The life of the dead is placed
in the memory of the living.
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Kids, they are so expressive…
Writing about Africa some four months after the fact, due to lack of internet during the trip, is tougher, memories no longer fresh in mind. I need to immerse back in ‘that’ moment to effectively write about it, something made harder when surrounded by routine and the many familiar comforts of home.
On one hand it is great because I get to relive incredible events, on the other I know the writing is missing the true essence of these past experiences, much having occurred since. Pictures and notes help jog the mind, but it is not the same as smelling the place, hearing the people, seeing the animals and landscape as you are writing about them.
One thing that remained crystal clear despite the passage of time was our visit to the Kigali’s Genocide Memorial Center. I hesitated to approach this difficult and painful subject. I have, frankly, been procrastinating.
First, let’s get back on the road to that destination, moving from Uganda to Rwanda.
Much of what I write has to do with what I saw from Pluto, our transportation, the reality being that we covered nearly 8,700 miles (14,000 km) in 73 days. About 40% of our time was on the road with little interaction, merely passive viewing of the outside world from our vehicular cocoon.
Church and Muhabura volcano
|Refugee camp – quiet time|
We retrace our incoming route for a short while, seeing a refugee camp (one of 12 in Uganda) which still accepts people at a rate of about 300/day. Since its inception, this camp has seen over one million refugees. From Rwanda then, to South Sudan and Congo today. Uganda is the largest refugee-hosting nation in Africa. I didn’t realize at the time that this refugee camp was a prelude to what I would see in the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center.
Many of the kids walking around are wearing mismatched sandals or shoes, if any. At the hotel we just left, we were offered pairs of shower sandals, also mismatched, one blue, the other red… at least of the same size.
Coal, coal, coal – so destructive but necessary
Getting a ride up the hill
Cow dung is drying on the ground in neat rows – for cooking? I do not know but it is very likely. Cassava also drying but away from critters, way up on the roof. In tall trees log beehives are nested in the branches or hung from them. They blend in quite well and are difficult to spot.
Log hive hung from branches or laid in branch ‘V’
Small bundles of firewood are neatly piled at the roadside, another way to make a little money but as in the production of charcoal or bricks, quickly denuding the forests around. Propane being suggested as a ‘better/healthier’ option but who can afford it?
So lush and inviting
We begin to see tobacco farms. Brown leaves drying under eaves or in special sheds.
Reddish termite mounds are emerging in open fields, some nearly eight feet tall. Goats like to climb on them. One guide tells us animals will make den in them once the termites move on. We have only seen mongoose running in and out of older inactive mounds.
What looks like a domesticated duck is walking around with a long piece of black plastic attached to one of its legs. A way to slow it down or make it easier to catch? Pigs have free reign in many villages.
Happy pig in the shade
Coffee grows here too. We are told the coffee from Uganda is not appreciated, so it is rebranded as coming from a different country, to sell better. The coffee you think is from Kenya may be from here…
Sunday’s best – walking, always walking
It is Sunday, and many are brightly and fancily dressed yet still attending to their herd, re-staking some of the animals on their way to church. Women carrying treats on their head to eat after the service.
Women of Africa have been known to carry up to 70% of their body weight on their head! Based on some studies of women of the Luo and Kikuyu tribes of East Africa, researchers have found that they can carry loads of up to 20 percent of their own body weight without expending extra energy beyond what they would use by walking around unencumbered (a few studies do not agree with this).
A novel smell fills the air from the brewing of banana beer. Supposedly of a lower alcohol content but still needing to ferment, hence the sweet smell in the air.
This Land Is Not For Sale
Over time I notice more and more signs in fields, signs on homes, signs on fences, signs on gates and on trees that say: This Land Is Not For Sale in one way or another and I am puzzled. Why would so many people spend time and energy to say their land was not for sale?
Land remains the most valuable and least secure asset across most of Africa. The World Bank estimates that. Most Africa's women and men rely on this land, to which they have insecure rights, for their housing and their livelihoods.
From quiet fields to cities, these signs are warnings. Who are these words targeting? They are there to deter the conmen from trying to sell land that is not theirs and to inform the possible buyer to be wary of quack brokers and fake titles.
Happening mostly when owners are away, it is so common that ‘buying air’ has become part of the vernacular. Nearly 75% of real estate transactions are fraud related.
Signs are not always sufficient, at times, people hire guards to sleep on their property for extra safety, especially in heavily populated and rapidly growing areas.
Computerized land registry has reduced fraud but there is more to do. The government plans to start registering brokers. In 2017, a judicial committee found there were over 22,400 pending land cases, of which over 6,600 had been in the court system for at least two years.
Studies highlight the negative impact insecure land rights have on conservation, security, poverty alleviation, and economic empowerment in Africa and beyond. A big push is made to address this issue.
These signs are written in fear.
Source: Liam Taylor and
As we enter Rwanda, many things change. The roads are wide, well built, and clean. There is even landscaping to beautify the roadways. Rwanda has invested heavily in infrastructure and rebuilding of urban areas. It is the cleanest country we encounter in Africa.
Low lands in the valley are very wet, and we see houses sitting on stilts surrounded by mound farming. People are knee deep in the mud working the fields. Babies sleeping or playing under umbrellas on the side of the fields away from water, mud and sun.
Large poinsettia bushes are brightening the landscape. The area is lush and colorful, but hardly making up for its very dark recent past.
Kigali Genocide Memorial Center
Entrance sign without the word ‘Genocide’…
The official name for what happened in Rwanda is the ‘Genocide against the Tutsi’, (United Nations in 2014). The machete became a symbol synonymous to the genocide for its widespread use by untrained civilians to attack or kill their neighbors. Hutu extremists embarked on large-scale imports of machetes the year prior to the attacks. They also imported arms and grenades, but the use of machetes resonates more with the public as illustrative of the genocide. In 2005, information surfaced showing China provided these machetes to Rwanda. Large arms deal (guns and grenades) of $12M was conducted with France.
Machetes accounted for over 53% of the killings
Faces of the victims, more than names or statistics
help personalize and humanize the impact of the killing spree
In their language, they spell it Jenocide.
One hundred days, 800,000 dead.
8,000/day, more than 330/hour!
70-90% of Tutsi population wiped out.
Only 300,000 survivors.
The high rate of killings between April and July of 1994 is considered
three to five times greater than the Holocaust of Nazi Germany.
(estimate by the United Nations)
More than two million fled to neighboring countries, some from fear of retribution (Hutu), some from fear of being killed (Tutsi). Many dying in disease-ridden overcrowded refugee camps in Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda (the one we passed by was one of them), and former Zaire. Data shows that 5% of the people were good, 5% were neutral, and the remaining 90% were involved. How can you convince so many people to turn against their own family, neighbors, friends, or co-workers overnight? It is baffling to see what fear and manipulation can do.
The story is not unique.
European colonizers heavily favored the Tutsi (14% of population), who had lighter skin and finer features than their Hutu (85%) and Twa (1%) counterpart. European anthropologists constructed elaborate explanations and racial theories to explain the differences between the groups and to defend Tutsi superiority. The only real difference was an ethnic identity that was a product of colonial rule; socio economic classifications becoming racial under colonization. Belgium put the minority Tutsi in charge of Rwanda but at the end of colonial rule, began giving more power to the Hutu. As the Hutu gained more leverage, they began to drive the Tutsi out of Rwanda and significantly lowered the population of Tutsi in the country.
The genocide against the Tutsi is a heavy moment in history. An airplane crash in 1994 carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi provided a stimulus for an organized campaign of violence against the Tutsi and moderate Hutu civilians across the country.
Many Hutu resented the Tutsi, as they were typically considered the elite and had ruled the country for decades. As a result, they also feared the Tutsi and were determined to hold on to their own power. The Hutu created Ten Commandments (see here).
When President Habyarimana’s (a Hutu) plane crashed, Hutu extremists assumed it was the Tutsi who shot it down. Immediately, Hutu set out to destroy the entire Tutsi population and seek revenge on the power that had always been deemed the elite.
The political vacuum created by the death of the president enabled Hutu extremists to take control of the country. Detailed lists of Tutsi targets were prepared in advance and government radio stations called upon Rwandans to murder their neighbors. Specific lists included names, addresses and sometimes license plates. Through radio hate speech, people were encouraged to take the streets and exterminate those who matched the list. Everyone becoming complicit and paranoid.
The genocidal violence began with extreme swiftness after President Habyarimana's death. His plane was shot down at 8:30 pm; by 9:15 pm, Hutu police had already set up roadblocks and begun searching Tutsi homes. This is seen as evidence of a common origin for the assassination plot and the perpetration of the genocide.
When the killing began, everyone who was able to flee did so. As unparalleled violence erupted in Rwanda, westerners boarded planes that whisked them back to safety.
The radio was also utilized to justify the genocide. Radio hosts discussed discrimination the Hutu suffered under the power of the Tutsi. Strong connotations describing Hutu as slaves during colonization painted the Rwandan genocide as a type of slave rebellion. Radio stories were used to anger the Hutu and channel that anger into action. Radio was also used to dehumanize Tutsi by calling them ‘cockroaches’, making acts of violence against them seem less inhumane.
One radio broadcaster even shouted: ‘The graves are not yet quite full. Who is going to do the good work and help us fill them completely?’
Shamefully, the UN at best did too little too late, but in reality, did almost nothing, putting into question the resolve of an organization, which only seems empowered to act when the interests of the major world powers are involved.
In that period from April to July 1994 reports of systematic mass murder within Rwanda began to circulate around the world. Little, though, was done to halt the killing. To outsiders the genocide was represented as tribal-based ethnic violence, with the Tutsi the victims.
As former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali told the PBS news program Frontline: ‘The failure of Rwanda is 10 times greater than the failure of Yugoslavia. Because in Yugoslavia the international community was interested, was involved. In Rwanda nobody was interested.’
An issue that needs continued and critical reflection is how the Genocide was reported and covered by the international media. As Bartholomäus Grill, one of the few journalists who covered the Genocide notes,
‘It wasn’t just the UN, the West and other African nations that failed; it was also journalists, like me. We ran after the big story in South Africa, paying little attention to Rwanda or merely spreading clichés about the country.’
Most notably, news agencies sent top journalists to cover the election of Nelson Mandela and his ‘long walk to freedom’ instead.
Some journalists who were in Rwanda still feel guilt for their faulty coverage. Lindsey Hilsum, who reported from Kigali in the first days of the Genocide, recalled how difficult it was to cover events in 1994:
‘We simply didn’t think about the idea of war crimes or genocide. That was something that happened to Jews, and perhaps to a degree in the Balkans or with Pol Pot…I didn’t use the word ‘genocide’ until the end of the month, for other journalists it took longer.
Today we know that the genocide was not the work of archaic, chaotic powers, but of an educated, modern elite that availed itself of all the tools of a highly organized state: the military and the police, the intelligence services and militias, the government bureaucracy and the mass media.
The report is emblematic of others from the time. Each saw events in Rwanda through the prism of the all too irresistible heart of darkness narrative wherein violence is something quintessentially African, utterly senseless, undoubtedly backward and, above all, apolitical.’
- Tutsi pretending to be Hutu to survive
- People killing next of kin, being placed in positions of social and moral complexity especially in cases of Hutu-Tutsi intermarriage. Tutsi side of the family would be killed while the Hutu side would be spared. Women forced to kill their Tutsi children
- Severing of Achilles tendons so they could not run away and many more atrocities
- 250,000 women raped by HIV positive men, gang-raped, raped with weapons or sharpened sticks, or subject to genital mutilation
- 100,000-300,000 orphaned, abducted or abandoned
- 85,000 kids became head of household, many handicapped
- 70% of kids saw someone killed or injured
- 80% of kids experienced death in their family
- 90% of kids thought they would die
- 26% of the Rwandan population still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder today
- Killing of journalists
- Hutu also died if they were neutral or moderate or tried to help Tutsi or looked Tutsi
- Priests and nuns killed simply because they tried to stop the killers
- Leaders of Christian churches supporting the genocide to secure their own power
- Killed for speaking good French or owning nice things – signs of social distinction marking them possible liberals
- Water wells poisoned
- Scale of tragedy rarely witnessed by Red Cross
The center deals with the subject matter sensitively and puts the Rwandan genocide into the context of other genocides of the twentieth century. Hitler, Milosevic, Karadzic, Pol Pot in Cambodia and the genocide of the Armenians.
There were videos, with Rwandans telling their story. More than anything, it was their calm voice while recounting horrible events that made a strong impact.
In the aftermath of the killings, there was a need for justice, and although there was an International Criminal Tribunal established in Tanzania, it seems that the village Gacaca Courts provided the most successful route to reconciliation. A community justice system which basically means ‘justice amongst the grass’, was adjudicated by amateur, specially trained judges and village elders. This system enabled the quick trial and judgement of alleged perpetrators, and over the following decade 12,000 community courts tried between 1.2 and 1.9 million cases. Any normal judiciary system would have collapsed under the strain. In the same period the International Criminal Tribunal indicted just 93 cases, sentencing only 61.
|Let that sink in, a quarter of a million!|
In a primary school classroom in 1997, Tutsi and Hutu were asked to split up on each side of the room. The kids refused to do so – staying united, showing more soundness than the adults. The separation almost came back…
In 2003 the country adopted a new constitution which eliminated any reference to ethnicity. Today many of the perpetrators have been released and walk the streets and live in houses in the same villages as their victims. Some witnessed those convicted of crimes involved with the genocide working alongside villagers in the fields growing and harvesting crops. I am not sure how they do it, could I?
Leaving Genocide Center – extremely tight exit
Wheel against wall
Timothy Longman acknowledges that the current government is very efficient, is successfully managing development, and has been relatively effective in its fight against corruption. But, he says, Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) leaders are working hard to keep tight reins on power. Ideas and initiatives are dictated from the top. And while the RPF government has done a great job of attracting international investment, economic inequality is widespread, and freedom of speech is treated as a luxury the country cannot afford.
‘I don’t think any kind of positive development in Rwanda is possible for the long term unless the government begins to allow its population to speak and to organize and to think for itself.’
Rwanda was dead but is now a rising nation recognized as the most stable and safest in Africa. Will it last?
The strategy of the perpetrators was that Tutsi should be robbed of their future altogether by taking away their youth, tomorrow lost.
The story is not over, in December 2017, French officials were accused of complicity in Rwanda genocide (see here).
Rwanda is the only country in the ten we visited in Africa where it was difficult to connect with the people, the only time in my seven years of traveling full-time. After finding out that the French helped the Hutu side get arms, it is understandable that the locals wouldn’t want to speak with me once they found out I spoke French even though they would address me in that language first. I truly feel for these people, I am not sure I would be able to work with a person I know raped my sister or maimed my uncle. The weight of the genocide is a hard one to bear, I am in awe of people who can get through this, but it is haunting and difficult to comprehend.
The few words and pictures describing what I learned of this gruesome event do little to show the real magnitude of the destruction and pain caused to people like you and me. I only wish I could express it better.
As some people say, Democracy dies in darkness - - - we must remember this!
Be well and know how lucky you are to have a tomorrow.