly incredible view.
And for about 3 hours as it got dark and the hills of Kigali lit with a thousand lights, we ate fancy food in small portions and drank alcohol and forced ourselves to try to imagine these very hills alive with incredible violence and the courtyard directly below us full of desperate Rwandans drinking from the pool to survive one more day in the most horrific times, I'd argue, that humanity has ever seen. We actually just couldn't. It just actually did not seem possible that such a thing could have occurred here in this very place we were sitting, eating a fancy meal and drinking expensive drinks.
I think neither of us have ever experienced such an intense block on our ability, try as we might to to imagine and visualize. This experience that we both had is truly indescribable. It continued to top even being in Kigali at all as the most surreal moments of our lives.
Sparked with an immediate and intense need to research everything about this hotel, we tried to watch "Hotel Rwanda" on Netflix (and failed) and during expert googling, I stumbled into a very opposite account of what went down at the Mille Collines during the genocide as is famously depicted in the movie "Hotel Rwanda". The movie depicts Paul Rusesabagina as a hero credited with using his status, resources and diplomatic ties with influential, though horrible human beings, to keep the Tutsis who sought refuge in his hotel safe from the approaching militias on the outside. He has written an autobiography outlining such an account. And given the fact that there were several other locations of this nature across the country including a stadium "protected" by UN soldiers which essentially served as a rounding up and corralling point for these people seeking refuge to be slaughtered en masse, it is unequivocally true that there must have been some power at play here to keep the people in Mille Collines, mostly the Tutsi elite or those with ties to moderate Hutus, from the same fate as those groups seeking refuge elsewhere. However, very recently a very educated, professional Tutsi named Edouard Kayihura who lived within the walls of the Mille Collines has written an autobiography directly refuting Paul's claims of heroism. Rather, he paints Paul as an opportunistic scumbag who he accuses of extorting desperate people and actually profiting off them in the time of crisis. Under his account, Paul charged people for every little thing and if they couldn't pay they would be evicted from their room or denied services. By Edouard's accounts, Paul is an arrogant asshole (my words not his!) who continues to ride on the winds of his heroic depiction in "Hotel Rwanda", continuing to profit off the suffering of others. He even goes so far as to accuse Paul of being a Hutu sympathizer in bed with the top orchestrators of the genocide.He asserted that the reason that the hotel was not attacked was not because of Paul's gregarious nature but rather that, given the relative elite that sought refuge there, it served as basically a corralled collection of influential hostages who could be monitored, used and exterminated at any given moment. Where Paul singlehandedly takes full credit, Edouard actually credits Romeo Dallaire and the other UN soldiers with keeping them safe. He essentially sums of the difference in character by saying, and I'm paraphrasing, how Paul says such things as "I saved all those people" and Romeo Dallaire will say things like "I didn't do enough" and "I failed". I'm sure the truth is somewhere in the middle but definitely both good reads if you are interested in the history of this tiny little country. We also bought the autobiography of the only American (and one of the only expats) who stayed in Rwanda during the genocide and he gives one more humanitarian perspective on what went down here.
We also visited several church memorials during our visit to Rwanda representing what were perhaps some of the most poignant acts of betrayal during the genocide. Being a heavily Christian country, long before the genocide Hutu and Tutsi families attended churches across the country together. During the genocide many Tutsis fled to their local churches seeking sanctuary within the walls from the carnage that was erupting outside. Sadly, the sanctity of the church was not respected during these hellish 100 days and ultimately so, many of them essentially became merely gathering points that made the mission of mass extinction of Tutsis a little bit easier for the genocidaires. Several horrific stories actually emerged out of the wreckage of pastors and priests actually annihilating their own congregation that sought refuge at their church by selling their whereabouts out to the genocidaires or even bulldozing the church full of Tutsi members to the ground with them still inside. The level of political and religious corruption during the genocide was completely unprecedented.
Just outside of Kigali by about 45 minutes, sits two church memorials, Nyamata and Ntarama and would be some of the most haunting moments in Kigali yet. To visit these sites, rather than paying expensive private transport or touring up, we decided as usual, to just take the local bus. We moto'd down to one more insanely chaotic bus park and wandered the dirt pit jammed with minibuses, kiosks and people lined up out the door of every one of them. As always, I wish I had a picture of this chaos. As usual, a bus park is no place for a camera or an iPhone. Also as usual, we had no idea how to find a bus to where we wanted to go. We figured we'd just walk around until we found one with those words on it. Which we couldn't. Until a friendly Rwandan guy came up and asked us if we needed help so we asked him where our bus was but were immediately hit with our first instinct of "shit we shouldn't have talked to anyone" because, especially in bus parks, there is always all sort of money extortion scams. Sure enough he led us right to the proper bus and didn't even ask for anything, just a perfectly friendly, helpful guy. These moments of no extortion never get old and give you just such a warm feeling about a place.
We get on the minibus (all buses in Rwanda seemed to be minibuses instead of the larger coaches of Uganda, perhaps because it is such a tiny country with not as many people traveling?), a moderately comfortable affair with a seat for all people though still packed shoulder to shoulder because it was one of those kinds of buses with a fold down seat in the middle so the aisle eventually disappears. We're cruising into the sticks and really have no idea when to get off so were relieved when there were signs along the way saying what town you were in and a formal bus park vs. a side of the road stop over. When two white people cruise into Nyamata village in rural Rwanda, it's pretty obvious that they're there to see the memorial churches so within seconds off the bus we had already each secured a moto who, for a set price, would take us to both church sites and then back to the bus park. I felt a little odd with this whole everyone knowing we were here to visit the memorial churches thing, and again felt like a bit of a "blood tourist" or something. I couldn't help but wonder what the Rwandans felt about all these white people who failed to help them during their time of need yet now flocked to visit the sites of their darkest days as a "tourist attraction" and it made me a bit uncomfortable. To this day I still do wonder what the general sentiment of Rwandans towards this sort of tourism is. Are they happy that people take an interst in their history and want to learn or do they harbor an (unfortunately well deserved) deep rooted sense of resentment for this? We never really knew because Rwandans as a whole do not superficially talk about the genocide in casual conversation in kind of this collectively agreed upon unspoken rule.
Our first stop was the rather large Nyamata church where over 10 000 Tutsis sought refuge and died during the genocide.
They hid within the courtyard and the walls of the church which effectively became a cage as their killers taunted them from outside, threw grenades inside and fired guns through the windows and doors. And when that was done, they bombed out the front metal gate/smashed in the wooden doors to all private rooms inside just so they could get inside and methodically insure that everyone was dead. Nyamata church, I'd imagine back in the day, was a rather refined, middle class kind of place. The church itself was quite large, tenderly constructed out of carefully placed brick and mortar, sitting in the middle of a gated courtyard full of green. An orderly array of benches filled the inside ceremoniously facing the pulpit. There were a few different rooms inside which no doubt would have included the priest's change quarters and possibly and administrative office. Today all of the pews are piled high with the torn and bloodied clothes of the victims as an image of a praying Mary overlooks what is left of the former congregation, everything eerily covered with a 20 year layer of dust. Several bags filled with clothing sit undistributed at the back of the church because still, 20 years later, clothing and bones are being unearthed and delivered to the church for respectful storage/burial. Underneath the church is a chamber full of skulls and a coffin holding the remains of a woman who, I cannot even to this day think about or write what was described to me, served as a gruesome reminder how the genocide was not just about killing Tutsis but about making them suffer. Rape and torture were a very real part of this time. I cannot show you any of this because photos were prohibited inside the church (if you google Nyamata church Rwanda there are several images) but I can assure you that upon visiting, your heart immediately goes up into your throat and you almost stop breathing as you walk through.
Outside the church are several mass graves which house the remains of approximately 50 000 people.
There is also an underground crypt which contains the bones and skulls of many victims, still bearing witness to the way each person was killed, whether by machete, club or bullet. It was all so inconceivable to me how the church of all places could become such a site of violence and betrayal, churchgoers turning on other churchgoers and priests either failing to even attempt to protect their congregation at best or condemning them themselves at worst. It was actually interesting because I came across an article discussing, along with other stories, this very thing which basically said that where the very fabric of Catholic and Christian religions were corrupted to the core, the Muslim faith was actually the only faith not corrupted by the genocide with the country's small Muslim population and Imam's condemning the violence, calling on Rwandans to stop and protecting and harboring people. Anyways, being here underlined the most grating of questions--how could this grotesque violence and betrayal happen in the "house of God"?! So I asked. The guide explained that even before the genocide broke out, for years there had been ethnic tension and divide within the church whereby Tutsis were denied the right to obtain positions within the church and other such acts of discrimination. Even before the genocide itself broke it, it wasn't all "love thy neighbor" in Rwandan churches, further testament to the pervasive culture of resentment and bitterness that pervaded the country for the years leading up to the actual genocide itself.
After this somber visit we jumped on our bodas and cruised down dusty, rural dirt roads headed to Ntarama church, the site of a similar event. Where Nyamata was a city, Ntarama was a small village on the outskirts and the church itself was a small, modest affair lacking what glamour the Nyamata church would have had once upon a time.
Where the Nyamata memorial was meticulously put together, hauntingly manicured if you will, Ntarama was the more raw version that resembled more of your backyard shed full of a disordered array of odds and ends that you intended to organize one day but haven't got around to it; both churches, equally powerful in their own ways. Ntarama church harbored approximately 5000 Tutsi refugees who fled from all over the countryside. They fled their homes with their families and a handful of belongings seeking sanctuary in the church, where surely they would be safe. It was not to be. Much like Nyamata, the killers surrounded this church and literally carved holes in the walls so their bullets, grenades and machetes could get in. Seeing these holes left you no other choice but to imagine the terror of being inside watching the walls, the only thing separating you and the madmen who would surely kill you, slowly fall away.
Everyone inside the church was killed. A handful of those who fled to the swamp areas surrounding the church and hid were not killed because the RPF (Tutsi rebel army) liberated the region shortly after. Today this dark and tiny church is piled high with the random belongings of refugees, pots and pans, shoes etc. piled up on a shelf in one corner, skulls and bones on another shelf, books and documents haphazardly strewn about another shelf slowly fading and crumbling as the years progress. Clothing items hang from the rafters and piles of coffins are also haphazardly strewn about the church on and between pews and piled up against the wall. A wheelbarrow piled high with "bodies" or pieces of them sits in the corner waiting to be filed away into coffins. Outside the church our guide shows us a memorial wall engraved with shockingly few names of the deceased. She says they are more than willing to add more names though she says that this is unlikely because it has been 20 years and for the most part, entire families were killed such that nobody remains to supply the names. Too many victims that there is nobody left to name victims, a tragedy of epic proportions.
In the end, sad to say, Rwandans were abandoned to their fate by the international community
who, still reeling from the epic failure of the humanitarian and subsequent military operation in Somalia ("Blackhawk Down") just months prior, were unwilling to mobilize and intervene in another African crisis. Not only did they not intervene, the international community actually withdrew all of it's citizens as well as it's troops leaving Rwanda to spiral into madness all by itself. In the end the genocide was ended only when the the Tutsi rebels, the RPF, essentially "took" Kigali and "won" the war, liberating the Tutsi minority and sending the extremist Hutus fleeing to neighboring countries.
Again, it is insanely hard to believe that the Rwanda of today is the same Rwanda that I am describing to you now. Walking through the downtown area you see a metropolitan city with skyscrapers, development and endless middle-upper class Rwandans lunching in one of the city's many upscale cafes. Where we had been told that Rwandans are reserved and stand-offish, we have not found this to be so. In our experience Rwandans have been wonderfully friendly people very quick to give you a smile as you pass by on the street, much more so than Ugandans as a whole. They have been nothing but inviting, warm, welcoming and very jovial and we quite enjoyed our experiences interacting with Rwandan people. Yet, the genocide was only 20 years ago which means that most of the people that we encountered all across the country remember and experienced it in some way. And even though there is absolutely no perceptible reason to fear as you move about the country, it is a bit of an unnerving feeling to know that you are walking among people who, I would argue by nature of the socio-economic-political context of that time in history and not by nature of any innate inclinations, have been extraordinarily violent and predatory and people who have experienced extraordinary acts of violence against them in the not so distant past. There is nothing that can really explain or describe this feeling but it will remain ours.
I've grappled a lot with reconciling our various, competing and overwhelming experiences visiting and learning about the history of Rwanda. I have struggled with making sense of and articulating my disorganized thoughts around both being entirely compelled to visit these sites and learn and my desire to reject being a "war tourist" with a morbid fascination with the misery of others. The truth is that I am both. I know Bridger has also experienced the same intense feelings in our visit here, though is more able to silently and unconsciously integrate the contradictions without feeling the need to be so consciously dichotomous about it all (my words, not his). Interestedly I've had these feelings before though perhaps with less ability to toss them around in my head and come out with a meaningful summary and reconciled opinion based on them. I remember when I visited the genocide memorial sites in Cambodia when I was 21, feeling the same intense pleasure and guilt. And though I couldn't articulate it at the time, I remember feeling a barely perceptible sense of disdain for myself and others who came, and saw, and took pictures, and felt sad and lamented over the great injustice of it all and, as any good human would, ranted about how they can't believe the world could let this happen, but who would also inevitably go home where that fire would quickly become extinct such that you don't think too much about it anymore. Gosh, this is all exceptionally difficult for me to explain and put into words but in my attempts to be very honest and transparent with present and future self who will read these posts, I need to try. Ultimately, and this is only my opinion, I think in spite the condemnation, moral outrage and "never again" of anyone who has even learned about the genocide, if something to this magnitude were to happen again right now, sadly I think the world would react in the exact same way. Because to be frank, I think the majority of the general public including myself, is frightfully unaware of what is going on abroad, especially in places like Africa. Further, even among those who are more informed, I think the way that we receive information about the world is highly biased and skewed with little ability to deliver information to us that conveys the situation without being either dramatized or minimized. This compounds with the fact that we are bombarded with so much information about tragedy across the world that we become somewhat desensitized to the affect that even those who are watching are unable to truly tease apart what is the situation and therefore, what is the appropriate level of response warranted. And truly, there still is this notion in the developed world, whether it is explicit or implicit that the people involved in these situations are "different"; that somehow they don't feel fear like we do, or that they are inherently more "barbaric" than we are, or we have feelings of "those poor people" which, though rooted in compassion, is a little bit patronizing, a little bit adult/child. It's complex...not right or wrong, just intricately complex in a way that, in my opinion, makes it an intimate possibility that we could unknowingly watch another situation like Rwanda unfold directly in front of us again. I wish I had the answers, I don't. But what I have deduced through this whole experience is that after visiting these types of sites across the world and learning about the morbid history and expressing your horror and sympathy is not the end. To visit these kinds of places and not become merely a "blood tourists", comes with a responsibility and that is to be informed and vocal about humanitarian affairs in the world. Learn about people, cultures and world events with an open-mindedness unparalleled so you can be an advocate for people who who have a voice but who may not be heard.
Today the current Rwandan president has been in power for 20 years and is, totally unbelievably, the commander of the RPF forces, Paul Kagame, who ended the genocide in 1994. Today, in an effort to ditch any ties to the French (based on their controversial policies before and during the genocide that was seen by many as in direct support of the Hutus) and join the international business world, the country has switched it's official language from French to English (and of course Kinyarwanda, the local language). As far as Africa goes, Rwanda, under the leadership of Kagame, strives to become a rising technological and business minded nation. From the outside as far as I can see, Kagame has gone to great lengths to re-build Rwanda into a country that is not defined by the genocide. The words "Hutu" and "Tutsi" are all but obsolete from the current vocabulary of Rwanda except for within the sanctioned context of describing "the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda". The country has gone to great lengths to rebrand it's people as being united as "Rwandans" instead of "Hutu" and "Tutsi" and from what we can gather, an air of "moving forward" dominates life here, however, difficult that may be. On the surface, despite some criticism for growing increasingly "dictatorlike", Kagame seems to have done a solid job of rebuilding and reintegrating Rwanda in a sensitive and powerful way. Walking through this country, there doesn't seem to exist any overt tension or divide within the country as is palpable in places like Jerusalem. But unlike in Uganda where people seem to talk openly about the war in the north and questions and comments seem almost welcome, in Rwanda the people don't really appear to make any reference to the genocide outside of the memorials and you wouldn't dare ask.
People seem amicable to one another and life seems to go on here in a way that you would never suspect that trauma to the magnitude of the genocide ever existed here. But beneath the surface, there continues to be mighty struggles to achieve these ends. Though casual conversations about the genocide with strangers don't seem to be commonplace, we've seen documentaries here where people speak to the very real challenges of moving forward. Though incredible and admirable acts of forgiveness and reunification have undoubtedly taken place, the situation remains exceptionally complex. The general experience and attitude of the people in the documentaries seems to be rather defined by resignation as opposed to a deep rooted peace. Currently killers and victims live alongside one another, passing each other on the street, doing business together and everyone knows who has done what to whom. And the prevailing sentiment echoes of such things as "the local shop owner killed all of my children in front of me but what am I supposed to do, we have to live together now" and "it is difficult every day to see the face of the person who killed my entire family and tried to kill me but it is good that there is no fighting anymore". During our visit to the west of the country we met a Swiss guy who lives and works with an NGO in Rwanda who had a lot of insight into the current state of affairs. He expressed how people here do not talk about the genocide until they know and really trust you and when they do, he said the general sentiment is that "life is very difficult living together but peace is better than war". Ultimately, the people of Rwanda today are choosing between the lesser of two evils. The hope is that as more generations are born and eventually leave the genocide behind them, there will be continued progress towards Rwanda as a peaceful, happy and unified nation.