Serena, Dani and I paddled out of Lake Bunyonyi in the morning sunshine, in a deep dugout canoe crafted out of a single log. Our taxi-driver friend Jackson met us at the dock and drove us about 45 minutes south to the Ugandan/Rwandan border. We got our Uganda exit stamps and trudged down the red-dusty road to the Rwandan side, trailed by a pack of money-changers vying to buy our Ugandan shillings. “Sister, Sister, change money!” No one, not even the Forex currency exchange office at the border, offered better than a lousy 2.5 percent exchange rate. We kept our shillings, got our passports stamped and ran over to a bus to Kigali that idled on the road waiting for us to jog up, panting, and get on.
The hour-and-a-half drive southeast to Kigali, in the center of the small country, passed jutting green hills and mountains terraced with crops, and deep valleys that dropped into villages, rivers and farms. There is a peaceful, almost idyllic feeling in the countryside that belies everything that happened here in the not-so-distant past.
Reading up on Rwanda’s history, its long civil war that culminated in a horrifying 100 days of genocide in 1994, I had expected the emotional toll to have scarred the land and the people, the unsettled ghosts of the slaughtered million to continue haunting the country and everyone in it. So I was surprised to see people smiling, laughing, going about their everyday business as if unburdened by the momentous cruelty that had happened here just 16 years ago. I had read that Rwanda has healed remarkably, the tribal lines of the warring Hutu and Tutsis dissolved, everyone simply Rwandans now. This is impressive and a wonderful example of the difficult human capacity to forgive, and yet … Maybe it’s because I’m an outsider, because my immediate association with Rwanda is that of genocide, but I looked at everyone over a certain age and I wondered: Which side were you on? What role did you play? Did you do any of the killing? What memories rise up when you close your eyes?
I can’t be the only one who thinks like this; indeed, Serena and Dani confirmed that they harbored the same ideas. Maybe the more time we spend in Rwanda the less we’ll be consumed by the atrocities that happened to it and in it. Maybe we’ll be able to move beyond all that and appreciate what — at first blush anyway — is a beautiful and vibrant place, with a capital city that comes alive at night in a million little lights scattered along the hills.
The day we arrived in Rwanda was Dani’s birthday, and we didn’t want to spoil it by focusing too much on the genocide. We skipped the memorial museum and opted for a bar that showed the World Cup games on two screens — coincidentally, the England (vs. Slovakia) match on one, the U.S. (vs. Albania) on the other. Both our countries won their respective matches and advanced to the next round, putting us all in a good mood that extended to a really delicious Indian dinner at the Khana Khazana restaurant. Expats abounded in both places, making it hard to believe at times that we were really in Africa.
Today we will visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. It’s important and valuable that we do this, but here in our room, typing this under another in a series of mosquito bed nets, my guts tense up just thinking about it.
The next day …
We spent four hours at the Memorial Centre, and while there I heard and saw images and details about the Rwandan genocide that will stay with me for a long, long time. The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre is impressive in its roles as a source of education, of healing, and as a dignified resting place for some 300,000 victims (and growing, as remains are still being found). I know so much more now about what happened in Rwanda than I did when I walked in (not to mention the histories of other genocides … Armenians, Jews, Serbs, Cambodians and more) and yet there are some things I will never understand. Why did the killers have to be so barbaric, why did they have to cause as much suffering as possible, why did they have to torture even babies and children? What turns an ordinary person into a savage killer who enjoys inflicting agony on others, including people they had known, liked, lived with? How was it that not even the churches were a safe haven, priests betraying their own congregants?
On display was some of the anti-Tutsi propaganda circulated by the extremist Hutus before the genocide, and it struck me as remarkably similar to the hate rants spewed by the likes of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh. Arguments built on lies, designed to foster distrust and fear, to divide, to demonize those who don’t share your politics or your race or your religion or your sexual orientation or your nationality. What I saw at the Memorial Centre was “us vs. them” carried out to its most extreme conclusion, hate and fear turning average people into crazed killers. It happened here in Rwanda; it could happen anywhere, and even now in my own country the seeds of this insane mob mentality are being planted and cultivated and nurtured, all under the guise of a pleasant, civilized name … Tea Party. How lovely that sounds.
That evening we went to the Hotel des Milles Collines, depicted in the film “Hotel Rwanda.” Its manager, Paul Ruesesabagina, sheltered thousands of people there during the 100 days of madness, saving them from the slaughter. We read other accounts of such heroism in the Memorial Centre, people risking their own lives to save others, and it was a good thing to remember after all that graphic, disturbing evidence of human cruelty and weakness. At the hotel I met a man named Adollphe who was a Tutsi, who was 16 in 1994 and whose father, a community leader, had been among the first to die. Adollphe was saved, along with the rest of his family, hiding in a church. He felt lucky; his father had been shot and not tortured, the rest of his family spared. He and his mother and siblings have good jobs, good lives now. But he assured us that, despite outward appearances, despite how much the country has moved forward and the people have gotten on with their lives, the ghosts are still there, always there. How could they not be?
Out in the street we saw a beggar whose four limbs had obviously been hacked off, and we knew exactly what had happened to him. He’s probably the only surviving member of his family, and no one else gives a damn about him now, because everyone’s got a story like that. Despite my “food only, not money” policy with beggars, which Serena and Dani share, we gave him both food and money. It won’t help the guy in the long run, this man whose past and present and future was ripped away in his youth by someone to whom he had done nothing. It probably only helped to make us feel a little less guilty about our own good luck of the draw, to have been born and raised in safe places, never knowing horror like this.