The Rwandan Genocide Memorials
When they said "Never Again", did that only apply to some people and not others?
Quote from the Genocide Memorial in Rwanda.
One hundred days later - when the madness was stopped by the RPF (Rwanda Patriotic Front) - 800,000 people were dead.
There was no international response during the genocide. Many times the Rwandans asked for help, many times they were turned down, or simply ignored. While the western world was debating the difference between "acts of genocide" and "genocide" (which would of legally required them to help), the massacres continued unabated. The militia were encouraged to use their machetes and not waste precious ammunition on the "cockroaches".
Not even the UN was prepared to help. Ten UN soldiers from Belgium were tortured and killed. The UN promptly pulled out of Rwanda and the Tutsi people, and those sympathetic to the Tutsi (so called "Hutu moderates") were left to fend for themselves. The then head of the UN, Kofi Annan, has since admitted that the world, the UN and he himself had let down the Rwandan people.
People cried "Never Again" the Holocaust of World War II, and it happened again in Rwanda. People cried "Never Again", after the genocide in Rwanda, and it is happening yet again as I type this in the Sudan.
Sometimes you just want to weep for humanity.
Some fellow volunteers and I decided to go to Rwanda and check out some of the genocide memorials first hand.
We also has some good times and laughs in Rwanda. The good times can be found in a separate piece here.
A little history
Then my good old ancestors, the white man, arrived. First the Germans, then the Belgiums. The Belgiums wanted to created a ruling elite, and so categorised people formally in Hutu and Tutsi. By this time, much interbreeding had happened between the two peoples, so the distinction was fairly arbitrary. The Belgiums drew the line along such ludicrous criteria as eye color and the dimensions of the head.
The Belgiums chose the minority Tutsi tribe to rule with them. Many atrocities were heaped upon the Hutu tribe in the name of colonial rule.
The Hutu tribe were understandably pissed, and this anger was at the heart of the 1994 genocide. This tragic circle of violence gets repeated too often in Africa. People Group A oppress People Group B, People Group B gets annoyed and oppress People Group A many years later.
The first memorial we went to wasn't really a memorial at all. It was the Hotel Des Mille Collines (Hotel of a Thousand Hills). The hotel has been popularly renamed as "Hotel Rwanda", thanks to the Hollywood movie of the same name that documented the struggle within its walls.
A man called Paul Rusesabagina was the manager of the Hotel prior to the genocide. Paul Rusesabagina was a good manager and knew how to take care of his guests and make them feel special. Both the UN officials in the area (who would later flee the country with tragic consequences) and members of the Hutu militia were among his guests.
Paul Rusesabagina carried a precious card that identified him as a Hutu and could of therefore kept himself throughout genocide, assuming that he didn't protect Tutsis that is. Hutu people that protected Tutsi were called "Hutu Moderates" and were at risk at being killed by "Hutu Extremists".
But Paul Rusesabagina took Tutsi into his hotel. Hundreds in fact. The friendships he had with the Hutu militia, along with the numerous bribes of money and alcohol, kept the genocide at bay.
Eventually, the alcohol ran dry, the currency devalued and the commanders ran out of patience. Paul Rusesabagina managed to organise some trucks and ship most of the guests to the IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps that had formed. His selfless act had saved hundreds of people.
So, my fellow volunteers went to the hotel to take a look and pose for suitably posey pictures. Volunteers tend to be a bit of a scruffy bunch, so we looked a little bit out of place at the very flash Hotel Des Mille Collines.
We checked out the hotel's swimming pool, whose water was drunk by the hotel's "residents" during the time of the genocide.
"Hotel Rwanda" was just a stop for pictures really. The horror of the genocide wasn't readily apparent there. The two other memorials soon put that into perspective.
Serge, one of staff at the memorial, gave us a tour around the grounds.
During the genocide, the Hutu militia created mass graves - often dug by the victims - to hide their vile acts. Afterwards, many of the bodies were exhumed and moved to the mass graves at the Kigali memorial where they were given a proper burial.
220,000 are buried in the mass graves at the Kigali Memorial.
What can you do with a number like that? It's hard to do anything with it. I thought about it. Processed it. Mulled it over. Any small feelings of sadness that I dredged up were woefully inadequate.
I asked Serge what I, a twenty-one year old college kid without a care in the world, could of done to help during the time of the genocide. He mumbled something about the inaction of the international community. My guilt and his despair (or was it anger?) stopped me from pushing him to answer my actual question.
Chris - quite rightly - pointed out that one of the things we can do is pressure our governments who can in turn pressure organisations like the UN. Political pressure can turn into action.
To the north of Uganda is a place called Sudan. The U.S. government has officially called what is going down there as a genocide (which they refused to do for Rwanda). Current guesstimates put the casualties at 200,000 and the homeless at 800,000. If you don't like what happened at Rwanda, felt ill at empty statements like "Never again", then pressure your government. Write them a letter. An E-mail. Even a postcard. Anything will do. So long as its gets their attention.
The exhibition walked you through the whole sorry tale. From the oppressive regimes of both Germany and Belgium, to Rwanda's independence, to the massacres that preceded the genocide, to the genocide itself and finally onto the aftermath.
The curators did not spare you the details. One part of the exhibition had a silent video on an endless loop. It showed the famous piece of footage that failed to move the world. The long shot was taken by an enterprising journalist of people being lined up and hacked by the militia. The shot was reproduced for the Hotel Rwanda movie.
The video also showed the corpses piling up in the streets of Rwanda. When the UN finally arrived, one of their missions was to shoot the dogs that were eating the corpses. Some animal rights kicked up a stink about this. How dare they be shooting dogs like that? One wonders why there were so upset about the dogs, and yet were presumably so silent during the times of the genocide...
Another famous photo showed a bus full of foreign workers being shipped out by their governments so they wouldn't get caught up in the genocide. A lady on the bus is holding her dog. A fucking dog. A dog was more important than Rwandans.
I can't help but be reminded of the abuse I often get for my rabid dog story.
The exhibition finished up in a large central room with many smaller rooms around it. The smaller rooms contained:
The curators had also recently added a special section dedicated to the children who were killed. The exhibit contained many large photos of the children with little bits and pieces about their lives. Their favorite toy, best friend. Stuff like that. Couldn't help but think of my niece Stephanie while I watched the pictures.
It also reminded me of the numerous biographies of the ladies I've been doing for GrassRootsUganda.com. I guess the curator and me have similar ideas about putting a the story behind a human face set against the backdrop of tragedies too big to comprehend. Check this out from some stories about the GrassRootsUganda.com ladies in Kitgum.
My volunteer buddies and I wandered through the exhibition in our own time. Some a bit faster, some a bit slower. I think it is safe to say that we were all pretty moved. We sat outside in silence for a while. Made comments about how stupid the whole thing was and how it always seems that African lives are worth so much less than others.
We crunched up the gravel path, taking snaps of the typically lush Rwandan mountain scenes as we went. As we approached the former school buildings, we were greeted by Francis - the caretaker of the memorial.
After the usual introductions, Francis began to tell us the sorry history of Murambi. During the time of genocide, the Hutu militia massacred many people in the hills around the Murambi Memorial. Those that had managed to escape were told by government officials that the Murambi School (which was to become the Murambi Memorial) was a place of sanctuary. Thousands fled to the school.
The school was never a place of sanctuary though. It was a carefully planed ruse of the Hutu militia to gather most of the Tutsi in one place, weaken them by denying them food and water for two weeks, and then an easy massacre of the people too weak to run away.
A mass grave was dug and body after body was thrown in. Those considered too weak to free themselves from the grave - often babies and children - were thrown in alive.
Years later, when Rwanda was starting to return to something resembling sanity, the survivors exhumed the bodies from the various mass and shallow graves from the surrounding areas and buried them properly in the mass grave as Murambi. The grave at Murambi contains about 44,000 bodies.
Francis' voice cracked several times while telling this story. It still effected him today, twelve long years after the massacre. Francis told us that he had lost his entire family during the massacre. He managed to survive by fleeing to nearby Burundi - a fact he seems very embarrassed about, but who could blame him?
He went on to say that showing people like us, the camera-totting tourist, helped him to heal. It made me feel a little bit better as I was starting to feel like an intruder in this land that I didn't understand.
Not all the bodies were reburied. Many were placed in the school buildings at the back of the Murambi Memorial. We wandered to the buildings, somewhat sheepishly, and Paul unlocked various doors so we could have a look.
Note: the following few pictures are very graphic and show many dead bodies, so you might want to think twice before viewing them. While it was difficult to take the pictures, I felt it was important to document it. www.crazymalc.co.nz attracts up to 120 people a day. Some of you know what happened at Rwanda, some of you inevitably don't. If you don't like what you see, if it upsets you, then remember what is happening in the Sudan and what you might do to help.
Prior to coming to Africa, I had never seen a dead body. This was quickly rectified in Uganda when I attended a funeral with Travis. Nothing however, could of prepared me for the dead bodies at Murambi.
The first room contained many whole bodies carefully arranged on raised platforms. They had all been covered in lime, which slows the decomposing process, muffles the smell and mercifully keeps the flies away. The bodies were of men, women, children and babies. The body of a baby, with a decomposing rose on it, grabbed my attention. I found myself including my hand in the photo to try and give it some sort of perspective.
The remaining rooms we visited were all very similar to the first two, but there was always something that grabbed my attention and tugged at my heart. Be it a cleaved head, or the tufts of black hair, or a young child shielding its face.
Moving through the rooms was a deeply moving experience for all of us, but we all dealt with it different ways. Some took their time in the rooms, some rushed. Some took pictures, some did not. Some asked Francis questions, some were silent.
After we had recovered from the body rooms, Francis took us to what looked like a former gymnasium where the locals had carefully hung the clothes of the victims. The clothes were fairly raggedy to say the least, a year of being buried followed by nine years of hanging had not been good to them. They were rags to begin with anyway, the best clothes had been taken and sold by members of the Hutu militia.
As we left, we signed the donation book and handed over some small donations. I found myself giving away random bits of jewelry to some of the local ladies that were present, as if it would somehow make up for the atrocities that occurred here. I gave them a GrassRootsUganda.com necklace (which you should all be buying) and a bracelet that I bought from a Liberian refugee kid. They also wanted the bracelets that my Filipino students gave me, but they have far too much sentimental value for me so I had to refuse.
But then I though about it some more and was reminded of my time in Ashburn - a mental health facility where I spent five months of my life. In the months preceding Ashburn and inside of Ashburn itself, I spent countless hours wallowing in my own misery. I became a useless person. I couldn't hold down a job. Couldn't even attend a single university paper. Couldn't cook my own meals. Couldn't even clean my house let alone myself. A waste of space.
I think when facing with this sort of suffering, it is important to do two things. Feel and then do. Feel the emotions you feel when you see it. If it is anger, feel the anger. If it is sadness, feel the sadness. And then you move on. Wallowing in misery makes you useless. Trust me on this one...
But moving on is not quite enough.
Terry Pratchett, one of my favorite authors, wrote a book called Carpe Juggulum. In the book, a character called Granny Weatherwax is debating with a religious monk. She points out how the church use to sacrifice people to their gods. She thought it was important for people to do the same thing today. Not sacrificing other people's live though, but sacrificing your own. Not is some senseless one-off fiery offering that will accomplish nothing. But one day at a time. Doing the things that matter and trying to make a difference. One sacrificial day at a time.
I'd like to think that is what I trying to do here in Africa.
2005, 2006 and 2007 Malcolm Trevena.