In the scheme of history, 1994 was just yesterday. Not even twenty years ago Rwanda was wracked by a civil war and a genocide that took the lives of approximately eight hundred thousand people, nearly twenty percent of the population. Think about that. One out of five people were killed. The country was a graveyard.
While this isn’t a post about the actual genocide, a brief and simple history lesson on how it all happened is not out of place. During colonial times, Belgium ruled over Rwanda and order to control the country the people were divided into the Tutsis and the Hutus. A Tutsi simply was someone who owned at least ten cows. The Tutsi people controlled power in the country for years and eventually the majority Hutus had enough of the tension and took over the country in the early 1960’s through a violent coup. However instead of using their new power to make peace, Hutu politicians and leaders continued to fan the flames of anti-Tutsi sentiment.
Later in 1990 Tutsi refugees launched an attack from neighboring Uganda that led to a civil war. Eventually a ceasefire was signed. Then the Hutu president and many high ranking officials were killed when their plane was shot down. All hell broke loose and then the real killings began. Evidence seems to implicate Hutu leaders in planning for mass killings before the assassination.
But that was then, this is now. As a tourist in Rwanda you would never think the country went through such a terrible phase so recently. The roads are nice, people friendly, buses run on time, and stores are stocked. There’s no feeling of danger or unease, but as a foreigner I couldn’t stop thinking about the history. This wasn’t like being in Armenia where the killings happened nearly a hundred years ago, or Poland where people were sent to the gulags under Stalin’s orders. During my first few days whenever I would pass a middle aged man I would ask myself, ‘What was his role?’ Victim? Perpetrator? Innocent bystander? I was in no position to ask.
Fortunately after a few days the thoughts faded and were replaced with optimism and hope. The lack of revenge killings leading to a continuous cycle of violence is nothing short of amazing. If Rwanda can move on after such a tragedy anyone can. After peace was restored Rwandans seemed to have taken a step backwards and saw the carnage they were responsible for and swore ‘Never Again.’ They will never forget. Nearly every town where the killings happened has some memorial, and not just a plaque or statue. Graphic memorials. The gorgeous town of Kibuye has a glass shed lined with rows of skulls in front of the local church. Kigali’s large genocide museum has pieces of clothing worn by victims especially small clothing for children.
But nothing compares to the museum in Gikongoro near the city of Butare. Site of one of the largest scale killings, mass graves are still being found today. What makes it intense is not the museum, it is the exhibition in the back. Originally a technical school, the dorms and workshops are now filled with bodies. Thousands of bodies were exhumed from the mass graves and preserved with lime. There are dozens of buildings in the Gikongoro complex and bodies are just stacked like firewood. The effect is beyond powerful. It is one thing to read a bunch of numbers, it is another to see a table covered with the bodies of children. Gikongoro was by far the most moving and hardest thing I have ever seen traveling.
It isn’t for the faint of heart but everyone who visits Rwanda needs to visit, even for just a moment.