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IN MEMORIAM. Many people around the world hold memorial ceremonies that include candle-lighting and a minute of silence to honour the victims of the Rwanda genocide. Edgar R. Batte shares his experience of the Kigali Genocide memorial.
Two soldiers welcome us into a wide open gate at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. In broken Luganda one soldier attempts to make a joke to cheer us up as we go through the routine security check.
Smiling, we descend to the reception area where a gentleman requests to give us a background about the place before we can proceed through to the memorial centre.
As he relays the historical events his voice occasionally breaks. The narrative is nerve-wracking because it involves loss of human lives in some of the most brutal ways. He discloses he is one of those that lost relatives and friends in this haunting massacre. Gradually, almost naturally, you feel the pain of loss and grief.
The story of the genocide is not an easy one to come to terms with, or comprehend. There are a number of points at the memorial that are significant and tell the story of the gruesome three-month period that shuttered Rwandans as friends became enemies. The results were bloodbaths that pitted the country’s tribes of the Tutsi and Hutu along tribal differences that emanate from colonial times.
Inside the memorial
The cost of the genocide was high and as such the memorial leaves you with heavy emotional weight that answers are elusive to what could have motivated the deaths, slaughters and immeasurable torture.
At the reception, you will be handed an audio guide, like a radio, with figures matching the different points of the memorial and with a story or description of the significance they hold.
At the first point, you are guided to the graves where thousands of the victims were buried. There is an open grave covered in glass. From your viewpoint you will see the white cloth in which the lost loved ones were laid to rest. The graveyard is a relatively big stretch. Adjacent to it is a rose garden.
From the gardens, the numerical guidance will lead you to the memorial museum where you will meet quiet, sad-looking tourists. As you take in the tales and evidence, emotions run high as you view walls plastered with images, still and moving, of accounts of survivours. One of those is an image of a hopeless boy carrying his crying younger sister on the shoulder.
There is a special gallery of photographs, of those who lost their lives during the unnerving 100 days. The museum walls also hold digital photographs of the victims- dead or left for death- covered in bloodstains, abandoned on the ground, on car cabins, in house corners, in and within trenches or in thickets.
Almost all were left without loved ones and they agonisingly share what life has meant to them since those very gloomy days when nights meant crying and sobbing in search of answers.
Many struggle to recount the torment of witnessing their relatives or friend hacked with machetes before your eyes. The killers made sure they took it all in. One boy tells of how his father was butchered to death as he looked on helplessly, wailing for mercy as tears threaded down his cheeks but to the deaf ears of callous human slayers.
Another survivour narrates how her mother was raped by several men in one go as she looked on. One man after another raped her and after they did so, they shot her. She agonised for days without painkillers because her children could not get any medicine amid the tension that clouded almost every neighbourhood.
“Many women were raped repeatedly, often by men who were known to be HIV positive. This genocidal weapon has had devastating effects for women who developed the disease. There is at least 500, 000 women who have been victims of rape during the genocide and in the refugee camps where Rwandans were trained by the genocidaires on the run,” one of the postings on the museum walls states.
“Female survivors have died from the effects of Aids or live under the debilitating influence. Anti-retroviral medication has not been available in a timely or sufficient way to save lives. HIV+ planners of the genocide and perpetrators of rape, have however, had access to medication in Arusha,” reading further.
Survivours share this emotively, taking moments to sob because the wounds on their hearts seem so fresh to shy about their true feelings and the pain that these memories will forever evoke.
When she was about to recover, they returned and shot her to death. For such children, it has not been easy keeping hope alive because such moments took with them hope, happiness and deprival of innocence.
20 years later
Two decades later, Rwandans are one people, or seem to be. The talk of genocide and the disunity that was meant to precede its glare became reason to bring people together in an environment where tribe is not a first identity.
Mustapha, our driver during the visit, tells us he neither knows of a Hutu nor Tutsi but fellow Rwandan brothers and sisters. Indeed many survivours have chosen to let the past not rule or lead them into the future.
“Forgiving is difficult, but it’s not impossible because the few genocide survivours cannot develop Rwanda by themselves. We all need to combine our energy to develop the country. But I think it is better for those who committed the crimes to start asking for forgiveness. They should come to us to talk about it. Let’s say if it’s a Hutu who killed, he should come and say, “I killed people and I am really sorry,” Freddy Mutanguha suggests.
Marcel Ruhurambuga preaches hope. “The message in my testimony for young people, especially survivors, is that they should never despair. We can’t change the past. I’m not saying we should forget and be reconciled. But we shouldn’t be taken up too much by the past. It doesn’t mean we should forget the genocide- we should always think about it because it makes us strong. Remembering gives us the power to fight against any future cause of genocide in Rwanda,’ he explains.
There are a few places in the world that will leave a strong impact, emotionally, like a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Indeed for any visitor to the memories, taking in the story of the genocide leaves you frightened and thereon brutally enlightened in a way that you hate social divisions, tribalism and any sensations related therewith, so deeply.
The pictures on the wall, the machetes, the statements, the videos all drain you that after hours of the tour, you will feel broken inside. There is a café at the back end of the memorial where you will relax to enjoy a bite. There, flow of tears will not be seen as odd. Anyone would understand.
The social division
Events leading to the genocide were real. One of the writings in the museums state that (Juvénal) Habyarimana’s (ex-president), MRND was responsible for establishing the Interahamwe, a flamboyant and potentially dangerous Hutu youth militia that gained enormous popularity.
Advocating Hutu Power and Hutuness at the expense of Tutsi lives, their message was reinforced and spread by an extremist media. By 1990, the genocidal ideology of Hutu power had been perfected.
Odette Mupenzi, a survivour explains, “Before 1990, life was good. We lived alongside the Hutu with no real problem, although we all knew that no Tutsi child could be admitted to a public school. My older sister was very smart and passed the Primary Leaving Exams (PLE), but the school administration gave her a place to a Hutu child. And Tutsi were not allowed to do some kinds of work- there was nothing we could do about it,” she writes in her memoirs carried in a book titled ‘We Survived- 28 personal testimonies’.
One day, her dad was taken to the regional stadium in Nyamirambo, but he managed to escape and go home. The militia were out looking for more ‘traitors’ (ibyitso). Anyone who was a Tutsi was in danger, but the soldiers concentrated mostly on men.
“My dad and brothers hid most of the time and the rest of us had no problem. Because we lived near the stadium, we could hear people in agony, crying for help. 1990 was the beginning of systematic torture and oppression,” Mupenzi adds.
She was home when the genocide started. “When President Habyarimana’s plane crashed on April 6, 1994, an announcement was broadcast the following morning forbidding anyone to go out. So we stayed at home. A few hours later, we started hearing cries from our neighbours’ house- it was as if they were being beaten,” she recounts.
Yves Kamuronsi recollects his mother taking him aside one day and telling him about a war that was going on and the uncertainty of what was going to happen.
“She told me that she and my father might die, that anything could happen to them, and we had to be strong. It was as though she knew she was going to die. She used to tell me, ‘You are the oldest’- even though I wasn’t because I had an older brother. She always wanted to talk to me, to advise me on how to behave and to love people,” the 23- year-old narrates.
Kamuronsi adds, “I heard that the attackers killed the people in a terrible way, including my parents. They made them walk for maybe five kilometres…All I can say that my dad didn’t have enemies. He didn’t even have any problem with the soldiers. People in this area liked him because he helped them out with their problems. All my dad’s friends were people he met- some at work or in bars or on the streets. Even the man who betrayed him was his very good friend.”