Reflections on the Rwanda Genocide

We have visited two countries on this trip where genocide played a huge part in the recent history of the country, Rwanda and Cambodia. After visiting Rwanda we really wanted to write something about what we learned there, but we are ashamed to say that we never took the time. So now, after leaving Cambodia, we want to share the facts about both genocides so you can know more about them. This blog will focus on the genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994 and we will post another one focusing on Cambodia and the atrocities that happened there in the near future.

Genocide is a relatively new word, coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin during the Holocaust and officially recognized during Nuremberg trials in 1948. The word is a Graeco-Latin combination for the words race (genos) and killing (cidium). Genocide is the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group. Some of the more recent examples of this were the mass killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in Turkey after World War 1, The Nazis in World War 2, the Bosnian War, and the current situation Darfur, Sudan. Sadly, the list is very long of atrocities that date back many centuries documenting the slaughter of entires populations.

It’s been nearly seven months since we have been in Rwanda but many things still remain very clear in our memories: the wonderful people, the beautiful countryside, the national parks and the Genocide. Although we only spent two weeks in the Rwanda, we were able to see a good deal of the country as it isn’t very large. One common site on our bus rides were village memorials constructed to victims. It was astounding to flip through our guidebooks and read how many towns had 10,000 people murdered in a matter of days. In fact, the whole situation lasted just 100 days and killed nearly one million people – roughly 10% of the population. By all accounts, this was the most efficient mass killing in human history. One of the most disturbing parts to learn about were how the victims were killed. With bullets being a valuable resource, most people were killed by dull machetes or crude instruments such as metal pipes or logs, while babies were smashed head first into walls or trees. When the militias had a large group, they would cut victims Achilles tendon so they couldn’t run away while they waited their turn to be killed. Our tear jerking day spent at the Memorial Museum in Kigali was extremely informative and opened our eyes about what happened just 17 years ago.

This horrible tale has roots that date back to Belgian colonialism and deserves a short recap to understand how this came to happen. The race to colonize Africa by European nations started several hundred years ago, and Germany ended up coming to power in several countries in East Africa. This all ended after World War 1, when Germany was forced to hand these colonies over. The Belgians ended up in Rwanda and took a much more direct approach to running the country. While there has always been an established ethnic divide between the Hutu and Tutsi communities, they lived in harmony for centuries. Tutsi were predominantly cattle-owners while Hutu were land-owners, but neither of these generalizations were set in stone. Intermarriage and status changes allowed people to move between the two tribes. The Belgians soon changed this as they considered the tribes completely different races, promoting Tutsi supremacy believing that they were smarter. A class system was soon created and ID cards were issued clearly stating your ethnicity. If physical appearance or family didn’t determine your tribe for the purposes of their ID card then it came down to how many cattle you owned. More than ten meant that you were Tutsi, less than ten a Hutu. All positions of authority within the Belgian administration were given to Tutsi, as well the majority of land and business ownership. Needless to say, this created resentment and laid the groundwork for the issues that would arise down the road. As Rwandan independence neared in 1959, the Belgians changed their allegiance to the Hutu in hopes that commercial ventures in the future would be better served under Hutu leadership.

In the decade leading up to the genocide, the state-controlled press broadcast a constant stream of anti-Tutsi propaganda, including the Hutu “Ten Commandments” that portrayed any interaction with Tutsis as verging on the criminal. You might remember this from the movie Hotel Rwanda. The Interahamwe Youth Militia became increasingly popular among young Hutu and a series of small-scale massacres of Tutsis helped accustom the nation to the idea that this was normal behaviour. Then all hell broke loose with the assassination of the President in April 1994. No one knows for sure who shot down his plane, but it unleashed what can only be described as 100 days of pure madness.

The Interahamwe systematically marched through villages slaughtering every Tutsi they could find. Hutus found harboring Tutsis were also murdered. The vision of several crazed men soon poisoned the whole population, with neighbors killing each other and longtime friends turning in loved ones to death squads. No place was safe at the time; people who sought refuge in churches were usually turned in by priests and murdered. Several churches act as memorials where thousands were killed. This wasn’t just a few men committing these crimes; it is thought that over 200,000 Hutus were involved in killing Tutsis. One survivor quote that stood out to us was “5% of the population was good, 5% was neutral, the other 90% was evil.” The mob mentality sure does spread quickly.

Eventually the Rwandan Patriotic Front and thousands of Tutsi refugees invaded Rwanda from neighboring Uganda and the Interahamwe fled to neighboring DRC. The streets of Rwanda were littered with bodies and the economy was at a standstill – the country would need many years to recover from this emotional and financial disaster. Thousands of dogs had to be killed because they had developed a taste for human flesh. Once things settled, the leader of the RPF, Paul Kagame, was voted president and continues to rule to this day. He has done great things to restoring order and optimism. Sadly, it took several years for the horror to stop, as Tutsis would commit revenge killings and the Interahamwe would cross the DRC border for sporadic massacres.

With so many responsible for the atrocities in Rwanda, bringing justice to victims has been challenging. The heads of the militia and the men responsible for the propaganda are currently being tried by an international criminal tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, while locals who committed crimes on a smaller scale (we use this term lightly) are being tried locally within their own communities by their peers.

You might be asking yourself, why didn’t the international community intervene in this mess? That is great question, one that we kept asking ourselves, but not one that is easily answered. The UN and France both played roles in this that could have prevented or reduced the severity of the situation, but did nothing. Maybe they even made it worse in many ways by supplying aid to fuel the attacks. The US and other countries might have been wary to help after our botched peacekeeping missions in Africa, specifically Somalia. Bill Clinton has said not helping in Rwanda was the biggest regret he has from his time in office.

One might expect the people of Rwanda to be bitter and resentful, not only at their fellow countrymen that killed their loved ones and they must live amongst, but at the international community who did nothing to help them when they needed it most. But we found quite the opposite, a country full of warm smiles and people who are optimistic about the future. While they will never forget and most likely never forgive, they are doing their best to move on with life.

Kigali Memorial Center
One of the many graves at the memorial center
The famous Hotel Rwanda (Hotel Des Mille Collines)

More Monkey Business

So there we were…entering Parc National De Nyungwe in search of our closest living genetic ancestor, when off in the distance, we heard their distinctive ‘pant-hoot’ echo throughout the forest.

The equatorial rain forest of Nyungwe National Park lies on the western side of Rwanda and chimpanzee tracking is one of its top attractions.  The problem is that the park is largely undeveloped for tourists, so we had a hard time (without paying a fortune) trying to figure out how to actually get and stay at the park to see the chimps.  After two frustrating days in the gateway city of Huye, we threw in the towel, bought tickets back to the capital city of Kigali and decided chimp tracking wasn’t meant to be.  Defeated, we went to dinner and with a quick change of luck (and a few beers), we met a group of 12 lawyers from London who were heading out to Nyungwe the very next day.  With only a portion of the 12 going and a few members that had backed out, there was room for us in their car, an extra hotel room for us (at the only hotel out there) and two open spots to track chimps which they had already reserved!  They were such a fantastic group of people and we had a blast spending a few days with them.  Thank you to Julia, Kate, Ben, Paul and Rachel for allowing us to join your chimp excursion, you guys were GREAT and we had a wonderful time!

Arriving at the park, we came upon a beautiful rain forest surrounded by miles of tea plantations.  The bright green tea leafs provided an amazing contrast to the dark green trees  of the forest.  With 13 species of primates including more than 500 chimpanzees, Nyungwe is said to have the highest density of primates in the whole continent of Africa, which is quite amazing.

A 4:30 am wake up call had us up before the sun for the hour drive to the trail head to start our chimp tracking.  Chimpanzees move very quickly in the dry season, the fruit trees are limited with food so they eat what they can and then move to a new area.  If you don’t catch them up in the trees, the dense forest makes the chimps very hard to track on the ground.  Our trackers had already found them when we arrived at the trail head and a brisk 30 minute walk brought us to one of their main feeding areas.

Chimpanzees can be much more difficult to track than their cousins the mountain gorilla. They are hard to spot staying high up in the canopy, swinging from branch to branch, moving with lighting speed.  The most wonderful part was standing in the forest and hearing their ‘pant-hoot’ all around you.  Making you aware of their presence, the sound echos off the lush forest.  You can’t help but stop and feel awed to be in the presence of such an incredible wild creature.  While photographs were difficult to capture, just watching and observing them all around you was a magnificent experience.  Our wonderful morning ended when the family of chimps we were watching descended from the tree tops, disappeared into the underbrush and left us hearing the spectacular ‘pant-hoot’ once again off in the distance.

Highlights

  • Hiking through Nyungwe to find the chimps high up in the tree tops and hearing their distinct ‘pant-hoot’ all around us in the forest
  • Having several close encounters with the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, and watching the local people go nuts when he rolls into town.  Elections are happening in a few weeks and he is touring the country for his campaign and he has been everywhere we are.
  • Spotting a total of six primate species in Nyungwe, they seemed to be everywhere

Lowlights

  • Rainy days in the town of Gisenyi on Lake Kivu, we were hoping for some lounge out time on the water, but the rain kept us inside and bored
  • Even though our Lonely Planet guidebook is only a year old, none of the information for Rwanda seems to be right.  Buildings have been moved and prices have doubled or tripled leaving us always surprised and confused when figuring out our way around

PS – sorry some of the pictures are dark, with no flash, they were hard to photograph.  Also, lots of people have been asking about more pics, the internet is very slow here and it is hard to upload more than what we have here.  Will try to upload some albums to Facebook when we have a better connection.  Thanks for reading!

Chimp high up in the tree top

Doing the 'pant-hoot' high up in the trees
Baby chimp through the trees
Our gang for tracking
Mountain monkey we also saw in Nyungwe
Tea plantations surrounded by Nyungwe forest