Archive for the ‘Rwanda’ Category

Kigali Memorial Centre – Remembering the Rwandan genocide

September 11, 2008

“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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Rwanda – “Land of a thousand hills”

September 9, 2008
And a thousand hills indeed. Crossing the border from Uganda clearly felt like crossing into another country. The scenery turned greener, the hills more magnificent in height. We ascended and the air was far less dusty and smelled of pine and other conifers which dotted the hills. In each valley the fields were flooded with tea bushes. 

Tea bush fields - Rwanda

Tea bush fields - Rwanda

(Coffee accounts for 75% of exports here followed by tea and an ingredient for making permethrin, which is used in mosquito-proofing clothes and bed nets.) The roads were paved and smooth, and I watched the landscape and people as we wound through the hills on our way to the capital Kigali, a city of about 600,000 people.

 

 

Rwandan countryside seen from bus window

Rwandan countryside seen from bus window

 

 

 

The clock goes back an hour, so we arrived at 7:30pm. From the bus ride, Matt called the Hotel Mille des Collines for the next two nights. We hired a taxi to take us there and arrived looking like we were on a bus for 11 hours. Were we shocked when we arrived at the hotel. It had been renovated since the tour book we read and was a 4 star hotel as we found out. Foreigners abound and I felt like I had left Africa when I walked in. Kinyarwanda and French are the main languages here though many speak French. The staff at the front desk literally started laughing at us when we told them how we arrived. One thing I have to give to French speakers as frustrating as it is for me is that they can be as proud about their language as English speakers. Many foreign hosts in my travel experiences practically apologize when their English is bad, but not French speakers. Although it was annoying at first, I accepted the subtle disdain the staff had given our English-only language skills.

 

It was clear most guests flew in on the fancy Brussels Airlines and had private hires bring them to the hotel. After making fun of the Ugandan shilling (it has the lowest value of any currency in East Africa), they then declined changing our shillings into francs (they only would exchange Euros and US dollars). However, one of the staff felt “sorry” for us so he cut us a deal on a hotel room, which I shudder (sp?) to think about what the regular price would have been given how expensive it still was.

 

More on the history of the hotel as told by Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hotel_des_Mille_Collines):

“The Hôtel des Mille Collines is a large hotel in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. It became famous as the building in which more than a thousand people took refuge during the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. The story of the hotel and its manager at that time, Paul Rusesabagina, was used as the basis of the film Hotel Rwanda. The French ‘des Mille Collines’ (‘of a thousand hills’) is another (poetic) name for Rwanda. The real hotel does not actually appear in the film which was largely shot in South Africa. The hotel does however appear as itself in the 2005 HBO film Sometimes in April which was shot on location in Rwanda.

The Belgian airline Sabena owned the hotel at the time of the genocide. The European managers were flown out and Rusesabagina, manager of the smaller Hôtel des Diplomates at that time, was made manager. With the help of his wife he bribed the Hutu Interahamwe militia with money and alcohol to keep them from killing the refugees in the hotel. He also managed to provide the refugees with food and water.”

Matt and I grabbed a delectable buffet dinner at a restaurant across the street named “Chez Robert.” The food, much of it local dishes, proved to be excellent. In good French form, painstaking details was paid to preparation, presentation, and delivery. I felt awkward that my experiences in Rwanda so far were comfortable. Great roads, nice hotel, wonderful food, but this is how it started.

 

Our breakfast and vista the next morning was unforgettable. 

View from the breakfast table - Hotel des Mille Collines

View from the breakfast table - Hotel des Mille Collines

 Not only did the open air dining room overlook the city during the sunrise, the breakfast-included spread included imported Belgian cheese, amazing croissants and pain au chocolate, crepes, NUTELLA!, juices, fruits, other cheeses, meats, etc. Basically, it was out of control. Well fed, Matt and I prepared for the more somber part of the day. Since the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre did not open until 10, we changed money at forex bureau and then headed to a craft market first.

 

 

 

 

Since none of banks here take international ATM cards, the money-changers have a field day. Matt bargained hard for us to get reasonable exchange rates. These were some shrewd guys, and a heated exchange took place but we compromised eventually. We took a taxi to the craft market getting 2 things each and discussed with the taxi driver (who was Ugandan) about his time here in 1994. He found safety but remembered the bodies strewn about the streets in the capital especially.

 

It was hard to picture that. This country had the appearance of the North Island of New Zealand with the good transportation infrastructure of a place like Costa Rica. People seemed extremely friendly. My expectations for here were being changed quickly. My entry on the genocide memorial follows in the next post.

 

After we can back to the hotel, we read and talked by the pool. 

HdMC pool

HdMC pool

Dinner tonight ended up being wonderful French fare at a steal of a price. We went to the New Cactus which overlooked part of the city. The ambience, service and meals were fabulous. Why don’t more people come to Rwanda we thought.

 

 

That night we walked back to the hotel on a well-lit, well-paved street knowing well it was safe by international standards. We walked to a supermarket inside of the fanciest mall I have seen in East Africa to date and entered the very busy Nakumatt, a Kenyan-based supermarket that I particularly like. After we walked out, we then walked around the nicest coffee café I have seen in East Africa. It even took credit cards. For all I know, we could have been in a fancy part of the U.S. It felt so odd.

 

After a good night’s rest and operation amazing breakfast part 2, we checked out of the hotel, walked past a gas station playing classical music, and hopped onto 2 boda-boda without needed to heckle for the price. The boda-boda drivers here wear helmets, vests, and give passengers a helmet to wear. They basically drive the opposite of Ugandan boda-boda drivers!

 

One can still see the scars of the genocide. Missing limbs, scars were present on some. The poverty in Kigali did not seem as apparent as in Uganda and certainly Kenya, but I assume it lurks outside the city. I was here for such a short time and talked with too few people as a result. I did not know what to expect in Rwanda, but I did not remotely expect to have the experiences we did. Some of the Ugandans said they there is less corruption in Rwanda, part of the reason the roads are so well-maintained and infrastructure continually gets better. According to some Ugandans with whom I spoke, Rwandans have limited freedom of speech on the radio and papers in Rwanda, a vestige of curbing the anti-hate messages conveyed through these media during the genocide. We can only hope that peace and prosperity continue to flourish here in a country the world forgot, in a region so volatile right now. I urge everyone to consider going here at some point if they can. The famed national parks, Kigali city, and most importantly, the education given at the genocide memorial would make for a multifaceted trip and probably some good economic stimulation for a place looking well towards the future while remembering its past.

Bus rides to/from Rwanda

September 9, 2008
The day after the plumbing incident, Matt and I met at Café Pap for breakfast before catching our “8 hour” bus ride to Kigali via southwestern Uganda. The bus rides to and from Rwanda were everything I expected them to be with the exception of the bus not breaking down. Because the bus rides themselves were so entertaining, they warrant their own post.

 

We arrived for the 9AM departure which left at 9:15AM. Pretty good by most standards. We had bought “VIP” tickets, meaning the bus would probably be as comfortable somewhere between a school bus and low-end touring bus in the States. Well, we got an economy bus which is less comfortable than a US school bus. Ah, but we did get Ugandan music videos with a few boy bands and Celine Dion videos in the mix. (More on those later.)

 

We arrived in Mbarara, Uganda for a pit stop and a bus change after 4-5 hours. We looked on the map and quickly realized this was no 8-hour bus ride. After a strange, disorderly switching of buses, we did get on a “VIP” for the remainder of the trip. 

VIP bus from Mbarara, Uganda to Kigali, Rwanda

VIP bus from Mbarara, Uganda to Kigali, Rwanda

 

Southwestern Uganda was beautiful. We continued the journey until reaching the Rwandan border.  The roads through Uganda were bumpy and fun on this trip. (Return trip was another story.) After being accosted by money-changers to convert Ugandan shillings or US dollars into Rwandan francs and getting our passports stamped (US and Canadian citizens do not have to pay a visa fee), we waited for the bus to cross the bridge-over-a-creek border for what seemed like a long time.  By the time we reached the taxi park in Kigali, the journey lasted 11 hours. So when calculating journey times here, combined with other experiences, one should add about one third of the time projected to get the likely actual duration! The bus ride back was far more of an adventure.

 

Again having paid for “VIP” (about $15 USD), we received a 5 seats across economy bus since the first class bus was broken down. Perfect!  We asked for window seats so we could take pictures, but after saying that they gave us such seats we found ourselves on aisles. So we asked to switch again and Matt got a non-existent seat number and I received the last seat in the back row of the bus next to a window.

 Bus ticket office - Kigali

 

There were some British and Irish expats our age on this bus so there was running commentary sometimes as we rode back. The beautiful, smooth ride through Rwanda gave way to a crazy ride once over the border. The driver started speeding, and we were swaying to and fro. Everyone was holding onto the seats in front of them.

 

The back row of the bus had 6 seats, and it was full and tight. My knees and shins kept hitting against the metal back of the seat in front of me, but I became numb to the pain. (I still have bruises running the length of my shins today!) At one bump the 3-seat unit in front of me dislodged from the bus and started tipping on a turn. Matt and I had to hold it down for the rest of the trip, mostly because the metal insert to the bus could have impaled our sandaled feet. The guys in front of us were laughing. It was actually really funny.

 

Oh but there’s more. A torrential rain started coming down (rainy season starts in a week). We closed the windows and the bus because nice and steamy of course. But it got better. Somewhere at the top of the window interfacing with the bus frame was a leak. Water literally poured down my window side continuously soaking my right half shirt and pants. Again laughter. Again classic African bus.

 

Matt and I switched our 2 seats at Mbarara. At one random point we picked up people and a mother with child sat on my left with Matt on my right for the next four hours. She was the seventh seat in the back row of 6. As soon as she sat down, she started breastfeeding of course. Meanwhile I have my one arm over the back of Matt’s seat because I cannot fit in the row, and she has her other arm half-across me as she breastfed. Classic. I loved it!

 

This bus trip was nothing short of a hilarious, uncomfortable way to accrue life stories. I could write more about the crazy driving, the multiple repeats of boy band music, Celine Dion and Elton John videos or the FOUR repeats of a number of Ugandan music videos, but at this point you already expected that to occur. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat but wearing shin guards. And I’d probably just acquiesce and pay for the economy bus from the outset!

 

 

 

There were some British and Irish expats our age on this bus so there was running commentary sometimes as we rode back. The beautiful, smooth ride through Rwanda gave way to a crazy ride once over the border. The driver started speeding, and we were swaying to and fro. Everyone was holding onto the seats in front of them.

 

The back row of the bus had 6 seats, and it was full and tight. My knees and shins kept hitting against the metal back of the seat in front of me, but I became numb to the pain. (I still have bruises running the length of my shins today!) At one bump the 3-seat unit in front of me dislodged from the bus and started tipping on a turn. Matt and I had to hold it down for the rest of the trip, mostly because the metal insert to the bus could have impaled our sandaled feet. The guys in front of us were laughing. It was actually really funny.

 

Oh but there’s more. A torrential rain started coming down (rainy season starts in a week). We closed the windows and the bus because nice and steamy of course. But it got better. Somewhere at the top of the window interfacing with the bus frame was a leak. Water literally poured down my window side continuously soaking my right half shirt and pants. Again laughter. Again classic African bus.

 

Matt and I switched our 2 seats at Mbarara. At one random point we picked up people and a mother with child sat on my left with Matt on my right for the next four hours. She was the seventh seat in the back row of 6. As soon as she sat down, she started breastfeeding of course. Meanwhile I have my one arm over the back of Matt’s seat because I cannot fit in the row, and she has her other arm half-across me as she breastfed. Classic. I loved it!

 

This bus trip was nothing short of a hilarious, uncomfortable way to accrue life stories. I could write more about the crazy driving, the multiple repeats of boy band music, Celine Dion and Elton John videos or the FOUR repeats of a number of Ugandan music videos, but at this point you already expected that to occur. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat but wearing shin guards. And I’d probably just acquiesce and pay for the economy bus from the outset!

 

 

There were some British and Irish expats our age on this bus so there was running commentary sometimes as we rode back. The beautiful, smooth ride through Rwanda gave way to a crazy ride once over the border. The driver started speeding, and we were swaying to and fro. Everyone was holding onto the seats in front of them.

 

The back row of the bus had 6 seats, and it was full and tight. My knees and shins kept hitting against the metal back of the seat in front of me, but I became numb to the pain. (I still have bruises running the length of my shins today!) At one bump the 3-seat unit in front of me dislodged from the bus and started tipping on a turn. Matt and I had to hold it down for the rest of the trip, mostly because the metal insert to the bus could have impaled our sandaled feet. The guys in front of us were laughing. It was actually really funny.

 

Oh but there’s more. A torrential rain started coming down (rainy season starts in a week). We closed the windows and the bus because nice and steamy of course. But it got better. Somewhere at the top of the window interfacing with the bus frame was a leak. Water literally poured down my window side continuously soaking my right half shirt and pants. Again laughter. Again classic African bus.

 

Matt and I switched our 2 seats at Mbarara. At one random point we picked up people and a mother with child sat on my left with Matt on my right for the next four hours. She was the seventh seat in the back row of 6. As soon as she sat down, she started breastfeeding of course. Meanwhile I have my one arm over the back of Matt’s seat because I cannot fit in the row, and she has her other arm half-across me as she breastfed. Classic. I loved it!

 

This bus trip was nothing short of a hilarious, uncomfortable way to accrue life stories. I could write more about the crazy driving, the multiple repeats of boy band music, Celine Dion and Elton John videos or the FOUR repeats of a number of Ugandan music videos, but at this point you already expected that to occur. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat but wearing shin guards. And I’d probably just acquiesce and pay for the economy bus from the outset!