Rwanda since the genocide has been one of the economic miracles of Africa, and the museum itself is a great example of this– a big, clean, modern museum with audioguides and descriptions on the walls in Kinyarwanda as well as error-free English and French. It’s not the most graphic of the memorials– that’s the Church of Skulls in Gitarama, which Cameron had a chance to see but I didn’t.
But here in Kigali there is a room full of dozens of skulls, and I wince as I see the huge cracks. How would it have felt to die that way, bludgeoned over the head with a machete?
There are rooms dedicated to other genocides– the German decimation of native people in Namibia, the Armenian genocide which Turkey insists never happened (and what purpose does that serve?), the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge and Srebrenica.
After the Holocaust, humankind vowed to never let this happen again. My own grandfather worked on the Nuremberg Trials. How could we let it happen again, not once but three times? Four, if you count Sudan. A dozn or more, if you count the Roms, the Albanians, various Asian minorities…why?
That’s why labels disturb me. For me a person is just a person to be evaluated based on their own individual merits. Whether someone is white, black, gay, straight, Jewish, Muslim, homeless, mentally ill, physically handicapped, educated or not…I could go on.It has no bearing on whether they are a good or bad person.
The genocide memorial has an interesting way of bringing this point home. They have a rose garden. The beauties and peculiarities of each individual rose are supposed to represent the individuality of each victim.
Below the rose garden are the mass graves, tens of thousands of bodies encased in wide, rectangular cement communal tombs. It reminds me of Piskaryovskoye Cemetery in St. Petersburg, where the same kind of tombs hold thousands of bodies, people who dropped dead of cold and starvation during the three-year famine the Nazis inflicted on that beautiful city during the Second World War.
Another memory garden holds a not nearly complete wall of names. People are still finding mass graves all over the region. I think it was Allan who said at pretrip orientation that it would be hard to walk on the red, dusty Rwandan soil without asking yourself, am I stepping on bodies? He’s right.
Inside, the history section is revealing. Testimonies from survivors talk about hiding under garbage piles for days, crawling injured but alive out of piles of bodies, hiding in the basements of influential neighbours who managed to conserve a shred of humanity.
The Hutu-Tutsi distinction, according to Kapucsinski and to the authors of the exhibition, was originally a social class distinction, rather like India’s caste system, based on how wealthy you were and what your professon was rather than how you looked. The Belgian colonists, who preferred working with the Tutsis (mostly cow herders) because they were “whiter-looking,” institutionalized the divide with an identity card system, inistituted in the thirties after a thorough census of humans and cows. I nearly fell backward when I learned that whether someone was classified as a hutu or a Tutsi in 1994 was based on how many cows their family had in 1932.
As the Belgians pulled out and local political factions vied for control of the newly independent country, the Hutu-Tutsi divide became less socioeconomic and more political. Only in the second half of the twentieth century did it become ethnic.
I took a class on the history of the Balkans a few years back. The prof said, “Ethnic conflict is never that simple.”
People do not randomly start killing their neighbours because they look different. In Bosnia and Serbia it was about land grabs. In Rwanda it was about fear and power– the Hutu-dominated government faced a threat from a (mostly) Tutsi rebel army, composed (mostly) of refugees from past coflicts who had tried to return and been told, “Sorry, we’re full.” In the 1990s these people, led by Paul Kagamé who is the current president of the country, were planning to take the country back by force, and they were far better organized than Rwanda’s own army. The government knew this. Militias drilled, arms caches were being set up and an extremely elaborate propaganda campaign was being rolled out. On April 6? 1994, the mysterious shooting down of the president’s plane provided the spark that lit the fuel house. It was Rwanda’s Reichstag.
The UN was already there, enforcing a 1993 peace agreement. Dallaire and his colleagues had evidence from informers and from their own eyes and ears that something terrible was going to go down. But, as has been documented in years of books and movies (Hotel Rwanda, Sometimes in April, Dallaire’s own Shake Hands With the Devil and Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform you that Tomorrow we will be Killed with our Families) ) bureaucrats at the UN in New York thought they knew better than what was going on on the ground, and continually tied Dallaire’s hands.
The first to be killed were the regime’s political opponents, no matter what ethnicity they were, and anyone who might sympathize with them. Then began the indiscriminate murder of the Tutsis. Most were bludgeoned to death. Some had their tendons cut and were left to suffer before being killed the next day. Women were violated before being killed and babies cut out of pregnant stomachs. Priests organized the killing of members of their congregation. Babies were thrown against walls.
The last room in the memorial is dedicated to the kids. For a moment you stop thinking of hundreds of thousands dead and start thinking of David and Ariane, Patrick and Fabrice, of babies being thrown against walls, of first-graders who most enjoyed eating bananas and playing with their brothers and sisters, of ten-year-olds whose last words were “The UN will come for us.”
While I was sitting on my grandmother’s couch eating chicken salad, thinking about first-grade field trips and how much I hated one or the other piano piece, hearing faraway radio voices talk about Hutus and Tutsis and Bosnian Serbs, these kids were screaming, running, hiding, dying.
I’m here, finished university, feeling the cool mist of the Rwandan hills on my kin and biting into juicy beef brochettes. They should be here too, sitting on the bus, or clinking beers at the café table next to mine. But they’re dead in the ground. Dead before they had a chance to learn to read, to travel, to make love. Some dead before they even learned to talk.