Rwanda: A day on the genocide tourism trail

Rwanda genocide Kigali Hutu Tutsi tourism

Remains of some of the 800,000 people who died in the Rwandan genocide are displayed in the Kigali Memorial Centre museum

“Here is where they smashed the children’s heads against the wall – there were too many of them and they didn’t want to blunt their machetes,” says a young woman in an unwavering, monotonous curator’s voice. Her composure, given the subject matter, is disconcerting.

While 20 dumfounded tourists gape at her, shuffling uncomfortably, the odd tut or disbelieving sigh barely grazing the silence, I ponder how old she would have been during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when some 800,000 people (mainly ethnic Tutsi) were butchered. I wonder whether she is Tutsi or Hutu and if her family tree was pruned by the insanity.

We’re standing in an unassuming orange brick Catholic church built in the eighties, in the town of Nyamata, 30 kilometres south of Rwanda’s capital Kigali. Nyamata Church is now a memorial for 10,000 dead Rwandans

The lawn outside is groomed flawlessly, bushes are trimmed, and the low-key village which surrounds the church seems at peace with its surroundings.

Within the lifetime of everyone in the room, 10,000 Rwandan Tutsis were slayed by the Hutu Interahamwe (government-backed local militias) inside this building, no larger than your average village community hall.

While the Tutsi menfolk rallied futilely to fight the Interahamwe, the women, children and grandparents of the community fled to the ‘safety’ of the church. They were raped, beaten, bludgeoned, and systematically hacked to death with machetes, the mass murderers’ weapon of choice, a tool both killer and killed would have used daily in the fields.

After her meticulous account of the events, the woman asks us if we have any questions. Unease pervades the room, but after a nervous, somber hush, someone asks the guide about her ethnicity.

Evasively, almost mechanically, she diffuses the question: “Since the genocide, we Rwandans don’t look into the soul of ethnicity – we are simply Rwandans.”

Reluctant, frustrated nods follow.

Conflictingly, throughout the ghastly tour the guide openly labels the victims as Tutsi but never once identifies the culprits as Hutu.

I really want to find out how the Tutsis and Hutus relate to each other now, especially because apparently many of the genocidaires live freely in the community. I don’t know how to semi-eloquently phrase the question without sounding like a vile voyeur so it goes unasked.

Whole communities turned against each other. Obviously records were not kept during this mayhem, so it’s improbable that all the thousands and thousands of perpetrators will ever be brought to justice – an open sore still in need of attention perhaps.

Stained by evil, this building can no longer function as a church so it’s now a permanent memorial to the genocide, one of many in Rwanda. I can’t conceive of 10,000 people cramming into this room, let alone the unspeakable hate that transpired within.

Nyamata church saw 10,000 Rwandans dies in the 1994 genocideInside, the blood and filth stained clothes of the dead have been placed on the original low-lying pews in an attempt to give form to those slaughtered.

At one end of the room, illuminated by the Rwandan sunlight through opaque glass tiles, even filthier clothes are heaped up even more chaotically. These are the last-worn garments of women and children whose bodies were disposed of in latrine pits.

At the main entrance a set of slatted brown steel doors are twisted and gnarled. They are draped with purple and white ribbons, the permanent hues of mourning. These doors were the last line of defense for the Tutsis of Nyamata; a couple of hand grenades disintegrated their last chance.

The church’s tin roof is sporadically freckled with bullet holes and dark purple and scarlet blood splatters still taint the walls, even the ceiling in some places too.

In the grounds of the church are crypts, mass graves with rows of human skulls on display deep inside. Many craniums have been ruthlessly split down the centre, hallmarks of a machete strike.

Steep stairs funnel you into a narrow corridor, imploring you to come face to skull the Rwandan genocide – no glass, only a few centimetres away.    

Compelling and brutal evidence of mass killing, undeniable proof for the coming generations of the atrocity, when an entire country lost its mind for more than three months, but these are just the facts and figures of it; the how, the when, the where – the ‘why’ still encloses Rwanda like a body bag.Mass graves at Nyamata church, where 10,000 died in the genocide

A visit to Hotel des Mille Collines (events here inspired the film ‘Hotel Rwanda’) offers even less insight into the tragedy, perhaps the most surreal genocide ‘attraction’ in Rwanda.

A drink in the refurbished luxury hotel’s pool-side bar presents a fine view over president Paul Kigame’s outwardly prosperous Kigali, but gives no inkling of the tragic rounding up and wholly discriminate slaughter of people only 17 years previously.

Its pristine surroundings (and lack of any official memorial) make the events seem just like a bad Hollywood nightmare. Understandably the hotel’s owners would not want a tour reminding guests of the events of 1994, but scattered amongst the pampered lodgers are people like me, uncomfortably sipping their outrageously priced drinks, eyes furtively darting around the opulence for any hint of atrocity. There is none.

At the Kigali Memorial Centre, a brisk motorcycle taxi ride away, 250,000 people are said to be buried in the immaculate grounds. A sign reminds you not to walk on the mass graves.

The chronologically laid-out museum documents the ‘100 days of madness’ admirably with graphic images of the slaughter, more skulls, more clothes and, most importantly, video records of the thoughts of young survivors. Lessons for the next generation to decode.

Throughout the various exhibitions, fingers are obliquely pointed at the (relatively) faceless and nameless government of the time; and the former colonial Belgium rulers for introducing identity cards (in 1932) that apparently over-emphasised differences between the Tutsi and Hutu, which at the time were just “socio-economic identities”, interchangeable as people moved or down the social scale. Responsibility seems focused on institutions, not people.

One small section in the museum scantly deals with genocide justice while an even smaller display showcases acts of resistance; among these, an Oscar Schindler-style sacrifice gives a much-needed element of humanity.  

One woman sheltered Tutsis in her home during the height of the genocide. She knew that local villagers considered her possessed by evil spirits, and hoped this was enough to thwart the Interahamwe’s efforts. It was. The horde was indeed too superstitious to enter her home. A handful of otherwise victims were spared.

It was piteously naive of me to think that I would come away from the Nyamata church, Hotel des Mille Collines and the Kigali Memorial Centre having learned more of the ‘why’ this genocide happened. I didn’t.

Then I began to question why I needed to ask why. This was followed by a whirlpool of emotions: guilt for feeling the need to reconcile my morbid curiosity, then futility, then fury, then sadness.

And frustration: I began wondering: “Why is it mainly western tourists who are visiting these memorials. Where are the Rwandans? Don’t they need to learn these lessons more than anyone?”

But then shame calmed me down. The people of Rwanda, each and every one, were, are and will be affected by this gaping hole of logic in their country’s history for generations.

As a plaque in the memorial centre reads: “This is about our past and our future, our nightmares and dreams, ours fears and our hopes, which is why we begin where we end: with the country we love.”

It’s up them to heal and deal with the consequences whichever way they can. If this means denying the existence of former ethnic identities then so be it, whatever it takes for this to never happen again.

As for the why, well… how do you explain why neighbor killed neighbor, priests helped to slaughter their parishioners and young children had to shelter under their parent’s corpse to survive being hacked to death.

You can’t. It will be forever inexplicable.

Steve Madgwick

Kigali Memorial Centre remembers the Rwandan genocide