25 May 2012

Kigali {Part 4}: Genocide Memorial Centre

I seriously debated whether I even wanted to share about the Rwandan Genocide on the blog for several reasons.  Still, after thinking about it, I finally decided that I would because it represents such a huge piece of the country's history and also represented a substantial part of my visit. Topics such as these are never nice to discuss or reflect on, but as human beings I think we are all compelled to empathize with fellow human beings regardless of race, religion, geographic location, ethnicity, or gender.  In the act of acknowledging, we also take a stand against acts of violence, hatred, and blood shed and take a small but invaluable step towards ensuring that history does not repeat itself.

So... here goes...   

On the afternoon of our second day in Kigali, we hopped on motos and headed to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre.  The Centre sits on the grounds of a massive burial site and also houses a museum that  tells the story of the genocide from start to finish, contains scattered remnants of the victims, honors some of the children who were lost in the tragedy, and also pays tribute to many of the other major genocides that have taken place throughout recent history.  

The inside memorial is very thoughtfully done and is also very informative.  It probably takes between two to three hours to see everything and entrance is free although they do recommend that visitors contribute by offering a small donation.  It is an absolute must if you ever find yourself in Kigali.

They asked that we pay a $25 fee if we wanted to use our cameras inside the centre, which I decided against.  However, visitors are welcome to snap away as they explore the outside grounds for free and I took a lot of photos as we walked around the graves and outdoor memorial sites.

You also have the option of purchasing an audio tour for a small fee.

Mass graves
The history leading up to the Rwandan genocide is long and complex.  The country was previously colonized by both Germany and Belgium and both countries played a role in encouraging the distinct separation of races.  Under Belgian rule, Tutsis and Hutus {the two main tribes in Rwanda} were provided with separate ID cards and this later made it easy for Hutu extremists to positively identify Tutsis and exterminate them.  Initially Belgium supported the Tutsis {who were known to be of a higher social class} and essentially forced Hutus into forced labour positions.  However, towards the end of their rule their support shifted towards the Hutus.

Flowers left by friends and family members
When the genocide broke out, tensions were already running high between the two groups.  On the 6th of April 1994, an airplane carrying the President of Rwanda and the President of Burundi {both of which were Hutu} was mysteriously shot down and all passengers were killed.  There is still speculation today as to who is responsible for this with both the RPF {a majority Tutsi group} and Hutu Extremists receiving speculative blame.  The genocide had been well planned and a "Death List" was circulated by members of the Hutu government shortly after the crash.  By that evening Hutus had set up road blocks around the city and houses were being searched.  Within a few hours the first shots had been fired.  The genocide was underway.

Throughout the genocide the media was used as a major propaganda tool by the Hutus and served as a means of broadcasting violent messages and instructions, encouraging Hutus to turn on their Tutsi neighbors.  In the days that followed, Tutsis were systematically tortured and killed regardless of age and gender.  Thousands of Tutsis rushed to schools and churches for safety, only to realize that this was no protection as they were barricaded in and the buildings were burned to the ground.  Children witnessed their parents being violently murdered by machetes before being grotesquely tortured, mutilated, and murdered themselves.  Tutsi women were systematically raped by Hutu men who were known to be HIV positive and today thousands of survivors suffer from the disease as a result.  The whole country was completely turned upside-down within a matter of hours. 

The genocide carried on until the middle of July 1994, and resulted in the death of close to one million Rwandans {90% of which were Tutsi}.  This represents the largest amount of people ever killed in such a short time span with more than 10,000 people being murdered each day.  By the end of the genocide, around 20% of the country's population had been wiped out and the Hutu extremists had succeeded in exterminating 85% of the Tutsi population.  400,000 children became orphans, with 85,000 being forced to become the head of their household.  Rape was used as a systematic weapon of war and between 250,000 and 500,000 Rwandan women fell victim to this tactic.  Around 70% of these women are now infected with HIV.  

The western world, and particularly the UN, has been largely criticized for its lack of intervention in the genocide.  The UN Security Council was very reluctant to become involved in any direct way.  Belgium was the only country to advocate a strong peace keeping mission, but after the murder of 10 Belgian peace keepers and a failure to act on the part of the UN, Belgium withdrew their support.  The United States has also been criticized for ignoring information presented to them just before the genocide broke out.  UN Peace keepers who were on the ground were instructed to not intervene in the violence unless another Peace Keeper was in direct danger.

wall of names
In the midst of the tragedy UNAMIR directed the bulk of its efforts at evacuating foreign nationals, some of whom were stationed outside of Tutsi-filled schools and churches.  As the Peace Keepers were removed, Hutus stormed the premises and massacred everyone inside, including hundreds of children.  Foreign relief workers were forced to evacuate while Rwandans who were working beside them were left behind and eventually fell victim to the killings.

Throughout the entire genocide, the United States contributed 50 armored tanks.  These, however, arrived way too late due to arguments surrounding the cost of their transportation.  President Clinton has since expressed open regret in the way that the government handled the crisis, noting that he believes that 5,000 US Peace Keepers could have saved approximately 500,000 lives. 

Following the genocide, around two million Hutus fled to Rwanda's bordering countries in anticipation of Tutsi retaliation.  Many of them eventually died due to the poor conditions in the refugee camps and to this day there is still tribal fighting amongst Hutu and Tutsi groups around the bordering regions.  The neighboring countries of the DRC and Burundi are especially well known for prevailing ethnic violence. 

Today Rwanda itself has returned to relative stability and is attempting to somehow come to terms with the tragedy and massive injustices that took place.  They've established a Criminal Tribunal which is still in the process of sifting through cases.  Initially some major players in the genocide were sentenced to public execution, but as of 2007 Rwanda has abolished the death penalty so extreme measures such as these are no longer taking place.

The Kigali Memorial Centre opened on the 10th anniversary of the genocide in April 2004.  During its first week of operation, more than 1,500 survivors visited the memorial each day.  Roses are sold at its entrance, making it a living memorial in the sense that survivors are able to come and pay tribute to family and friends who were lost.

More than 250,000 victims are buried underneath the concrete slabs seen in the photos throughout this post.  Bodies are still constantly being added as new mass grave sites are discovered.  Family members who have located the body of a loved one are allowed to bury them here and frequently come to pay tribute as they would be able to do in a cemetary.

From a personal perspective, the memorial was very difficult to take in because everything still feels so real and immediate and in your face.  As you walk past locals placing flowers on the graves one can't help but to imagine all that they've been through and are still  continuing to go through today.  It's almost as though everyone knew someone who was a victim - wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, parents, children - all lost in an instant.

Although it was difficult, I'm definitely glad I opted to go to the memorial site.  I feel like I came out the other side a slightly different person and that I now understand a little bit more about what this tiny African country has been through.

While I can't even begin to imagine what it was like to actually witness, I feel that this was my very insignificant way of saying that I stand with the world in vowing to never forget what happened and to always remember those whose lives were so unjustly and prematurely taken away.

we will never forget.


  1. thanks for sharing this. you know, with blogging a lot of time I wonder..why do I spend so much time on this? it's to learn! to learn about people, to learn about other ppls experiences. You have taught me something incredibly important today. So thank you. :)

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this. I had a similar experience touring Auschwitz and Birkenau, and I know that day will be in my mind for the rest of my life. I've seen Hotel Rwanda, and watched the news regularly when this was happening, but there's such distance when you're a child in the U.S. that it's difficult to connect the news stories to actual humans until you see sites like this. I'm glad it's such a respectful, educational, and commemorative site, so that we can remember this atrocity and hopefully be more proactive in the future to prevent another.

  3. A very moving post Jenna!

    Sometimes I think people avoid such things because it will be hard but I think it's so important to learn and remember. We get to where we are today from our past, both good & bad and it's impossible to move forward without acknowledging it. I think it's especially important for those of us who come from developed, safe countries as it's so easy for us to live in a bubble.

  4. Such unbelievably powerful words and photos. I think these places are SO important to visit.

  5. This is heartbreaking- I'm so glad you shared your experiences at the memorial center, though. I think its emotions like these that tie us together in humanity. I cannot imagine what these people have been through, and the loss they are still dealing with today.

  6. This is an incredibly sad tragedy, but it's very informative. I agree with your ending words. Seeing this up-close is incredibly powerful and it does change an individuals point of view.

  7. I'm glad you decided to share this. It was such an interesting post...And like you said it's important to talk about these things instead of acting like they never happened. And even how terrible something is, it will always be an important part of a country's history.

  8. thanks for sharing this moment of history - such a tragedy! the cruelty of this world makes me feel sick sometimes. i remember the stories of burning churches and schools with men, women and children trapped inside. it breaks my heart. on a happier note i really like the way you used your pictures to tell this sad story! thanks for posting this!! xx

  9. so very moving. so glad i stumbled upon this

  10. wow....i never really understood this and what actually took place. i remember it happening but was too young to truly process it. and the fact that the US didn't do more kind of upsets me (although i think they would do more nowadays). im glad you spoke about this on here because it was a way of making me more aware of what happened. im also so sickened at the fact that 70% of those women are infected with HIV. that leaves me feeling so numb.

  11. This is a heartbreaking post that you beautifully wrote due to keeping it solemn and serious and I can not imagine seeing this site. I have been to Dachu in Munich but this is more recent and would seem more emotional and real then something 60+ years ago.
    Quick note (and I really didn't want to pick this apart because it is really serious subject etc.) but I was sad that you left out the Canadian contribution via our small contingency of troops and it was a Canadian who was the leader who was "helping" the peace talks that came before the plane being shut down..and then had to stay and basically watch the genocide ( whilst wearing/being under the UN who would not agree to help out as he requested them to do.) His name was Romeo Dalliere and although he has been criticized in Canada and by the world ( due to the PTSD he has suffered resulting in public drunkedness probably due to seeing all these people brutally murdered and some decisions he made that he felt could have prevented/lessened the massacare), he was one of the people who tried to make Rwanda known and still fights for it and is involved heavily with the Tribunal set up to deal with people who committed the War Crimes. There is a novel and a movie( made in Canada so may not be easy to find) called "Shake Hands with the Devil"...anyways, I really hope that this doesn't come off as mean or somehow "boastful" but I got a little upset just because I come from a Canadian military family and I have been raised with the knowledge of Rwanda and our small (I wish it could have been bigger as in prevented it altogther) contribution to trying to save these poor people...
    Your blog is an eye opener when it comes to South Africa and I hope to travel there myself some day( I have a Dutch background which may come in handy :P )

  12. Quick follow up!! I just talked to my husband about leaving a comment and he said I can come off horribly when I become my crazy "Canadian" self. I really hope that I didn't come off that way and that I just maybe let you know of that novel or movie that would lend even more knowledge/background information to the site. I apologize 10 MILLION times over if I came off rude or harsh. Sometimes I forgot that not everyone is Canadian or as familiar with our involvement in world issues...... Anyways, I hope I came off "OK" :)

  13. I can't believe I am posting a 3rd comment but I just looked at the Rwandan Genocide wiki site and it does not really go into the Canadian contribution so there would no way anyone out of Canada would ever know.. SSSSSOOOO SORRRYY!!! I feel so awkward now and embarrassed that I even brought it up...


Thanks for the love!