Kigali Memorial Centre – Remembering the Rwandan genocide

“Genocide is usually the act of a government and its collaborations to destroy a part of the population under its control.”

–Definition of genocide at Kigali Memorial Centre, Kigali, Rwanda

 

The highlight, if that is an appropriate word to use, of my trip to Kigali and the reason I came to Kigali was going to the Kigali Memorial Centre. We came, looked, listened, and learned.

Kigali Memorial Centre

Kigali Memorial CentreKigali Memorial Centre

 

 

 

The 1994 genocide, partly fueled by the Belgian and French governments in different ways, occurred between the Hutu and Tutsi people. One of the interesting aspects about the warring factions is that the Hutu and Tutsi were not technically indigenous groups. The Belgian colonialists created the distinction based on socioeconomic status in the 1930s. At that time, if a “Rwandan” had more than 10 cows, then the person/family was labeled a Tutsi. If they had less than 10 cows, they were labeled a Hutu. Hutus dramatically outnumbered the Tutsis in society. Tutsis started experiencing preferential treatment by the Belgians until the Belgians switched on them for the Hutus later on for political reasons.

 

A civil war erupted in 1990 led by a group named the “Rwandan Patriotic Front,” an organization led by Paul Kagame, the current president of Rwanda today. (The reasons of which I am not going to unpack here.) The Rwandan army retaliated against Tutsi and any Hutu suspected of aiding the RPF. Eventually the RPF was staved off, but came back by 1993. Hutu extremists wanted to put an end to the “Tutsi-problem” and created the Hutu Interahamwe. Hate messages were spread by Hutu extremists in the print and radio media. UN peacekeepers were strategically killed so foreign countries would pull out. Sheer madness ensued and mass killing by the Interahamwe occurred at a rate that is practically incomprehensible. Extremist Hutus killed Tutsis and moderate Hutus. No one was safe. General Romeo Dallaire (who I had the opportunity of hearing in Chicago once) called for international assistance from the UN as commander of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda but his cries for help were not heeded by world leaders or UN leadership. The RPF eventually captured Kigali and the mass killings waned.

 

***Because an accurate retelling of history is important for understanding the past, please visit this link to read a much better recapitulation of my incomplete retelling: http://www.kigalimemorialcentre.org/old/genocide/index.html)***

 

By the end of the genocide in 1994 there were over 1 million dead and 2 million displaced to other countries – accounting for over 2/3 of the national population.

 

Over 500,000 women raped. Few of the women survivors who became HIV+ as a result have been given HIV medication. The men who raped them, however, have mostly received medication in a timely manner in Arusha where some still await trial. The trials are expected to finish in 2008 and one can follow some of the tribunals at: http://www.ictr.org.

 

One testimony video at the center relayed the story of a baby breastfeeding on her dead mother’s body. Bodies existed everywhere on the streets. Questions of national sovereignty and discussions about pre-emptive or defensive interventions occupy the mouths of policy makers and diplomats, even today with discussions on Iraq versus Sudan. One survivor on one of the videos said, “The international community needs to know that they cannot give their word and take it back…that these victims died for nothing.” And just that, the international community stood by and watched. When help was requested, the international community failed to heed the need and intervene. It may be one thing to not intervene when assistance is not requested; yet it was requested. How much more alone the average Rwandan must have felt.

 

“A tree can only be straightened when it is young.” – Traditional Rwandan saying

 

Not surprising mental health problems abound in Rwanda, whether is it depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or anxiety-related illnesses. And like in most every other place in the world but more so in low-income countries, mental health medical care is sparse or absent.

 

As we walked through the Centre, stories on interactive video screens and on exhibit walls told story after story. When asked about forgiving the perpetrators who killed her family members, one woman said, “Only God can forgive these people, but I myself cannot.” Another man said, “I would forgive the ones who killed my wife and children, but I do not know who I need to forgive. Do you understand how difficult that is?”

 

“It was if Rwanda had disappeared off the face of the earth.” – Testimonial from a woman survivor about the madness in Rwanda and international absence during it

 

The second floor of the Centre had two exhibits. The genocide exhibit included histories and videos relating to 20th century genocides in the following: Namibia, Armenia, Holocaust, Cambodia, Kosovo/Serbia/Bosnia. The second exhibit concentrated on children genocide victims in Rwanda. The Centre put up large pictures of about 25 child victims and placards with their names, ages, homes, favorite things, and sometimes, last known statements that they said. Heart-wrenching.

 

Matt and I left the exhibits in a solemn mood, unsurprisingly. I suppose one has to feel a strange detachment as a protective psychological mechanism against the sheer inhumanity of the human dark side that could perpetrate such actions. We walked the grounds of the Centre, which are essentially mass graves and beautiful gardens.

Gardens at KMC - Mass grave on the right

Gardens at KMC - Mass grave on the right

 

 

 

There are many international legal terms to determine what constitutes the mass elimination of people be it genocide, ethnocide, politicide or others as I came to learn through the exhibit. Although we as humans like precision in order to formulate a response to an event, legal words in these situations and arriving at what events justifies their use and meaning can take too long and comes with the cost of human life in the waiting balance. It is happening today in 2008 in Sudan.

 

In the spirit of learning from the past to prevent similar events in the future (or end current ones) I strongly encourage and invite you to visit the Save Darfur site to become involved: http://www.savedarfur.org/

 

Please visit the Kigali Memorial Centre website (http://www.kigalimemorialcentre.org/old/index-2.html). Unfortunately, I could not take pictures inside. You will learn so much, and I believe you will be more humanized by learning about the ramifications of those who dehumanized. Subsequent generations need to know this history to hopefully prevent it or stem it when precursor events occur.

Mass grave memorial - KMC

Mass grave memorial - KMC

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One Response to “Kigali Memorial Centre – Remembering the Rwandan genocide”

  1. Steve Says:

    Many thanks, not only for visiting the Kigali Memorial Centre, but also taking the time to comment in such a sensitive way – it is very much appreciated. You may also be interested in the work of the Aegis Trust in Darfur, details of which can be found on the Aegis Trust website – http://www.aegistrust.org

    Steve Robinson, Rwanda Development Officer, Aegis Trust

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