Sunday, January 22, 2006

My Day with the Rwandan Genocide

Today I visited two sites that are memorials to the Rwandan genocide that took place between April 3 and July 4, 1994.

I hired a taxi driven by a delightful and friendly fellow named Valence (pronounced Va-lonce). He was recommended to me by the consular officer with whom we are working here in Kigali. Valence didn’t speak much English, so we conversed in French. I was pleased to find that my French isn’t as rusty as I thought. On the drive both to and from Nyamata we had quite a free ranging conversation. We talked of the genocide, the future of Rwanda, and the problems facing Rwanda, and Africa in general. We even talked about women and the virtues of marriage and family.

The first site I visited was a Catholic church in the town of Nyamata. Nyamata is southeast about an hour by car from Kigali. In 1994, about 10,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus took refuge in the church there. About another 10 – 15,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus took refuge in the grounds and environs of the church.

To put it simply, they were slaughtered there. Some were shot. Some were killed when grenades were lobbed into the church. Some were hacked to death with machetes. Some were clubbed to death. Most gruesomely, infants were killed by being flung against the walls of the church.

Inside the church, the first room you enter contains the clothing of many of the victims. It also contained large bags of bones. I noticed that some of these bones were contained in USAID food donation sacks.

In the nave of the church, there are a few coffins for the pitifully few victims that were able to be identified by surviving family members. Most of the victims are interred in mass graves beneath the church itself and in two mass graves constructed on the grounds behind the church. To put it mildly, to see graves like this is overwhelming.

After visiting Nyamata, we returned to Kigali and went to the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Gisozi. This is a memorial dedicated to both the Rwandan genocide and all genocides that have occurred in modern history. Its purpose is to document these atrocities and educate visitors on the various genocides. The memorial is quite well done and obviously very sobering. It’s also surprisingly high-tech with numerous touch screen LCDs. When you start the video clips on the LCDs, it shows video accounts of survivors from different genocides. The memorial was paid for with donations from numerous NGOs and humanitarian organizations, Yad Vashem (the Holocaust memorial in western Jerusalem), Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International among them.

I learned quite a bit about the history of Rwanda and the ethnic strife that led to the genocide. For example, while I knew the Rwanda was a Belgian colony that gained its independence in 1962, I hadn’t known that from 1895 – 1923 Rwanda was a German colony. In the wake of Germany’s defeat in WWI, the Belgians were granted a mandate over Rwanda by the League of Nations.

I also learned quite a bit about the ethnic divisions which led to the genocide. For example, when the Germans colonized Rwanda there were basically eighteen clans in the colony. The three main ethnic groups that are commonly recognized today (Hutu, Tutsi and Twa) were imposed by the Belgians to denote socio-economic status. If you owned more than ten cows, you were a Tutsi.

So, strictly speaking Hutus and Tutsis aren’t really ethnic groups at all. This was something that my driver explained to me. The driver explained to me that it wasn’t like the difference between, say, Nigerians and Ethiopians, who are strikingly different in appearance. While there are some subtle differences in the physiognomies of Hutus and Tutsis, the differences aren’t as clear cut as in the example I gave earlier in the paragraph.

The designation of Hutu or Tutsi or Twa denoted how wealthy or influential you were in your clan - and social mobility was possible. In other words, if you somehow worked your way up to owning ten or more cows, you could go from being a Hutu to a Tutsi.

This was rare, however, and since allied clans would naturally work together and favor one another, the clan identity gradually gave way to the ethnic identities of Hutu and Tutsi. (Twas are the smallest group, and as near as I could tell didn’t figure in the genocide.) As the Tutsis were the wealthy, they were a minority. And since they were wealthy they were favored by the Belgians. Thus, they maintained their economic status and began to become more educated. Because they were more educated, they gradually came to dominate the civil service under colonization. This is what led to the Hutu resentment of the Tutsis.

The memorial went into great detail about how the timeline of the genocide but it’s much too detailed for me to go into here.

For me the most powerful and most disturbing portion of the exhibit was the one dedicated to the child victims of the Rwandan genocide. It featured pictures of a child killed during the genocide; some short facts about the child (favorite food, favorite subject in school); and how they were killed. Again, mere words can’t really capture the power of this portion of the memorial.

I’ve posted pictures of my visit to these memorials on Normally, I send out a mass e-mail to all my friends and family inviting them to view my photos. But due to the disturbing nature of the photos from Nyamata, I am not going to do that this time. Instead, I will send an e-mail to everyone. Anyone that wants to see this album can e-mail me back and I will send an invitation to view the album.

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