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Notes from Kigali


Kigali landscape

Going to Rwanda has been a four-year project. I had decided four years ago that I would like to visit that country. And the reason was simple: to learn how they overcame the tragedy of 1994.

The story of the Rwandan Genocide is quite familiar to many who have an understanding of contemporary African history. That is why the good stories that have been coming out of that country after that unfortunate chapter have been quite reassuring.

So when I set out on the journey on Sunday March 18, 2018, I had determined where in Rwanda I would love to visit. And I had a fair idea of what to expect. Top on the list was the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. I also made up my mind that I would visit the Never Again Genocide Museum also in Kigali, and Lake Kivu. After all, that area is part of axis called the “Great Lakes Region”. (The story of the visit to Lake Kivu will be told another day).

Rwanda is usually described as “the country of a thousand hills”. So I expected to see plenty of hills in the country. But what I didn’t expect to see is how these hills have been well utilised to turn the country into such a beautiful place. And Kigali, the capital, typifies this beauty in every sense of the word. Kigali is a beauty to behold.


Though I entered the town late in the night, after the airport formalities, I could still catch a glimpse of the serenity and beauty of city as we drove to my hotel that night.

The next morning while touring the city, I was able to have a better appreciation of the town. The hills, the trees, the valleys, the flowers, the neatness — all constituted a breath of fresh air.
Entering Kigali was a bit of a stretch, primarily because of the airport formalities. The visa-on-arrival policy slowed the queue considerably. As a result, visitors spent quite a while on the queue before getting to the immigration officers.

But as you come out of the airport building, you are welcomed by the serenity and orderliness of the outside world.

The next day, I toured the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in downtown Kigali and the Never Again Genocide Museum located in the Parliament Building. The latter was declared open just this last December by President Paul Kagame.

Both places essentially tell the same story from different perspectives. It is the story of how a country was overcome by hate, jealousy and unrestrained bitterness and a section of its citizens plunged into mass murder of their fellow citizens. It is also the story of a people who decided that never would such tragedy be allowed to happen again. It reminds you of the Jews who have vowed that the Holocaust will NEVER happen to them again as long as heaven and earth exist. Such national determination is crucial in the understanding of history and learning lessons therefrom.

At the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where 250,000 people are buried, you come face-to-face with the desperate wickedness of man. The evidence of men, women, pregnant women, young boys and girls, infants, killed (butchered) in cold blood, is everywhere.

There are thousands of photographs of the victims at both the Genocide Memorial and the Never Again Genocide Museum. Even clothes of some of the victims are hung and preserved in a section of the museum. These include trousers, shirts, T-shirts, blouses, wrappers, gowns, skirts and boxers.

The stories are as varied as the victims, the survivors and the perpetrators.

Irene Ntawunganuyu tells her story in one of the videos: “My neighbour is in prison because he killed my husband. In the Gacaca court, he revealed where two of my six children were buried. I can go see the remains of my children. That neighbour asked for forgiveness. I thanked him for speaking the truth.”

A lady whose father was cut into two said the perpetrators thought that they he had milk and not blood in his veins. So they wanted to verify!

People were killed everywhere – churches, schools, homes. Everywhere. There were no sanctuaries.
At the Children’s section of the Genocide Memorial, pictures of victims – from infants to young boys and girls were strewn all over the place.

Attached to their photos were their Favourite food; Age; Hobby; Cause of death; Favourite drink; Favourite toys.

Some were killed by grenade; some through torture; some hacked to death; some burnt alive.
Yvonne Uwera, 5 and Yves Mugisha, 3, were brother and sister. Both were hacked to death with machete at their grandmother’s house.

Fabrice Cyenezo, 15 months, was killed at Muhno, inside a church. Frillette Uwase, 2, was smashed against a wall. Thierry Ishimwe, 9 months, was killed with a machete in his mother’s arms. Hutu and Tutsi women in mixed marriages were forced to kill their own children.

Neighbours killed their own neighbours. Some women spent weeks hiding in the ceilings.
Some people fled to Tanzania and other neighbouring countries. The genocidiaries often mutilated the victims before killing them. Lawlessness and chaos reigned: there was no ethnic war; there was civil war.

After the Genocide, the new government thought of ways to rebuild the country. That involved dealing with the trauma millions of its citizens experienced; rebuilding their psyche and making all see themselves as first and last Rwandans. I got a glimpse of this from the young and beautiful lady who took me round the museum for about two hours, effortlessly reeling out the story of the Genocide. Though I had a fair idea of who she was, when I asked her, “are you Hutu or Tutsi?” She smiled and responded: “I am a Rwandan”.
That encapsulates how far they have gone in rebuilding their nation.

Perpetrators who confessed to their crime were made to understand that they could serve half the sentence in community service such as building roads, houses, etc. The Gacaca courts were established after the genocide and it was to meet the challenge of how to deliver justice and punish perpetrators while restoring the fabric of society.

After a series of deliberations, the government then instituted Gacaca (meaning grass) courts for restoring justice. It is a justice system, which evolved from a mix of traditional and modern approaches.

Officially established in 2002, Gacaca brought together survivors, perpetrators and witnesses before locally-chosen judges to tell the truth about what happened during the genocide and to determine consequences for the perpetrators. In 10 years, over 1.9 million cases were tried in over 120,000 community based courts.

The Rwandan Genocide of 1994 was long in coming. The Rwandan people are compartmentalised into 18 clans. The people are essentially the same. They speak the same language. They live together in the same communities. Even the classification of the people as Tutsis and Hutus was an economic device, brought upon them by the colonialists. Those who had 10 cows and more were labelled Tutsis and the rest Hutus. The colonial authorities introduced the identity card in 1932 and considered the Tutsis as more intelligent. This bifurcation also served to accentuate the feelings of distrust and resentment amongst the people.

A mainly Christian country, with the Catholic Church as the primary denomination, the people lived without the precepts of their faiths. For many decades, love was a scarce commodity. Many of them were consumed by hatred. The people misapprehended the country’s future and forgot its history of a tolerant society. Thus when in 1959, King Ruhinga died, this led to the massacre of the Tutsis.

The inter-ethnic and economic relations in the country further deteriorated in the subsequent years. The coup of Major General Juvenal Habyarimana in 1973 was supposed to arrest the unwholesome situation, but that did not happen. Over 700,000 Tutsis were exiled between 1959 and 1973 through systematic ethnic cleansing.

Following pressures from within and outside the country, Habyarimana declared a multi-party system in 1990. However, this turned out to be a lip service to accommodating the democratic tenets of a free society, with different tendencies.

Habyarimana’s Movement for the Democratic Republic was responsible for the creation and nurturing of the dangerous Hutu youth wing. They advocated for Hutu pre-eminence. The emergence of death squads inevitably emerged. Interestingly, the Movement for Democratic Republic was made up of both moderates and extremists members.

The Rwandan Patriotic Fund was formed as a response to all of this. In October 1990, the RPF invaded the country and civil war was threatened. Propaganda on all sides only served to worsen the situation. In 1990, the Hutu 10 Commandments was published. It was an excursion in hatred. Most publications and broadcasting outfits in the country took sides. Radio TV Libre des Mille Collines was considered a hate station. General Paul Kagame, the leader of the RPF was routinely vilified.

Essentially, the international community did little to curb the deteriorating situation. Instead of the UN to increase its presence, the UN forces were recalled. UN Commander General Romeo Dallaire asked for more troops after the crash. He got none.

When one of the Hutu protagonists, Hassan Ngeze wrote two articles predicting the death of Juvenal Habyarimana in March 1994, it was generally interpreted that the President’s fellow Hutus were tired of his attempt to make some compromises. For them, it was a zero sum game: there must be no place for the Tutsis. On April 6, 1994, Juvenal Habyarimana and the President of Burundi Cyprien Ntayamira died in a plane crash, just as the plane prepared to land in Kigali. That became the catalyst that unleashed the horror that has become known as the Rwanda Genocide. In two weeks, over 800,000 people were killed in an orgy of violence never seen on the African continent.


The RPF took the destiny of the country in its hand, waged a war to stop the genocide and emerged victorious in July 1994.

Most of those who perpetrated the genocide escaped to neighbouring Zaire. Over two million refugees were in Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zaire. As to be expected, there was resistance to the reconciliation efforts. An incident on March 18, 1997 at the Nyange Secondary School illustrates this. Some of the bandits had entered the school and wanted to divide the children. The students refused to be separated as Hutus and Tutsis. Many of them were subsequently murdered.

Today, Rwanda is a peaceful and progressive country. Thanks to the efforts of President Paul Kagame and the ruling class. You will not only see the beautiful city of Kigali, you will see a city that is neat and orderly. Security is taken as a Categorical Imperative. Everywhere you turn, you will see police and soldiers with guns, ensuring the peace. Towns and villages in the countryside on the way to and from Lake Kivu are also neat and orderly.

In Rwanda, it is clear that security of lives and property is the primary duty of government. Rwandans you talk to are generally proud of their country.

• Ohwahwa, a former Editor of The Guardian on Sunday, was recently in Rwanda.

In this article:
Kigali Genocide Memorial
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