The land of a thousand hills
In the last week we have experienced the most intense emotions from the opposite ends of the scale. From the heart-wrenching stories of the Rwandan genocide to the exhilaration of coming face to face with the mountain gorillas of Uganda, It’s been one hell of a week.
The transition from the open, golden plains of the Serengeti into the lush green mountains in Rwanda was spectacular, called the land of the thousand hills, Rwanda certainly lives up to its name. Every inch of every hillside is organised into neat little terraced farming plots and as plastic bags are illegal the beautifully clean countryside makes for a pleasant change from the litter-strewn villages we’ve seen previously. The landscape coupled with the warm smiles and big waves was a wonderful welcome to Rwanda. Surprisingly more developed than I’d realised, the roads are fantastic, although they drive on the right(!) and Kigali is the nicest city we’ve seen since Cape Town. It’s hard to believe that this beautiful, little country witnessed one of the most horrific world events only 20years ago.
We managed to find a camping area at the Discover Rwanda Youth Hostel, where we set up camp in the grounds and had views overlooking the twinkling lights of the city. Urban camping is a strange experience after being out in the bush for so long, but we were very happy to make the most of their fast, free internet, something we haven’t had in a long time and quickly got to work updating all our apps, software, photos etc. The hostel is run by the British owned Aegis trust who also established the genocide museum; all proceeds go into supporting survivors. Sadly the genocide becomes a key focus of any visit to Rwanda.
We went to the genocide museum the next day and began to learn about the true horrors of what had happened – a very confronting and emotional exhibition shows how the writing had been on the wall for many years before the official genocide began and despite the warnings, the International Community not only did nothing to prevent it, they also did nothing to intervene. The genocide itself was not just a random act of violence, but a pre-meditated massacre which had been years in the planning. ‘Death lists’ of Tutsis residents had already been prepared and when the command was finally given, within an hour, the military had set up road blocks and the Interhamwe were already on their way to begin the killings. The genocide lasted 100days and approximately 800,000 to 1million were killed. What made this event so horrific was that the killings were done one by one and in the most violent, sadistic ways. And it wasn’t just soldiers committing these atrocities either, doctors, teachers, priests turned on their own patients, students and congregations in ways which are just incomprehensible. The gardens around the museum also contain the mass graves of 250,000 people which are continually added to as they continue to find hidden graves all over Rwanda, many of whom will never be identified. The numbers are simply unfathomable and walking round the memorial gardens we both needed time to sit and reflect on what we’d seen. Although both aware of the events that took place here, we had not realised the scale of it, which makes it even harder to believe that this only happened 20years ago. Walking around the streets of Kigali, it’s hard not to look at people’s faces and wonder what their role was during that time. Were they a perpetrator or a survivor? Who did they kill or how did they escape? What was their story?
We decided to continue onto one of nearby memorials, Nyamata church, 30km south of Kigali, a place where over 10,000 people were killed after having sought refuge in a place where they thought they would be safe. Nothing could have prepared me for what we would see there. The church has remained untouched and although the bodies were removed, piles of their clothing and personal items remain, light pours through the holes in the ceiling made by bullets and grenades and the blood-stained altar cloth is still there. Our guide was Anita, who at the time of the massacre was 12 years old. I was also 12 years when this happened. On realising we were the same age, a huge lump appeared in my throat. When I was 12, I was in the full throws of early high-school years; horse-mad, girlie-sleepovers every weekend, first boy crushes, and wonderful family holidays. Anita was running for her life, hiding in the surrounding Papyrus marshes with her younger sister separated from the rest of her family who had chosen to seek refuge in the church – she never saw them again. Anita guided us slowly round the church, talking softly about what had happened, the calmness of voice made it even harder to comprehend some of the horrific things that she spoke of and it took all i had not to break down in front of her. But this was not my story to cry over. This was not my family, friends and community that had been massacred here. It was not my life that had been completely turned upside down. Anita then took us outside to the mass graves, where over 45,000 people are buried and amongst them are her family; she doesn’t know exactly which bones are theirs.
She took us down the steps into the graves, where rows and rows of skulls are neatly lined up and the piles of bones carefully stacked up underneath. I wasn’t expecting to be actually taken into the grave, but the sight of so many skulls was so surreal, too many to really comprehend that each one of these once belonged to a living breathing human. It was one of the most over-whelming things i’ve ever seen. Back in the church grounds, Anita thanked us for coming. Talking about things, is her way of coming to terms with what happened and more importantly they want the world to know their story with the aim of ensuring history is never repeated. In just 20years, the country has made astounding progress in restoring peace and encouraging forgiveness, so that Rwandans can live side by side once more – there are no longer Hutu or Tutsis. However, when I asked Anita how does she forgive those who did this, it is clear that the scars will run deep for generations to come.
We wanted our visit to Rwanda to be about more than just the genocide, it is such a beautiful country and has so much to offer, but sadly we could only spend a few days here and our time here really did revolve around the genocide. We left with huge sadness in our hearts.