December 11-13, 2008

Entering Rwanda

From Kisoro we headed south to Rwanda. We passsed through Ruhengeri, the town we would have visited had we done gorilla tracking in Rwanda. And we continued straight to the capital, Kigali.

We were expecting another long day: rough rides on bumpy roads and hassles at the border. But things were surprisingly smooth. At the border we didn’t have to pay anything for the visa (first time since South Africa!). And the roads were well paved nearly everywhere. Also, it helps that Rwanda is a pretty small country. We were in Kigali by early afternoon.

The views along the way were awesome. The same green hills we saw in southwest Uganda extending in all directions. They call Rwanda the country of a thousand hills.   Since Rwanda has a Belgian colonial heritage, they say it in French: milles collines. One thing we noticed in Rwanda right away is that if people speak a second language it’s usually French, not English, and our French is far more rusty than we wish.

Also, the yoghurt in Rwanda is awesome.


We checked into a cheap hotel that was highly recommended by our Lonely Planet and various people we met along the way: Auberge la Caverne. Our room cost $30/night, and as far as we know it’s the cheapest price in town. Rwanda is a little more expensive when it comes to basics (hotel, food, transport) than some of the neighboring countries.

Kigali is surprisingly orderly. People pretty much follow the rules on the road – they stop at red lights, they stay in their lanes, etc. The bodabodas (motorcycle taxis) only take one passenger at a time and even give them a helmet to wear!

Pnina riding on the back of a motorcycle taxi (bodaboda)

Pnina riding on the back of a motorcycle taxi (bodaboda)

When we arrived in Kigali we stepped into an internet cafe for the first time in five days.  This was the point where we learned that sometime after we left Kampala our email accounts were hijacked. What a headache!

Genocide Memorial

In 1994 there was a genocide in Rwanda. For about 100 days, militias sponsored by the ruling hutu government went around the country butchering tutsis and moderate hutus.  Pnina and I knew that this genocide took place, but not much more. To cure our ignorance, we went to the Genocide Memorial in Kigali.

The memorial was built from 1999 to 2004 by the Aegis Trust, an organization that aims to promote education about the various genocides that have taken place around the world. Incidentally, the founders of Aegis were inspired by the Holocaust Memorial in Israel, Yad Ve Shem.

The memorial is located just a short ride outside of downtown in Kigali, at the site of one of the largest mass graves from the Rwanda genocide: more than 250,000 people are buried here.

Wall of names at the mass grave - only a few names have been posted so far

Wall of names at the mass grave - only a few names have been posted so far

Next to the mass graves is the museum itself, a beautiful building. It’s surrounded by a set of gardens, each one symbolizing something – the collapse of society, the reunification, and so on.

The memorial museum building

The memorial museum building

One of the gardens around the museum

One of the gardens around the museum

One of the stranger statues in the gardens.  Elephants symbolize remembrance (though this one doesn't look very elephant like) and the cellphone symbolizes crying out for help.

One of the stranger statues in the gardens. Elephants symbolize remembrance (though this one doesn't look very elephant like) and the cellphone symbolizes crying out for help.

About the Genocide

The exhibits in the museum are very well presented and tough to absorb. Photography was not allowed inside, but here’s what we learned…

Rwanda has three predominant ethnic groups: hutus (about 85% of population), tutsis (about 14%), and twa (about 1%). The twa are pygmys and are believed to be the oldest inhabitants of this land. The hutus came next – they are primarily farmers. The tutsis immigrated from the north sometime later; they are primarily cattle herders.  All these groups lived peacefully side-by-side for a long time. Things changed when the colonial powers took over.

The Germans were the first colonists to control Rwanda. They held control from 1895 to 1916, until their loss in World War I. Next came the Belgians. They held control until Rwanda’s independence in 1962. Both the Germans and the Belgians were obsessed with race and by the differences between the various ethnic groups. In 1932 the Belgians introduced an identity card that specified whether the person was hutu, tutsi, or twa. How did they know which race to assign?  Simple: a person who owned more than 10 cattle was automatically tutsi.

Both the Germans and the Belgians gave preferential treatment to the tutsis.  Tutsis received posts helping the colonial powers to govern the land. The hutus grew increasingly jealous and resented both the Belgians and the tutsis for this preferential treatment, in particular because they (hutus) represented a majority of the population.

In the beginning of the 1960’s, before handing control to the locals, the Belgians made a drastic shift: they suddenly gave positions of power to the hutus instead of the tutsis.  Perhaps this move was an attempt to make up for the trouble they caused over the decades, but it was late and sloppy and it did nothing to calm the racial tension that was brewing for decades.

There were two presidents in Rwanda prior to the genocide, both of them hutu. The first was Kayibanda (1962 to 1973) and the second was Habyarimana (1973 to 1994). Habyarimana took control in a coup and over time was probably most responsible for promoting hatred of tutsis. He funded radio stations and newspapers that spread the hate propaganda. As part of this propaganda they released the “10 Commandments of Bahutu”, which declared the hutu to be the master race and warned hutus not to intermarry or sympathize with tutsis, which they called “cockroaches”.

There was a series of small massacres between 1990 and 1994, where government organized miltitias (interhamwe) killed thousands of people in various incidents around the country.

But the real bloodbath began on April 6, 1994, when a plane carrying president Habyarimana and the president of Burundi was shot down. Both were killed. Nobody knows who was responsible for shooting down this plane.

Within hours of the plane crash, road blocks were set up around the city and the militias began their campaign of killing tutsis and moderate hutus. The first to go were members of the political opposition and other intellectuals. From there it spread to the general population. Everything happened so quickly and in such a methodical fashion that it all must have been very well planned. Today it is known that there were hit lists.

The genocide eventually ended when tutsi rebels, aided by Uganda, fought their way from the north and defeated the hutu powers.  But in the 100 days of the genocide some 800,000 tutsis and moderate hutus were killed, and at least two million fled to neighboring countries.

Part of what makes this genocide particularly brutal is the manner in which the victims were killed. The machete was the primary weapon of the interhamwe, but at times they used more blunt weapons. Women were raped, sometimes by known HIV carriers; as a result, today Rwanda has one of the biggest orphan populations. Some victims were buried alive or thrown into outhouses. There were instances where priests helped locals seek shelter in their churches, only to then call the interhamwe militias to kill the captive targets.

Rwandans (and others) often accuse the international community of standing by, idly, while these massacres took place.  In the years since the genocide, many countries and organizations admitted so (e.g. Kofi Annan said: “I realised after the genocide that there was more that I could and should have done to sound the alarm and rally support).  The really unfortunate thing is that there were warning signs before the genocide began, so perhaps it could have been prevented.  There were articles in foreign newspapers describing the various killings from 1990 to 1994 and warning that they could escalate. There was an informant who claimed that Habrarimana was losing control of the militias he helped form. You can even claim that some countries aided the genocide. France struck a $12 million arms deal with Haryarimana’s government not long before the genocide.

All this is described in the main exhibit – told on storyboards and through videos.

Downstairs there are exhibits showing bloody clothes recovered from victims. Videos show interviews with survivors giving their perspective on what happened, trying to answer questions like “can you forgive?” In another room there are hundreds of victim photos, brought by family members who survived; in some cases the survivors had no photo to bring so instead they brought “we will miss you” cards.  Upstairs there’s an exhibit dedicated to children killed in the genocide; each display has a photo of one child along with some basic facts:name, age, favorite food. It breaks your heart.

A separate exhibit gives a brief overview of some other 20th century genocides from around the world:

  • 1904-1905: Germans try to exterminate the Herero tribe in Namibia.
  • 1915-1918: Turks killing Armenians (the Turkish government still hasn’t admitted guilt)
  • 1939-1945: Germans killing Jews and gypsys during WWII.
  • 1975-1979: Khmer Rouge kill any Cambodian who doesn’t join its communist plan.
  • 1990’s: Serbs kill Bosnians in Kosovo after former Slovenia breaks up.

One thing that occurs to us is that the Holocaust may have gone unchecked by other countries for a long time, like in Rwanda, if it weren’t for Hitler’s world domination plans.  England, the US, and other nations largely got involved in WWII because they were attacked.  Imagine if Hitler decided instead to quietly dispose of all Jews and gypsys without also trying to conquer other countries.

After the Museum

The museum was very tough. I don’t remember the last time I cried so much, especially in public. My complements to the Aegis Trust for the great job they did. I encourage anyone who can to visit this museum.

The day Habyarimana’s plane was shot down I turned 17. I was a senior in high school in America and I didn’t spend very much time thinking about what was happening elsewhere in the world. I’m not sure what I could have done, but at the very least I should have known that this genocide was taking place and what it was all about. If nothing else, visiting this museum gives me a new sense of responsibility to keep up with troubles happening elsewhere in the world and to try to encourage my government to do the right thing.

After visiting the museum, we had a very strange feeling while walking around Kigali. You look at at a road and think “that could have been the spot of one of the road blocks where people were butchered”. You look around and think “that person could be a victim…or a killer”. It’s very odd.

That night we had dinner with a local guy, Prosper. He was the main IT guy at the internet cafe where we tried to recover our hijacked email accounts. He said that he lost his parents in the genocide and now he supports his three younger siblings. As a result, he has a harder time funding his own education, which is why his degree is currently on hold. We heard this kind of story a lot in Africa, not just in Rwanda.

Nyamata and Ntarama

Some 20 km outside Kigali there are two more memorials. Both of them are churches, one in the town of Nyamata, one in Ntarama. In both, thousands of people seeking shelter were killed by grenades and machetes.  We spent a day visiting the two.

First was the Nyamata church:

The memorial church at Nyamata

The memorial church at Nyamata

It’s been kept largely in the same state since 1994. The roof is still full of holes from grenade explosions. Inside you see the crumpled bloodied clothes of the thousands of people who died there, all arranged on the church benches. Up at the alter you see one of the machetes. In a small catacomb below you see the bones of some of the victims, including skulls penetrated by machetes. In the back there’s a mass grave for the victims who died at the church and nearby. Unlike the mass grave at the memorial in Kigali, this mass grave has an open entrance. We passed by and noticed that down below there are some caskets and some bones. We didn’t want to enter – it seemed like by doing so we would somehow disrespect the dead.  But the ladies who took care of the gardens insisted that we go in.

From there we continued to the church at Ntarama.  To get there you need to walk a few km from the side of the road where the bus drops you off. Or, alternately, you can catch a ride with one of the bicycle taxis. Pnina’s rider had a much easier time; what can I say, I’m a fatso 🙂

Pnina at the memorial church in Ntarama

Pnina at the memorial church in Ntarama

At the Ntarama church it’s a similar situation. Inside you see bones and bloody clothes. At the front there’s a chest with books and other assorted items recovered from the site. I peeked inside. One of the books was full of puzzles and titled “Fun & Games”.

These two memorials are not as well set up as the big one in Kigali. There are no signs to explain what happened and nobody who can speak English well enough to tell you (especially in Ntarama). So it’s not a great way to learn about the genocide – for that we definitely recommend the Kigali memorial. But if you want to get a sense of the kind of settings where the genocide took place across the country, it’s worth visiting these churches.

Only Kigali?

We only spent a couple days in Rwanda, and all our time was spent in and around Kigali.  It feels kind of weird to visit a country only to learn about its genocide, and that wasn’t our plan.  Originally we were going to see the gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanes park, but then we ended up seeing the gorillas in Uganda.  There’s also a lake in western Rwanda and some other attractions, but we decided to skip them for now – we were starting to run out of time and we had a lot to see in Tanzania.  But Pnina and I loved the scenery in Rwanda and we would gladly come back.

Bonus Picture

Transporting mattresses in Kigali

Transporting mattresses in Kigali

Back Home

Redfin, the company where I worked as a software engineer before starting this trip, released a new version of the website. One interesting change is that Redfin switched from using Microsoft’s Virtual Earth maps to Google Maps. The motivation for the change was performance: Redfin found a way to draw all those home-for-sale pushpins on Google maps much faster than is possible on Virtual Earth maps.


2 responses to “Rwanda

  1. Dude. This has been your best posting, yet. I’ve learned so much just through your writing and you’ve inspired me to learn more. Nice.

  2. i agree with eric–i thought i knew a lot about the genocide but you taught me much more. i really think it’s important to visit places like the kigali memorial whenever you have the chance. thank you!

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