The bulk of my teen years were spent in Geneva Switzerland. In the heart of Europe, but also of the International Diplomatic community, I was fourteen years old when the Rwandan Genocide started to unfold to a largely indifferent international community. Between April and May 1994, between 500,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandans were massacred.
Rwanda was former Belgian colony, as a part of the colonization effort, Belgian administrators classified the Rwandan population into two different ethnic groups: Tutsi and Hutu. In reality there was very little differentiation between both groups, the determination was done at times arbitrarily, for example depending on how many cows a person owned. Once the population was classified, the Belgians placed a large majority of Tutsi in positions of power even though they were in the minority of the population. Upon independence from Belgium, a Hutu majority took power and a slow simmering of resentment between both groups started to build up. in 1993/1994 tensions had risen to a boiling point between both groups. On April 6,1994; the Rwandan Presidential plane carrying the President of Rwanda and the President of Burundi as well as several aides was shot down. Who shot the plane down is a matter of speculation depending on which truth is most convenient. Within hours of the downing of the aircraft, hardline Hutu government agents and military ordered the beginning of the massacre of tutsi and moderate hutus across the country. Machetes were the weapon of choice, they were imported by truckload from China, financed by Hutu businessmen and distributed to militiamen nationwide. A true introduction is beyond the scope of what I can write here, the causes are plenty, deep and still the subject of scrutiny and investigation. The massacre continued for three months.
Many countries were wary of intervening in an internal conflict in a small landlocked country with no notable natural resources. The United States was still battle scarred from a peacekeeping mission in Somalia that resulted in the deaths of 18 US soldiers, the country had no appetite to to enter another internal conflict in the heart of Africa. Over a decade later, the US President at the time of the Genocide, Bill Clinton expressed that the lack of direct intervention as one of his biggest regrets.
I would be flying in to Kigali, the Rwandan, capital shortly after midnight after a long trip from Los Angeles (LAX-ORD-BRU-IST-KGL). It had been twenty-five years since the Genocide and some of the research I had done painted an image of a country renewed, a sort of Phoenix, risen up from the ashes. I had booked a car with a driver for my trip through the country. I decided to stay the first few nights in the Hotel des Milles Collines, a hotel that would be memorialized in the movie Hotel Rwanda for its role in saving hundreds of lives at the height of the conflict. The Hotel manager during the Genocide, Paul Rusesabagina protected 1,268 refugees from both ethnic groups, several several of whom were brought to the hotel by Mbaye Diagne, a UN/Senegalese military observer who later died in the conflict. In 2005 Captain Diagne was posthumously awarded the rank of Knight in Senegal’s National Order of the Lion, he is estimated to have saved between 600 and over 1,000 civilians. If you were to visit the hotel without knowing its history, there would be very little to indicate what had happened there. The hotel is well kept and fairly standard western style hotel with comfortable and a tad unpurposefully vintaged room, with beautiful views of the capital city Kigali.
I spent the next day visiting Kigali, a pleasant city built on rolling hills largely unburdened by traffic. Buildings built during colonial times stand next to new buildings built after the genocide. I stopped by a local art café that came highly recommended. When traveling I try to get something created by local artists, something that has a meaning beyond a physical location token. There were some great pieces on display, some I think would be at home in a Beverly Hills art collection. Most pieces were bigger than what I could afford. The gallery serves also as an art school, teaching the next generation strokes of colour on canvas. I bought two pieces, with deep blue brushstrokes from students, one day I hope they will be known Rwandan painters.
Rwanda is roughly twice the size of New Jersey, not large considering the size and economic weight of its neighbours, it does have something that those nations do not. There is a sense of stability and safety in Rwanda, for a country that in essence had to start over less than a quarter century ago, it has rebuilt and looked to other countries for development examples. To many, it is considered the Singapore of Africa.
It very easy to see an overwhelming sense of pride in the people of Rwanda, they are proud of their country that seemingly has been built back stronger since the Genocide. A sense of inherent wisdom is present in a country that has been the extreme victim of its own delusions; wisdom earned the hard way. There are markers, monuments everywhere to the known and unknown victims. Even in the hotel there was a monument to those who died there.
The Genocide museum details how the country came to the point of national suicide, exhibits showing a timeline of how events unfolded, though arguably one sided. Skulls with with holes through foreheads, lined up on display, photos of those missing, the large majority of which will spend eternity in mass graves or shallow unknown graves to be discovered over the next decades to come. Below the museum is one such grave, the total number of occupants can only be estimated.
Further, a former Rwandan army military barracks where ten Belgian peacekeepers were tortured, murdered and mutilated still bears the thousands of bullet holes as the Belgians fought off the advancing army with nothing but small arms. That particular monument was hard for me, as it was largely untouched since the killings, it looked like it could have happened yesterday. A guide explained the sequence of events in great detail, how the troops were sent in to protect the Prime Minister from her own army, how they were disarmed and left with nothing but sidearms and promised free passage out. The army then killed the Prime Minister and her husband, the Belgians retreated into the building fighting with every last bullet, their last stand in a corner of a room. Outside stands a monument to these soldiers, one rock for each soldier, a notch in each one representing a year of each of their lives.
The peacekeepers were killed in an effort to dissuade foreign intervention. The message was clear, if you send in troops to stop the massacre, they will be massacred.
The memory of what happened is arguably what unifies the country today, a desire to write a new history; 1995 might have been year 0. The central business district has modern buildings similar to what you would find in any western country. The Ubumwe Grand hotel where I stayed my final nights in the country was among the most modern and view endowed hotels I’ve stayed at anywhere.
Leaving Kigali, we would head south towards Nyungwe Forest National Park, a largely undeveloped National Park with a single road that traverses east to west. The drive to the park was pleasant, almost reminding me of driving in a mix of a French and Mexican countryside from other trips. As we got closer to the park, the landscape became hillier and expansive fields of tea leaves started to unfurl before us. Arriving at an eco-lodge on the eastern border of the park, you could experience a certain calm overlooking the border between tea fields and wilderness.
After a tour of a tea factory, we went into the forest. This is unlike a National Park in the United States, I didn’t see any park rangers, instead I saw heavily armed and uniformed Rwandan Army personnel stationed almost every 500 meters along the full length of the main road, around 60 kilometers long. There were some hiking trails available. I took one of the shorter ones, since hiking the long ones could last days and I was unfortunately on a schedule. The forest is lush and deep, full of fauna and flora unknown to me until then. Continuing the journey after the hike we made our way to the western side of the country whose border is dominated by Lake Kivu. We stopped by a farmer and healer’s house and he told me stories of his life and had me taste some freshly harvested Kasava. We ended the day in Gisenyi on the northern edge of Lake Kivu. Gisenyi is a town which straddles the border opposite Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its a pleasant little beach town with quaint neighborhoods. We took a boat ride on the lake not venturing too far but getting an appreciation for the size of this lake.
I would have liked to visit more of Gisenyi, unfortunately I got food poisoning in Gisenyi, I should not have eaten a Salad. It was bad, we drove straight back to Kigali where, for the first time in my life I slept for twenty hours.
Rwanda had moved on without forgetting the history that caused it so much pain, with a dynamic population seemingly ready to move the country forward not all is roses. Credited with restoring order in Rwanda, and President since the Genocide, Paul Kagame has not fostered a democratic society. Taking development queues from Singapore, the political structure in Kigali is on the face of it democratic, but formed in reality around one party and specifically one man, President Paul Kagame. Opposition to the established rule can result in your detention. Paul Rusesabagina, the man from the Hotel Mille Collines was arrested in 2020 under unclear circumstances which may have included a forced rendition from a third country. Mr. Rusesabagina in recent years had made clear he had political ambitions of his own, and with his notoriety could have become a political alternative to Mr. Kagame. There is an official narrative as to how the war ended and the head of the Tutsi Militia, Mr. Kagame saved the country. At times, it feels that to question the official narrative, is to question all the development that has happened in Rwanda since the genocide. The pressure of history is still present, behind the pride, the question remains what would it take for a country to fall back. There is no taste for history to repeat itself among the people, however without a democratic process, the question can never truly be answered and the weight of history will remain. There is only room for one at the top, and Mr. Rusesabagina now languishes in a Rwandan jail.
I would like to return to Rwanda, see Gorillas, the eastern plains as well to see how Kigali had changed since I first experienced it.