First off a very fair warning: This post will likely be a bit depressing, but as a famous quote says those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
Who goes to Rwanda on vacation? After a massive genocide that left somewhere around 1 million dead (nearly 10% of the country’s population) Rwanda wasn’t exactly on most peoples’ tourist map. Recently, the government changed the official language from French to English and has been on a major campaign of investment promotion, anti-corrpution, and doing “all the right things” to become a full member of the international community. From what I saw, this is clearly a country that is going places, and if I had capital to invest it would certainly be high on my list.
That said, the ghosts of 1994 still haunt Rwanda, although it amazed me just how much people have moved on. How can you see your neighbors, family, friends, etc butchered in such a brutal fashion, and just move on? I’m not sure I’d be as brave as these people, and I have to admit I kind of fell in love with Rwanda.
Those of you who have seen the movie Hotel Rwanda will remember the Hotel des Milles Collines which was featured in the film. After that movie, we couldn’t help but stay there. I wasn’t in Rwanda when it happened, and to me this movie was the best impression I had of what 1994 meant in Rwanda. Honestly, based on the hotel, you’d never have a clue what happened there. I highly recommend the movie – we watched it again after the trip, and it really hit home. The historical accuracy probably isn’t perfect, but I could feel it when I watched it, knowing I’d been there – it was a really cool experience unlike anything else!
We decided to hire a driver for our one full day there to really take us on the highlights, since they were a bit spread out. It turned out to be the same hotel driver who’d picked us up from the airport the night before – and I honestly give high recommendations to the Milles Collines staff – they really arranged a top notch tour for our very short time there!
The first stop we made was the church at Ntarama. I’m going to get the numbers terribly wrong, but at this church some thousands of people were massacred. The idea was that once the genocide started, people fled to the church, feeling the church would protect them from the Interahamwe militias. This didn’t happen, and thousands were murdered in the most horrific ways: machetes, long wooden poles shoved into women from underneath until they went out the body/head, babies swung around in circles with heads smashed into stone walls, etc. It was horrible, gruesome, and the bones are still piled in the church as a reminder. It was honestly the most disturbing thing I think I’ve ever seen – but at the same time perfect. It helped to give just a little glimpse into what had happened. A few shots from the outside – to preserve the dignity of the victims filming inside the church was not allowed:
The memorial wall outside the church, just begun, with much much more to go…
From there, we moved on to the Nyamata Church. This church was several times bigger, and many thousands had sought refuge there. It took another day or so for the Interahamwe to reach it, but once the did the mass slaughter was just as brutal and no different. Seeing the inside of the church still strewn with blood-stained clothes nearly 17 years later was chilling, and really helped make the least impression of what had happened there. The best part of this site was they had mass graves dug under the church, with rows and rows of bones to give you an idea of just how big the scale of this was. I actually shivered and really got uncomfortable – it just feel really wrong to be there…but also gave understanding if that makes any sense at all.
From there, it was on to the last stop, the Genocide Museum in Kigali. The displays were fantastic, and gave a really good (and relatively unbiased timeline) of what happened in 1994. It definitely (even after the past sites) gave a good insight into what happened and although there was definitely some bias it was really a good overall perspective on what had happened. I’d highly recommend it. Below are a couple pictures of the fountain (note the elephants – a sign of memory and never forgetting), the mass graves where TENS of thousands are buried, and the memorial wall.
After this tour, we were completely emotionally spent, and chose a quick dinner near the hotel at Heaven Restaurant. I’ll refrain from too much comment here, since it was just before New Years and the restaurant was absolutely dead. The food was solid and tasty, however, although the service was quite slow despite only three tables being occupied. Being emotionally drained and exhausted from travel we crashed pretty early, ready to head on to Burundi the next day!
I had the same experience when visiting Phnom Penh’s Genocide Museum in Cambodia.