The Trip of a Lifetime: Rwanda – Chapter One

Mr Nomad and I have yearned to fulfill a dream to trek through the jungle in attempts to spot mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. We had planned to do this trip a year ago but with the onset of the global pandemic, a world wide lock down and even an evacuation, that dream looked remote. However, a chance came to embark upon this journey to Rwanda with great friends to try to discover the gorillas that reside in the mountains and we grasped the opportunity with both hands, notwithstanding that there were many hurdles to overcome with travelling including tests for Covid prior to flying, completing passenger locator forms, a test for Covid at the airport in Rwanda, quarantine in a designated hotel and a further Covid test to enable us to fly back to Kenya. This was all very necessary but there was a rather large amount of paper work and quite a lot of additional expense but as we have previously come to realise, time waits for no-one.

After a negative result from our first Covid test, and the voluminous health forms, we excitedly set off for Rwanda. After a short flight of only an hour or so, we landed in Kigali, the country’s capital city and proceeded on through numerous health checks and a further Covid test. We were taken straight to our hotel where we were to quarantine until the results were ascertained.

We arrived at the Manor Hotel in Kigali around 30 minutes later and from that short journey, we were astounded to see how green and lush the landscape looked. We were forbidden from leaving the hotel and had to stay in our ‘bubble’ at all times, dining separately from other hotel guests and unable to utilize the swimming pool, or visit the bar but the views from the balcony in our room and the designated restaurant were stunning. There was a mist that seemed to hang in the air but I guess this was because of the humidity. Rwanda is a country at altitude and has a temperate tropical highland climate and when we arrived, it was incredibly warm and muggy.

Rwanda, or more formally, the Republic of Rwanda, is a land locked country in the Great Rift Valley where the African Great Lakes region converge with East Africa. It is one of the smallest countries in Africa and is bordered by Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania and Barundi. It is known as the “land [country] of a thousand hills” because it is dominated by rugged mountains and rolling hills, and of course, volcanoes. It is however, one of the poorest countries in the world with a distinct lack of natural resources. There are five provinces within the country and there is a population of approximately 12,000,000.

The topography was starkly different to Kenya and there were endless hills and mountains along an undulating landscape, with dense forest and jungle covering those hills and mountains. There was rich greenery and vegetation all around, and notably, the city from what we had seen from our drive through was remarkably clean. There was no litter, no graffiti, no grubby trappings of a modern and bustling city and at no time did we come across street beggars, homeless people, vagrants and hawkers. According to Wikipedia, Rwanda has been ranked 5th cleanest out of 47 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and 55th cleanest out of 175 countries in the entire world. We could certainly tell and it was a pleasant surprise. Kigali itself has been rated as being the cleanest city in Africa!

In addition to the beautiful back drop which we stared at longingly from our balcony, and the exceedingly clean surroundings, the transport system was second to none. Unlike Kenya, the roads were tarmac throughout – no dirt tracks or ‘murram’ roads. There were no pot holes and the roads were very well maintained, with lines painted on the tarmac, kerbs, cats eyes, traffic lights and roundabouts which were used appropriately. Everything seemed to incredibly civilized but relaxed, and there was a lack of chaos on the roads.

Rwandans are drawn from only one cultural and linguistic group, known as Banyarwanda. The principal language is Kinyarwanda. I found that most people we came into contact with spoke English to a reasonable standard in addition to their mother tongue, and most could speak French too. This one group of Rwandan people used to be split into 3 sub-groups – Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. ‘Twa’ or ‘Batwa’ were forest dwelling pygmy people who made up only 1% of Rwanda’s population. The Hutu and Tutsi divisions were made during the colonial era. Germany had colonised Rwanda around 1884, followed by Belgium in or around 1916.

The Tutsi’s in the main, kept livestock and were considered to have a privileged or elevated social status whereas the Hutu were more agricultural. Belgium favoured the minority Tutsi and perpetrated pro-Tutsi policy although after a Hutu revolt in 1959 and a massacre of Tutsi, a Hutu dominated society developed post 1962. In 1973, there was a military coup but pro-Hutu policies remained.

This all sowed the seeds of discord and in 1990, the Tutsi led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) launched into a civil war. On 6th April 1994, the President of Rwanda, Habyarimana, and the President of Barundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira, both of whom were Hutu’s, were shot down in their air craft and killed. Social tensions erupted and the following day on 7th April 1994, the genocide of the Tutsi’s commenced.

Rwanda’s history is bleak and I can recall seeing harrowing scenes on the television but the international response to the ensuing genocide was non-existent. In the end, Hutu extremists slaughtered an estimated 1,000,000 Tutsi’s and moderate Hutu. The genocide ended around 100 days later with the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) declaring a military victory.

Given that we were visiting this beautiful country, it was fitting to pay our respects and we attended at Kigali Genocide Memorial the day after our arrival, once a negative result had been confirmed from the Covid test taken at the airport.

Kigali Genocide Memorial is the final resting place for over 250,000 victims of the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994. It is a sobering place of remembrance and learning, to honour the victims of the genocide. When we arrived, we were guided around three exhibitions which had been prepared in the most dignified way but were harrowing and brutal. The memorial was in a beautiful building and surrounded by beautiful gardens and whilst there was an element of peace in the surroundings, this could not detract from the horrors held within the museum, with graphic pictures and powerful narratives reminding us that Rwanda is still a country in mourning.

The first exhibition came in two parts. The first part gave an outline of Rwandan society before colonisation and the second part detailed the planned nature and horror of the genocide against the Tutsi as well as stories of survival and rescue. It was shocking and traumatising to learn that there had been plans afoot for genocide in the run up to 1994 but the international community remained silent and seemingly sat back and watched as the eradication of Tutsi unfolded and horrifying and unforgivable acts of extreme violence took place.

There was no mercy shown and such was the power of the feelings of hatred towards Tutsi after significant propaganda, neighbours and friends turned on each other and whole families in villages were slaughtered in a primitive fashion, being hacked at with machetes, spears and knives with torture being common place. Sexual violence was rife along with crude genital mutilation. It is estimated that 250,000-500,000 women were raped and they still bear the legacy today as many were infected with HIV/AIDS and many bore children.

Children were no exception to the rule and were also targeted. There was no sanctuary, no refuge, no place of safety and a massacre took place around 15th April 1994 in Nyarubuye Roman Catholic Church where around 20,000 Tutsi’s were murdered. The church was bull dozed with the occupants inside, and any survivors were then systemically hacked to death. The local priest, Athanase Seromba, was later found guilty and imprisoned for life for his role in this.

Road blocks had been set up and identity cards checked as people fled and the Tutsi’s and moderate Hutu were destroyed rapidly with a level of unexpected barbarity.

In Murambi, there was a school where an estimated 27,000 were slaughtered. In Nyamata, a church offered no refuge to 2,500 people who perished. There is a memorial site here which has become emblematic of the barbaric treatment of women. It focuses on the rape and brutalisation perpetrated against women and the use of HIV as a deliberate weapon of the genocide. At Ntarama, an hours drive southwards from Kigali, a red brick church became the site of the murders of around 5000 people, mostly women and children. At Bisero, a place in the hills of Kibuye Province in West Rwanda, 30,000 people were killed. In Nyanza, 2000 Tutsi’s sought sanctuary in a school which was protected by the United Nations peace keeping force. Unfortunately, the UN withdrew in the face of such adversity whereupon all of the Tutsi’s were marched out onto the street and butchered.

Thousands of bodies were dumped into the Kagera river which ran along the northern border between Rwanda and Uganda and flowed into Lake Victoria. Not only did this poison the water, it soured relations between Rwanda and Uganda and decimated fish populations. The relationship with Uganda is to this day, precarious as following the genocide, around 2,000,000 Hutu extremists fled there and to the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) causing further tension in an already de-stabilised country. In 1996, the Rwandan Patriotic Front-led Rwandan government launched an offensive into the DRC which had become the home of the exiled leaders of the former Rwandan government and Hutu refugees which started the First Congo War, killing an estimated 200,000 people. There were continuing repercussions from the genocide in Rwanda which clearly perpetuated further atrocities.

Whilst the Twa people made up only 1% of Rwanda’s population, they too were caught in the cross fire and were killed. Out of an estimated population of only 30,000 Twa, around 10,000 were butchered. It is estimated that around 400,000 children were orphaned with at least 85,000 of those children becoming the head of a household.

Exhibition two is entitled ‘Wasted Lives.’ This section documents other massacres around the world which have not officially been recognised as genocide in international law. Some of the atrocities recognised here include Namibia, Armenia, Cambodia, the Balkans and the Holocaust. Needless to say, it was heart wrenching to comprehend that genocide is still going on around the world and lessons fail to be learnt.

Exhibition three within the Genocide Memorial was entitled the ‘Children’s Room.’ This was dedicated to the memory of the children slaughtered in the genocide and this really was too much to bear. There are no words to express how utterly bereft I felt in this section of the memorial. After seeing the bony remains of victims, personal effects found with their bodies, photographs of victims, stories from survivors of loss and devastation, of the terror felt in such desperate circumstances, this final exhibition left me profoundly distraught but angry that human beings continue to be the cruelest and most destructive race.

Within the grounds of the Memorial, there are mass graves which are laid out in three main rows. Since 2001, over 250,000 victims have been laid to rest here. Every year, more people are brought for a dignified burial as the remains of victims in unmarked graves continue to be uncovered throughout the country. It was disturbing to see an open grave amongst the concreted blocks, to allow for the burial of the bodies that are still unrecovered. There is a Wall of Names which was a poignant reminder that many people from the same family were slaughtered. This wall of names had only a small percentage of names on it and the Memorial admits that this wall is a work in progress as many of those who rest in the graves are unknown.

Despite the horrors contained in the Memorial building, the surrounding gardens were stunning and entitled the Gardens of Reflection. Each level or layer within the gardens had their own name and Mr Nomad and I wandered silently and solemnly around the Gardens of Unity, Division and Reconciliation, the Rose Gardens, the Garden of Self Protection, The Provinces of Rwanda Garden, the Flower of Life Garden and the Forest of Memory in quiet contemplation. There were waterfalls and fountains flowing between each garden, bringing to life these fitting tributes. This was apparently created to reflect the tears of the visitors.

Every year, there is a commemoration period which begins on 7th April and ends on 4th July – the three months that the genocide against the Tutsi’s lasted for in 1994. A torch is lit within the grounds to commemorate and remember, and the Rwandan flag is lowered to half mast out of respect for the dead.

Following the genocide, there was a period entitled ‘reconciliation and justice.’ A concept was introduced called Ubumuntu which translates to ‘champion humanity’. These are values which remain close to any Rwandan person’s heart. One has to wonder how a country and its people could ever recover from such atrocities but Rwanda is a country that has been forgiving and seems to have progressed greatly.

The country is stunningly beautiful and clean and the people are proud that there is little corruption, particularly when compared to other African nations. Education is fee-free (for most children) and the transport infrastructure is fantastic. Aid was provided to Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide from the United States of America, the European Union and Japan amongst others but this was really only for transport purposes. Health care remains poor and is dominated by communicable diseases with an HIV/AIDS epidemic. In 1998, it was reported that 1 in 5 children died before their 5th birthday (often from malaria) although these statistics have improved since then, along with mortality rates in adults too.

A law was later passed in relation to identity cards and there is no longer an ethnic division of Tutsi or Hutu. The residents of Rwanda are now referred to as Rwandans. Our kindly guide who ferried us around Rwanda and remained with us for the duration of our trip had some incredibly interesting if not horrifying tales to tell and he also pointed out to us that it is now considered offensive to ask if somebody is Hutu or Tutsi, the implications of which being obvious.

He also explained to us that his family had fled to Barundi in the early 1990’s, and after the genocide, trekked their way back to Rwanda over the hills and mountains for over 7 days, and he himself at only 13 years of age, was enlisted to fight with the Rwandan Patriotic Front. He lost three brothers in the ensuing carnage but he lived to tell the tales of the genocide. One cannot begin to imagine the horrors that this man witnessed at such a young age, along with thousands of other men, women and children.

It is my hope that humanity would never allow this to take place again but one only has to wander through exhibition two within Kigali Genocide Memorial to be reminded that we, as a race, never seem to learn.

Rwanda is an enchanting place with stunning countryside but with a dark history and although there have been significant improvements over the years, and massive progress made in re-building, the country still remains incredibly poor. Tourism is on the up as it should be in this spectacular place, with the majority of the countries’ revenue coming from the the costs associated with the permits granted to enter the Volcanoes National Park to see mountain gorillas.

So after a rather difficult but poignant and humbling day in facing up to Rwanda’s past, we braced ourselves for the following day’s adventure – the trip of a life time – the trek into the jungle to track down the rare and endangered mountain gorillas.


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