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Echoes of genocide: tourism comes to rebuild Rwanda


Yvonne and Mugisha were sister and brother. In 1994 they had been aged five and three respectively. The photo showed them smiling without a care in the world. Both had been hacked to death inside their grandmother’s home because they were from the wrong Later, when the death squads arrived at Umutoni’s home, they stabbed the little girl in the eyes and head, and when they reached another Tutsi household, the final words of twelve-year-old Mami were: Mum? Where can I run? She was shot dead a few seconds later.

The Genocide Memorial Museum was all so unbelievably depressing, especially the final room full of children’s ghosts. But what got me most was that it had only happened in 1994, eighteen years ago. At the time, I remember hearing about it on the news, but as a young man just out of university, the scale of the tragedy had not really registered. It had now though.

Kigali city skylineThe difference between Kampala and Kigali could not have been starker. For a start, it was all so clean with everything looking well-manicured. Plus, there was not a single marabou stork to be seen. The airport road was in top condition and the cars driving along it looked new and expensive. Unlike the Ugandan capital, there were no roadside shacks filled with masses of humanity. Here the people looked fairly affluent and seemed to be going somewhere rather than just hanging around.

Getting to Rwanda had involved a spot of time-travelling. My Rwandair flight departed Kampala at 11am but arrived in Kigali at 10.45am, fifteen minutes before I’d taken off. This neat trick was due to a combination of Rwanda being one hour behind Uganda and a flight lasting only forty-five minutes. But as great as all that had been, passport control was even better. I didn’t need a visa to enter the country. Just a stamp, a smile and I was in.

The Top Tower Hotel looked like the abode of a criminal mastermind. It had gold panelling on the outside and a distinctive dome on the top. The Bond-villain look was finished with a powerful radio antenna sticking up from middle of the dome. Goldfinger would have found the building very much to his liking I thought.

Half an hour later I was in a taxi to the centre of the city. Ten days prior to my arrival there had been two grenade attacks in Kigali, one in a city centre market place, the other in the outskirts. Though one of the safer African cities, the UK Foreign Office were advising its citizens to be extra vigilant and warned to expect a greater security presence on the streets. This was especially important since my arrival into Rwanda happened to coincide with the start of the official remembrance of the Rwandan genocide. As I looked outside everything seemed perfectly normal and peaceful.

I was dropped off outside the Hotel Des Mille Collines. During the genocide it had been the place where 1268 people had taken refuge to avoid the slaughter outside. The manager at the time, Paul Rusesabagina had managed to accomplish this feat by bribing the death squads with money and alcohol, putting his own like in perpetual danger. His actions were later immortalised in the 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda.

The Hotel Des Milles Collines was posh and I wandered through its entrance and into the pool area. During the genocide, the water inside the pool had been used for drinking water. The patio was full of people, mainly white tourists enjoying lunch. I tried to comprehend how serene it all looked. Attentive waiters were hovering over guests and over by the pool a couple of young European women lay sunbathing. A beautiful little red and green bird landed on a nearby flower; all a testament to far Rwanda had come since the genocide.

Half an hour later I was wandering around the centre of Kigali trying to follow my pathetic Lonely Planet map. It might as well have been a blank piece of paper for all the use it was. Half the buildings on the map were no longer there or else had moved. In the end I shoved it in my pocket and began to walk aimlessly.

“You want map?” said a voice to my left. He’d evidently seen me struggling with the one I already had. Unfortunately he only possessed a large one of the entire African continent. Not much help to me. I thanked him but shook my head and walked away.

Kigali looked fairly modern. It had some nice shiny skyscrapers and lots of shops. There was no rubbish on the street (plastic bags were banned in Rwanda) but in contrast, some of the trucks chugging along were sending out thick plumes of black smoke. Things were changing in Africa, I mused, but the trucks would always be the same.

Further on I was accosted by a man trying to sell me a newspaper; he had a bundle of different ones draped over his arm. I brushed him off but then a small boy rushed towards me. “Hey mista!” he implored. “Please give me franc! I hungry! 100 franc buy me bananas. Please mista, please!” He followed me along the street while I tried my best to ignore him. Other white tourists were facing similar things but none were giving money either. To do so would only bring a swarm of other beggars. I continued walking towards a large roundabout with a fountain in the middle. It was Place de L’Unite National, a busy area of green surrounded by roads leading off in all directions. Another child rushed up to me, this one a girl of perhaps four. She didn’t speak any English and instead tried to take my hand. Eventually she gave up when I crossed a road.

kigali city towerI was heading towards a huge shiny skyscraper that dominated the city’s skyline with its modern blue glass exterior. It was called the Kigali City Tower and was an entertainment centre full of shops, bars, restaurants and even a multiplex cinema. Like in virtually every African city I’d been to, people were everywhere. Most were shopping but others were trying to sell lottery tickets or leather belts to passers-by. Every time I got my camera out I could feel people staring. Even taking a photo of the City Tower drew glances from people nearby. I moved onwards, up a slight hill until I came to the realisation I was lost.

“Bloody Lonely Planet,” I hissed to myself, causing a few people to stare. Fucking useless map, I silently seethed. Why wasn’t the Kigali City Tower on the map? I thought. And where were all the bloody street signs? Cursing, I moved onwards because I had already discovered that loitering too long in Kigali drew hustlers towards me.

Every now and again I would hear a beep as a motorbike-taxi driver tried to attract my attention. Even though each rider carried a helmet for potential passengers, I still didn’t fancy jumping on the back of one. For the moment I wiped my brow and traipsed up another hill with the heat of the African sun beating down upon me.

Ten minutes later I found myself back at the Hotel de Mille Collines. From here I knew which way it was to get back to the hotel. I set off walking, ignoring the beeps and the occasional blast of black smoke. Forty minutes later I arrived back at the Top Tower hot, bothered and totally knackered.

The next day I was in a taxi to the Genocide Museum. Along the way I got chatting to the driver, a friendly man who could speak good English. “If you like,” he said as we drove along. “I can take you to Congo? It take three hours and for $200 I take you there and bring you back.”

The Congo! Now that would be an interesting side trip to undertake. And even though $200 seemed a bit steep, it might be the only opportunity I’d ever get to visit the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and besides, I could probably barter him down a bit. I suddenly grew excited, wondering whether it would be possible to get there in the remaining time I had.

“If we go, I will not be able to take you across the border,” the driver admitted. “I do not have the papers to do this. But I can drive to the Gisenyi Border and you will be able to get another taxi to take you to Goma, the town on the other side.”

I did a quick mental calculation. If I was done with the Genocide Museum by about 10.30, I could be at the Congolese Border by half past one. A couple of hours to wander around, and I’d be back in Kigali by about 7pm. Very doable, I thought to myself. I told the driver I’d think about his proposal after I’d visited the museum.

“Starting on the 7th April 1994 and lasting for one hundred days,” said Diane, the young guide who was explaining things to me. “Hutu Militia groups known as Interahamwe murdered up to a million Rwandan Tutsis.”

Historically, the Tutsis had been the minority ethnic group in Rwanda but had controlled most of the country’s power. That was until 1962, when a Hutu led government had been established, forcing Tutsis to flee to neighbouring Uganda and Congo. There they formed a rebel army which made frequent attacks into Rwanda which in turn gave rise to a bloody civil war. This lasted for many years but hardly anyone in the West knew about it. After all, it was just another tinpot African nation fighting over some tribal ancestry or something. Things continued like this until 1993 when uneasy peace agreement was put in place. To help broker this, a contingent of UN peacekeepers were sent to Kigali.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a massacre of unprecedented scale was being planned. Even as the peace treaty was being discussed, half a million machetes were being brought into the country. In his eventual tribunal, the then Rwandan Prime Minister admitted that the genocide had even been discussed in cabinet meetings where it was decided that if the Tutsis were gotten rid of, Rwanda’s problems would most probably end.

Kigali genocide memorialDiane explained more: “Newspapers and then the radio sent messages to Hutus that it was okay to hate Tutsis. This hate propaganda became so commonplace that it was normal and because many people were illiterate the radio broadcasts became important to them. They would listen to educated people telling them that the Tutsis wanted to take over Rwanda and make their lives unbearable. They were told to attack first before it was too late. They were warned that Tutsi soldiers would be dressed as civilians. It was all propaganda for what was to come.”

Meanwhile the General in charge of the UN peacekeepers, a Canadian called Romeo Dallaire, quickly realised that things were about to turn ugly, especially after a plane had landed at Kigali Airport full of weapons and ammunition bound for Hutu militia. He warned his superiors of the very real possibility of an orchestrated attack on the Tutsi population of Rwanda but his superiors ordered him to keep out of things and to leave the shipment of arms well alone. At the same time the Hutu leaders made a calculated gamble. They shot and killed ten Belgian UN soldiers. The result was precisely what they had hoped for. Belgium pulled its troops out of Rwanda. This crippled the UN forces who were left with only 270 men.

Diane led me into the first of the exhibits which gave information about the period prior to the genocide and then we moved further around where I saw the first of many harrowing photos. Lifeless corpses were everywhere, and a lot of them were children. One horrendously depressing photo showed a room full of bodies. One of them was clearly a little girl with one of her arms wrapped around her dead mother. “Please watch this short video,” said Diane pressing a button on a small monitor. “You will see some of the children who survived the genocide who are now adults.”

The first person being interviewed looked like any of the young women I’d seen in Kigali the previous day. But she had a sadness in her eyes that was upsetting to see. She said: ‘I watched as my mother was killed. They told her to lie down on the floor and then she was shot in the head.’ The scene shifted and young man appeared. He had the same sad look of the previous speaker. ‘My mother and sister were killed while I watched. My mother was stabbed with a spear and then my sister tried to escape. The Interahamwe caught her and then threw her into a deep latrine. Then they threw rocks at her until she stopped screaming.’

Diane led me along to the next section. As we walked she said, “This happened every day for one hundred days and it was only the lucky ones who were shot. That was the easy way out. Sometimes people paid to be shot to get it over with. The Hutus liked to inflict torture on the Tutsis. They might hack at a person’s thighs and then leave him in agony for a few hours. Then they might come back and hack off his arm before leaving him once more.” I looked at a photo of a dead man half inside the window of a car. He’d probably been trying to flee the death squads. Wounds were visible over his back. “There were so many bodies in Kigali that dogs began to eat their flesh.”

Kigali cityscapeI wondered why the Tutsi’s simply hadn’t got out of Rwanda when they’d had the chance. But many of them had tried to do exactly that explained Diane. “But very quickly roadblocks were set up all over the city. No one could get past them unless they could prove they were Hutu. These roadblocks became prime killing grounds and so Tutsis didn’t dare go near them. Instead they tried to hide. But by this time the Interahamwe had begun searching houses. They also had Hutu civilians helping them. Any Tutsis they found was murdered.”

On the 9th of April one of the worst mass killings had occurred. With death squads hacking and clubbing people do death all over the city, over a hundred Tutsis, including children fled to a nearby church. It didn’t offer any sanctuary though because the Interahamwe entered and began hacking everyone inside. By chance a couple of Polish UN Peacekeepers saw what was going on. They tried to contact their base for immediate assistance but were told that no help would be forthcoming. There were other similar reports coming in all over Kigali and besides, the UN mandate was non-intervention. A few days later, twelve of the survivors of the church atrocity hid in a nearby chapel. When the Interahamwe found this out they set fire to it killing everyone.

On the very same day a thousand European troops arrived in Kigali. It was only the third day of the Genocide. But instead of helping the people of Rwanda, the troops merely supervised the withdrawal of European personal. As these Westerners left their compounds and places of stay many of them saw their Tutsi co-workers murdered.

Three days later 1500 Tutsis escaped to another large catholic church. Like before, local Interahamwe showed no mercy. Driving bulldozers at the building, they killed anyone who tried to leave. By the time they had finished there were no survivors. And everywhere else the killing, the raping, the torturing and the total lack of humanity continued. Ten thousand people a day were being murdered but still the world looked on and did nothing.

On July 17, 1994 Tutsi forces finally took back control of Kigali resulting in thousands of Hutus fleeing into Zaire. The one hundred days in hell had finally come to an end but the country was left crippled and the capital overrun with corpses. Only now did the UN decide to send some in reinforcements, but as General Dallaire stated: it was too much too late. The damage had been done. Bill Clinton on a visit to Kigali in 1998 acknowledged that the world had let Rwanda down.

Back outside I found my taxi driver waiting for me. To be honest, I was no longer in the mood to travel to the Congo and I told him this. “Perhaps next time,” he said gracefully. He dropped me back off in the centre of Kigali.

This time I couldn’t help but see the city differently. I began to study the people around me, wondering if they had known anyone who had been killed. While waiting to cross a busy road I noticed a man across from me staring. He looked to be in his early-thirties which meant during the genocide he would have been a teenager. I looked away, making a show of glancing at my watch. His haunted expression had been disconcerting. When I looked back up he was still staring. What did you see during the genocide? I wondered sadly. And what part did you play in it? Where you one of the lucky ones who managed to hide from the Interahamwe, or where you perhaps part of them? A sudden break in the traffic broke the spell us both. We crossed by each other heading in opposite directions.

After some lunch in a cafe just off Place de l’Unite Nationale, I decided to bite the bullet and get a motorbike taxi back to the hotel. After placing the helmet on my head, we were off, tearing through the streets of Kigali at top speed. After a while I became used to my balanced position and actually started to enjoy the wind ripping over me. I arrived at the Top Tower fifteen minutes later, safe and sound.

Jason Smart has now published The Red Quest, an excellent book about his travels through the ‘Stans, now out on Kindle – where it appears to be free.

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