Kigali, Rwanda

Kigali is like Singapore.

Clean and green streets. Well-developed and modern. Good food (especially in contrast to the rest of Rwanda, where it’s usually cold buffets full of starch), with plenty of international variety. Pretty, great to live in but not so much to do as a visitor. Odd rules (no plastic bags in Rwanda; no chewing gum in Singapore) that keep the cleanliness. Easy, comfortable, cheap (but expensive compared to surrounding cities/countries), convenient. This is probably the first place in Africa I’ve been where I wouldn’t hesitate to say I could live here comfortably. But there’s something slightly below the surface politically. Like in Singapore, most people feel fine to just live with it, but for some others, it causes unease.

Nevertheless, it’s undeniable how effective the government has been in the whole country, building it again in just two decades and surpassing all of its neighbours. It’s absolutely impossible to imagine this as the city where bodies were strewn all over the thousand hills, covered in blood for years. That city has been virtually replaced, save for the topography. Given all they’ve been through, it’s no wonder the populace seems to have little to complain about.

The movie Hotel Rwanda was based on the story from this luxury hotel, which still exists and serves guests

Again being connected by Carla, I met and hung out for four days with Seth, a genocide orphan. The government has really taken care of him too. Found as a two-year-old hidden in a bush in western Rwanda surrounded by corpses being consumed by dogs, he was brought to one of the many orphanages opened in the wake of the genocide, where he spent a whole 22 years being well-taken care of along with five other orphans — his new family. He doesn’t remember the genocide or his parents, though he’s been told who they were. Upon the government’s recent decision to close all orphanages and find orphans new homes with relatives, due to his background as a Tutsi orphan with no living relatives (and interestingly enough, only Tutsis were eligible), he was selected as one of just 150 people to be further aided through university, with education and living completely paid for. He lives in a beautiful apartment compound with other now-adult orphans, with meals cooked for them. In essence, as tough as it’s been to live without a family or a permanent home, he’s in a significant situation of privilege compared to the state of poverty many in the country live in. He is incredibly grateful for the government support, and far from taking advantage of the freebies, he wishes more than anything to show gratitude through academic, professional, and personal success through hard work (he wants to be a doctor, and it requires top grades to get into med school: the government decides which university and what program you go into based on your preferences and performance), using the boosts they’ve given him.

Nevertheless, I was a little bit tepid to have had him accompany me to three genocide memorials, but as he put it, the genocide is to him what it is to me: a horrifying event in history, never to be repeated, with fascinating and deeply emotional stories from each place and memorial. Even as we looked at skulls and bones and I very belatedly came to the horrifying thought that Seth could have been among those remains, he simply shrugged. I don’t blame him: how could you live thinking about stuff like that all the time?

We saw more remnants of the violence: in nearby Nyamata, 10,000 people were killed while seeking refuge in a church. The Hutu assailants, many of whom were Christian, attacked their fellow Christian parishioners who they had gotten along with completely, up to the point of the genocide. An Italian nun seeking to stem the hatred and violence was instead killed herself. The iron gate to the church was bent apart, the doors pried open, and the entrance to the church is still pockmarked with the evidence of grenades. The interior of the church and the ceiling are riddled with bullet holes. As a memorial, all of the church pews were piled with the clothes of the victims, with telltale holes and tears suggesting bullets and machetes. Sure enough, in the basement, the displayed skulls featured bullet holes in foreheads and split skulls, even babies.

Also nearby in Ntarama, another church suffered a similar fate. Tutsi families had previously taken refuge during periods of violence, waiting it out every time. They had clearly thought the genocide was another “small wave” that would pass: on display was burnt children’s books and homework, bags of food to last maybe a week, and mattresses to sleep on — which were doused in fuel by the Hutu assailants, and used to burn the church kitchen where Tutsis were still alive. Some bloodstained ID cards were displayed, with the “ethnicity” classification still visible: “Tutsi”. The Sunday school room may be the most haunting thing I’ve ever seen, even after Murambi — while the room may be cleaned, on the wall behind the neat benches is a black stain on the bricks. Babies were held by one leg and smashed to death on that wall: that’s blood there that they can’t wash out. And the church hall itself, seemingly so serene, turned into a death trap for all who barricaded themselves in there. Bricks were hacked away and removed to make way for grenades to be thrown inside.

The Kigali Genocide Memorial (KGM), the final resting place of over 250,000 victims (roughly a quarter), displayed some rather graphic photos of victims both dead and injured, some with open and bleeding gashes from machetes. Less hard to look at but no less emotional, there were walls lined with family photos of victims: all regular people, smiling, some goofing off and posing. There’s also a room featuring children: their names, a family photo, their ages (6 months, 2 years, 4 years, 10 years…), their favourite foods (chips was a common one, as was Fanta), their best friend (sister, mother, aunt), their personalities, their last words, and their cause of death (tortured, stabbed in the eyes, smashed on a wall, bludgeoned, crushed, hacked by a machete, shot… who does these things to children?!).

In addition to providing photos and a thorough history leading up to the genocide, including a section critical of the UN’s hypocrisy and euphemisms (“ethnic tensions”) that were used as excuses not to intervene and a heavy blame on the French who were providing arms to the pro-Hutu government, the KGM shared many personal stories. Strangers killed other strangers, and rape (leading to HIV infection and pregnancies) and mutilation often occured. Some were forced to kill their loved ones or even their own children, before themselves being killed. Friends, whose children used to play together, who used to take care of each other, were suddenly pitted against each other. Tutsis would ask their Hutu friends why they had to be killed. Many were merciless. Students killed their teachers. Others killed their neighbours. Some priests and nuns led Hutu assailants to where their Tutsi parishioners were hiding. Many survivors could name, on camera, the person they witnessed killing their father, mother, brother, sister, child… or even attempt to take their life. One woman, voice trembling, shared that she could no longer make or have friends anymore, because she trusted close friends before who senselessly killed her entire family. Others shared stories of survivor’s guilt, memories of their lost loved ones, the difficulties of life as a refugee, becoming the head of a household as a young orphan, the difficult years of discovering bodies all over the place, and how they’ve continued to live. Notably, some who felt helplessness in their own situations gained strength hearing about others’ different but equally helpless experiences.

Most interestingly, these people were asked whether they could forgive. Few said no. Most said yes, although one man pointed out he still didn’t know who to forgive since he didn’t know who killed his wife and son. He wanted the perpetrator to come forward and admit wrongdoing just so that he could forgive him. And as for Seth, he never did tell me; I didn’t ask. He now owns his family’s land, and the one time he visited, he saw the neighbours, those who either stood idly by or were complicit in the death of his parents. The looks he got were not great, and he doesn’t want to return there for awhile.

In the aftermath of the genocide, the justice system was flooded, so the high courts were only used to persecute the organisers of the genocide and those who spread hateful propaganda on the radio and newspapers, even some church leaders who preached messages of hate. Thousands of community courts called gacaca were established for the estimated nearly two million cases of those who had killed or maimed others. In front of at least 100 witnesses, if an accused admitted guilt and asked for forgiveness, half of their sentence would be commuted and they would also perform a period of community service. Though not without its problems, some survivors were able to learn who killed their loved ones, and many forgave them, and some also learned where their loved ones were located to give them a proper burial. Interestingly, some who were guilty expressed no contrition, serving their full sentences.

Rwanda has finally found peace, decades after independence. So it’s no wonder that people are sticking by their government, one which has finally stopped stoking ethnic tensions (…to a point: they’ve been involved in both of the “world wars” in the DR Congo, fighting the remnants of the Hutu Interahamwe, but the Rwandan government is now itself also facing accusations of war crimes and genocide there). But there are definitely some big flaws, to the point where some accuse it of running a dictatorship. People don’t really talk politics, for one thing. But dissent is often repressed, and some people do disappear. Seth openly acknowledges the former (and I didn’t bring up the latter). In his view, the government’s defending its goals of building an ethnically-blind, modern Rwanda with foreign investment and development. It’s afraid that opposition or dissenting voices are trojan horses for bringing ethnicity into the discussion all over again. When Paul Kagame feels like everyone’s on the same page, then perhaps avenues of opposition can be reopened. I can see this being somewhat reasonable, but gosh, it’s a slippery slope. Oh, and did I mention that this government is the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the Tutsi rebel party that defeated the genocidal pro-Hutu government, but also committed some Hutu massacres of their own? (The RPF’s version of history, which doesn’t include that last fact, is what I’ve been learning from the various genocide memorials and museums around the country.) For all it espouses of being all Rwandans, it’s still a mostly Tutsi government, though one that does have majority approval even from Hutus, including ones I’ve talked to.

This country is essentially 22 years old, having basically restarted after the genocide. Young countries have growing pains, and can’t be expected to immediately (or ever) behave the way we’d expect them to in the West. And as the African Union often espouses, Africa needs African solutions, and this definitely looks like one, as suspicious as it may seem to our eyes. There’s no other country in the world that’s gone through what Rwanda has. Despite pledging to abide by the two-term limit for presidency, Kagame ran a referendum last year to remove term limits, which the “yes” side won resoundingly. And who can blame the populace? Never mind the many imperfections, they’ve found stability for once, and there are no currently viable replacements. I don’t know whether it was a free-and-fair referendum or not, but you can clearly hear and see the large support base the government still has around the country, from talking to people to seeing enthusiastic bumper stickers. And to be honest? I do think this government is really holding the country together and preventing it from falling into ethnic clashes again. It’s waiting for the populace’s mentality to fully catch up, and it’s getting there.

This last picture is of the poorest neighbourhood in Kigali. Still quite orderly.

The city is vibrant and buzzing with energy. Gleaming new skyscrapers and hotels jut out from the city centre, and beautiful houses from every suburb — hardly a slum in sight. Foreign expats are everywhere. Colourful art galleries, posh restaurants and clubs are budding across town. A whole new generation is growing up without the past that haunts their predecessors, the one that holds them back. Perhaps time will tell whether the people will demand change — who knows, maybe it’s happening now, and I obviously can’t know just by spending 11 days in a country — and the government will release its grip, but for now, Rwanda certainly looks promising like never before.

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