This is Kigali, a city of about 750,000 people, capital of Rwanda and a city in transformation. Like Rwanda generally, it’s hilly. The photograph is taken from outside the Genocide Memorial. Inevitably a view point from which Rwanda as a whole has to be examined.
The memorial was opened in 1999. It is the final resting place of more than a quarter of a million people killed in the genocide. It is one of several memorials. The total number of victims of the genocide is imprecisely known, but is somewhere in the vicinity of a million. The total population of Rwanda now is only a little more than 11 million.
As the genocide unravelled 2 million Hutus fled to Zaire (now DRC). Any portable wealth went with them. The country was essentially in ruins.
Whatever the situation was before, whatever the reasons may have been, in just four months of 1994, just 23 years ago, this country tore itself apart on an almost unimaginable scale.
The Memorial has a souvenir shop and a cafe. These provide employment for people directly impacted by the genocide. This is a noble objective, if you visit I suggest you go to these establishments on the way in, you may have other things on your mind on the way out.
The galleries take you through time from life before the genocide, the genocide, the aftermath. There are separate spaces where you can sit and watch video accounts by survivors, there is a children’s gallery and a gallery to remind you of other genocides.
What, in my view, the Memorial does well is to present the horror that can come in the wake of social division. Women were raped, tortured, murdered in front of their families. People were forced, alive, into pit latrines, men were hacked to pieces, children were slaughtered, children were orphaned. Individual bodies, groups of bodies, mass graves were being found long after the carnage was over.
Survivors then needed to drag themselves forward without their partners, without their children. There were tens of thousands of households headed by children. No one escaped untouched by these events.
Many visitors will have considered the implications of being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong ethnicity on their ID card. How many have asked themselves what they would have done if they had the opposite ethnicity on their ID card. There were heroes who risked their lives to provide shelter and there were nuns who incited the Hutu militias to greater fury.
If the visitor hasn’t already come undone, and I had, the Children’s Gallery will certainly test your composure. Innocent of everything but their supposed ethnicity, slaughtered for what?
After leaving the Memorial our next stop was a souvenir market. I hadn’t the inclination and was soon back at the car. We had grown to enjoy the company of our driver, a lovely man. He asked me if I was troubled by the Memorial and I admitted that I was. We talked for a while. He was seven at the time of the genocide. His father was murdered, his mother had raised the family on her own. At school, prior to the slaughter, Tutsis had been made to sit apart from the rest of the class and were vilified.
I asked him why such a thing could happen. His answer surprised me. It was nothing more than party politics, he said.