Our trek to Rwanda had taken us through 5 countries over two days; Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Ethiopia, Uganda and finally Rwanda. We arrived in Kigali in the middle of the night and were met by Ben, the lovely owner of our hotel- Good News Guest House. In the morning we met mom and dad, had a nice breakfast overlooking the city (which gives you your first glimpse as to why the country is called the 'Land of a thousand hills'. After downloading the various maps we would need for our trip to the north western part of the country and getting our Rav4 rental we headed to the Genocide Memorial Museum.
The museum is set up so as not to be overwhelmingly long and has an optional audio tour. We did have to pass through a security checkpoint where they had us step out of the car to check us for metal, but then let us get back into our packed car. The security guard looked through my shoulder bag, but then gave up when she saw our trunk full of luggage. I’m generalizing here but African security checkpoints are pretty unique.
We first visited the outdoor grave site, where ~250 thousand people are buried. These are huge concrete vaults that sit about 1 foot above ground (picture below). Below I’ve written a brief account of the genocide (feel free to just look at the photos) because the museum was a place I had really wanted to visit. I had heard so much about the genocide and understanding what it was, why it happened, and how the country recovered explains why Rwanda is such a unique place in Africa, and why it is the way it is today. The museum has an audio tour, which I thought was quite good, which takes you first to the outside areas of the museum including the grave sites and gardens reflecting the dark stages of the country and also the way forward. Inside you find the history of the genocide, short accounts of other genocides that have occurred throughout human history, and final the children's room which houses photos of children killed during the genocide. It takes a while to process all that you’ve seen in the museum and I found myself thinking about the events that shaped the country throughout our trip. If you talk to any one person long enough, chances are their life has been affected by the genocide.
In total they estimate that 1 million Tutsi people were killed during the entirety of the genocide, including the practice, small scale killings that occurred in 1991-1994, before the ~100 day country wide massacre. The museum gives some background on the country to set the scene for the genocide and displays the Tutsi Hutu divide as a mostly arbitrary Belgian colonially imposed division, based on number of cattle owned, as a crude indication of way of living and origin. Tutsi herded cattle while Hutu farmed land. I find this explanation somewhat unsatisfying because other information suggests this divide between people had begun prior to the Colonial era. Other sources suggest these groups migrated into Rwanda at different time points and comprised distinct ethnic groups whereas, closer to the story the museum portrays, some historians suggest the migration into Rwanda was slow and steady over time and the people were genetically similar. The country was and still is made up of approximately 85% Hutu, 14% Tutsi, and 1% Twa.They share a common language and are collectively known as the Banyarwanda (“those who come from Rwanda”). By around 1700 the country had coalesced into 8 kingdoms. One Tutsi ruled kingdom became dominant through conquest and assimilation and the institution of the uburetwa system where Huts were forced to work for Tutsi chiefs, which created or perhaps widened the socio-economic and power division between the Hutu and Tutsi populations.
The Colonial Era
The country was initially a German colony and the Germans ruled through the Rwandan monarchy. They believed the Tutsi were more suited to carry out colonial administration tasks because they were more Caucasian than the Hutus and therefore racially superior. Belgian forces then took control of Rwanda and Burundi during WWI and began a more direct style of colonial rule where they imposed Tutsi Kindom type reforms that saw land taken away from Hutus with little compensation and extended the scale and scope of the uburetwa. The Belgians instituted large scale reforms and the country became modernised. Tutsi supremacy remained and the Hutus were left disenfranchised and subject to large scale forced labour. Identity cards were introduced in 1935 and prevented any further movement between classes.
After WWII a Hutu emancipation movement began to form. The Catholic Church became sympathetic and missionaries felt responsible for empowering Hutus because of their role in enabling the Tutsi to gain power. This lead to the formation of a Hutu clergy and educated elite that provided a counterbalance to Tutsi rule. Hutus demanded independence thus agitating the monarchy and Tutsi leaders. The Belgians shifted their support to the Hutu side and replaced most Tutsi chiefs with Hutu. In 1962 the country gained independence with a Hutu dominated leadership. By 1965 300,000 Tutsis had fled the country to escape the Hutu purges and remained in exile for the next 3 decades in neighboring countries Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania and Zaire (now the DRC).
The Civil War
In 1990 Rwanda’s population was 7.2 million, having increased dramatically from 1.6 million in 1935. Some historians believe that the 1990 population density at over 400 inhabitants per km2 contributed to the 1994 genocide. In late 1990 4000 Rwandan refugees in Uganda advanced into Rwanda under the banner of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). France and Zaire dispatched forces to support the Rwandan army to repel the invasion and pushed the refugees to the Virunga Mountains (where we visited the Gorillas) in the North of the country. The RFP became more organised and launched another attack several months later and waged guerrilla style war fare over the next year. 1992 saw a ceasefire and the start of negotiations, which terminated in response to large scale violence against Tutsis by Hutu extremist groups.These would be what the museum considered practice killing campaings for the full fledged genocidal attack in 1994. In 1993 peace agreements, known as the Arusha Accords, were signed and a UN peacekeeping force arrived. Underneath this apparent progress the hard-line anti-Tutsi figures published anti-Tutsi propaganda and formed a more right wing party critical of the then President Habyarimana’s softeness towards the RPF. They began actively plotting against the president, worried about Tutsi being included in government and organized several rounds of Tutsi killings. All political parties became split and youth militia groups emerged, attached to the ‘Power’ wings of the parties, and trained by the army to act in civil defense against the threat of the RPF. In late 1993 extremist Tutsi officers assassinated the Hutu President of Burundi, solidifying the notion amongst the Rwandan Hutu population that the Tutsi were their enemy. The genocide idea, first suggested in 1992 as a fringe idea, now became a shared idea and active planning began.
Assassination of Habyarimana and moderate leaders
The event which triggered the start of the full scale genocide was the take down of the plane of the Rwandan and the Burundi Presidents on 6 April 1994. It was never discovered who was responsible for the attack but it served as the spark to initiate the planned events of the incredibly organized and efficient genocide. The Prime Minister and the ten Belgian peace keepers sent to protect her were killed and a list of moderate political figures were assassinated the nights of 6-7 April. The large scale killings began within hours of Habyarimana’s death. Over the course of one month the militia force tied to the ruling party, the Interhamwe, along with the Presidential Guard and armed civilians slaughtered, tortured and raped men, women and Tutsi children. Estimates suggest that during the first 6 weeks 800,000 people were killed, a rate 5 times higher than that during the Holocaust. Hutus that resembled Tutsis or with Tutsi sympathy were also killed. During this time the RPF was making steady advances and killings in some part of the country had been stopped by the end of April. Killings in other areas continued into May and June but occurred in lower numbers and sporadically as most Tutsis had already been eliminated. On 4 July 1994 the RFP took control of the capital city Kigali and the rest of the country several weeks later. The genocide was over and masses of Hutu fled across the borders to Zaire. Precise death toll estimates are not available because unlike the the Nazis or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia no effort was made to record the deaths. The official figures published by the Rwandan government are 1,174,000 deaths in 100 days, or 10,000 deaths per day. 10% of these deaths were moderate Hutus. 300,000 Tutsis are thought to have survived the genocide, which left 400,000 orphans. The country was economically crippled after losing 1/4 of its population, half of whom were killed, half of whom, including Hutus, fled the country. People were emotionally devastated.
Almost no help from outside countries or international bodies, such as the UN, was provided. Some people suggest no information was available to make informed decisions, others suggest there was simply reluctance to be involved. The Red Cross remained present but peacekeepers and other military forces and embassy staff were quickly pulled out after the targeted killing of Belgian peacekeepers. This targeted killing was said to have been orchestrated to break the will of other European and Western countries to be involved.
After the Genocide
Hutu Rwandan genocide leaders were on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in the Rwandan National Court System and through the informal Gacaca programme. Gacaca trials were overseen by the government established National Unity and Reconciliation Commission. Gacaca is a traditional adjudication mechanism at the umudugudu (village) level, whereby members of the community elect elders to serve as judges, and the entire community is present for the case. This system was modified to try lower-level génocidaires, those who had killed or stolen but did not organize massacres. Prisoners, dressed in pink, stood trial before members of their community. Judges accorded sentences, which varied widely, from returning to prison, to paying back the cost of goods stolen, to working in the fields of families of victims. Gacaca trials had concluded by 2008, although some genocide leaders have been prosecuted quite recently (link below). The main source of revenue in the country is now tourism, although coffee and tea export are significant. The postwar government has placed high priority on development and provision of free and mandatory education.
After the museum we took our time driving to Musanze, the town just south of Volcanoes National Park in the North West of the country. The view of Kigali as you climb the road is incredible. Every inch of land is used and houses, many of which are made of a wood frame and mud, are quaint and tidy. We stopped at a small restaurant at the side of the road for lunch and eventually conveyed that we would like food. It was initially unclear whether they did in fact serve food or only alcohol. At this point we were shown into their cook room where we served ourselves rice, slow stewed beef, plantains and greens from large cook pots. Delicious. Everyone that wandered by stared at us, but not in a menacing way. In a curious way that asked what these white people were doing at this little road side restaurant. When I waved to onlooking kids they quickly ducked behind the restaurant wall and out of sight. Something that strikes you right away, especially coming from West Africa, is how friendly and gentle everyone is. No one hassles you or tries to sell their wares. They just go about their everyday life, if not with a few curious looks cast your way. The rest of the drive was beautiful. Up and down endless hills, moving across valley tops and constantly overlooking hills covered in farmland and homesteads as far as you could see.
We arrived at our hotel to find they had not recorded our reservation but they thankfully found us rooms at another nearby hotel and honoured their original rate at the more expensive hotel (I was shocked because I had forgotten what good customer service feels like!). We took a slow walk into town to check things out but then headed back for dinner and early to bed so we could be up the next day for the golden monkeys.