Kigali Genocide Memorial:

Posted on: January 9, 2020, by :

Horror chambers that teach peace.

Can there be closure to painful memories of the past? Can one ever overcome the horror of a bad dream that became reality, having loved ones hacked to death and their bodies disposed of in the most undignifying manner?

Kigali Genocide Memorial in the Rwandan capital is pitched at the top of one of the multiple hills that cress-cross Kigali. From there one could see both the valley down and the other side of the Kigali. Radisson Blu Hotel and Conference Centre, Africa’s leading conference centre was very visible.

The Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, located at KG 14 Avenue, Gisozi, was opened in 2004 during the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The construction of the complex started in 1999. It has become one of the most visited places in Kigali. It is a place established for learning and to foster peace.

The museum is urbane and smart like any modern expansive office complex. Except for the name, nothing gives away any inkling to the horror that is captured inside the building. It has a white arc at the gate with Kigali Genocide Memorial bolded painted in black. Just like virtually every part of the Rwandan capital, Kigali, the compound is neat with trees and other ornamental plants generously used to give the area an air of tranquility. However, despite this vestige of tranquility, inside the museum are pictures, human remains, skulls and bones, clothes of victims soaked in blood, catalogues of children wiped out at the dawn of their lives. It leaves one with so many questions on the sanity of man and his capacity of man for evil. Kigali Genocide Memorial is a grim edifice that captures the horrors of war in its gory details. In the museum nothing is left to the imagination. It is a history of about 100 days, between April 7 1994 to mid July of the same year, when man’s capacity to reason and act rationally gave way to bestiality. It was a period when rationality gave way to temporary insanity in its crudest form. However, at the museum, time is frozen, despite the passing of years, the exhibits at the museum capture the insanity fresh. There would hardly be any human that would pass through the place that would not see the foolhardiness in man’s recourse to violence as a means of conflict resolution.

To understand the conflict of the Rwandan civil war that led to the genocide, it is important to have a brief history of the country. The Rwandan kingdom had existed for many years under the Tutsi rulers. During the colonial era, the country was colonized by Belgium. The colonial masters played up the ethnic divide among Uganda who hitherto had been living in peace with little or no conflicts. The three tribes in Rwanda as they were known then were the Tutsi, Hutu and the Twa. However, ethnicity has been abolished in Rwanda currently. The citizens are not identified by their ethnicity. Our tour guide, a staff of the museum who would not disclose his name , gave a brief history: “ The socio-economic classes where the Tutsi, the Hutu and lastly the Twa. The first class were said to be the Tutsis. They are the owners of cows. Second are the Hutus, said to be farmers and then the Twa Those classifications were not permanent; depending on life circumstances, the person will move from a Hutu, to become a Tutsi. We have many examples where Hutu became a Tutsi when their economic circumstance improved. We also have the reverse.

“Apart from that, talking about features, Rwandan people share almost everything. Ninety-nine per cent of our culture is the same; we share common beliefs and tradition. In addition to that, we share a common language, Kinyarwanda. We don’t have any other language apart from Kinyarwanda.

“Before the colonial era, we never experienced any major conflict that results to mass killings. There were some small conflicts like conflicts over land. Those are resolved within the community. The actual size of the country is 26,338 square kilometers. The second part will take us through the colonial times. Before we go there, I have to highlight that inter-marriages among Rwandan people also happens. A Tutsi could marry a Hutu and Hutu could marry a Tutsi. Geographically, they were living together; they were not separated. There was not part reserved for the Hutu or the Tutsi, they were all living side by side. We look at Rwanda during colonial times, it is from there that we would look at what really changed.”

The post-independence era in Rwanda brought with a residual of the mutual suspicion among the ethnic groups already sown by the colonial masters. This came to the fore in 1994 when the then Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, with his Burundian counterpart was shot down on April 7. Hutus went of reprisal attack. Within a period of 100 days that the genocide lasted, between 800,000 to 1000000 Tutsis, Twa and moderate Hutus were slaughter. The killing orgy came to an end when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) made up of Tutsi militias, led by the current President of Rwanda Paul Kigame invaded the Rwanda, took over government and brought the killing to an end.

Our tour guide: “At this memorial, about 250,000 persons were buried. We normally start with a short film which normally takes nine to 10 minutes.

There is no amount of pre-tour explanations that could prepare one for the sights inside the museum. The first shock was the pre-tour documentary of the museum. This takes place just at the entrance of the museum. About 25 persons or less sit for a video introduction to the Rwandan civil war. The documentary holds back nothing. It captures real life killings and how bodies are casually disposed of without qualm. It is touching and one was forced to put one’s emotions in check. However, not everybody could do that. Mid way into the documentary, a person in front let out a shrill shout of anguish, she could not hold back any more. Obviously the attendants were used to such show of emotions; they quickly went to her and gently led her out. This was to be a common sight throughout the tour of the museum; many, most especially those who lost loved ones, could not deal with the sight.

From the pre-tour video, the next activity was laying of wreath at the mass burial site. It is another section of the museum. The tour guide explained: “As I said more 250,000 persons are buried here. As you may understand, there is a shortage of names. The reason is that some families were completely wiped out during the genocide and there was no one who survived to give a kind of identification. But there is a current research that is going to go through 30 districts around the country. It has already gone through 17 districts and it has shown that 7800 families are completely wiped out and those families are more than 34,000 people. The last part of the burial ground contains mass graves where in total we have mass graves and each grave is six to eight metres deep and inside we have wooden coffins where the bodies of the victims are placed before burial.

“We can now proceed by touching the wreath, after that we would observe a minute silence in honour of the victims. The number of victims buried here is 250,000. You would understand that there is a shortage of names. Some of the victims and some families were completely wiped out. There was no one who survived to identify them. But there is a current research which will go through 30 districts round the country and it has already gone through 17 districts. It has shown that 7,800 families are completely wiped out and those families were made up of more than 35,000 people. The last part of the burial ground is made up of the mass graves, in total we have 40 mass graves and each grave is six to eight metres deep. Inside we have wooden coffins were victims are buried.

In terms of names, we all bear same names. There are no names for the Tutsis or Hutus. We all share the same names. The culture is the same and the same tradition.

We have the wall of names for people who were unburied. Even up till this time, we have names of people who were not found. The wall of names has 150 names. Many people are still out there; they were not buried after the genocide. Recently we found about 300 bodies from March till today, all within Kigali area. They were simply thrown somewhere and they will be buried with dignity.

In Rwanda we have 233 genocide memorials. In every district we have more than six. Every time a person is found, he or she would be buried around the area the person was found.”

At the mass burial site, the different graves that contain bodies of the genocide victims, retrieved and reburied there are neatly arranged in a row. They graves are covered with plain slap stone. The rows of graves stretched to over 50 metres. The remembrance formality was completed and then the tour group headed into the museum edifice.

Touring the museum proper is like a trip through horror chambers: huge piles of dirty blood soaked clothes retrieved from the killing fields, piles of human bones neatly arranged in rows. There are also gory pictures of deadly Hutu militia gangs as the roam Rwanda in search of their fellow countrymen to murder whose only crime being Tutsi. Even the weapons of death used for the slaughter were not left out. They were equally on display.

Probably the most heart breaking during the tour is the section with thousands of pictures of the genocide victims. It is easier to deal with numbers of deaths. That is a little abstract. It becomes even more difficult when has to see individuals, different personalities that lost of their lives as a result of the mindless killings. Within that section are pictures of children from less than a year to about 12 years who had dreams and ambitions of what they wanted to make of their lives were cut short.

To bring a closure after the tour of the ‘Horror Chamber’, there is equally a video of the process of reconciliation currently going on in the country. There are documentaries of victims or survivors who had lost their families and loved ones coming face to face with their killers or those that instigated the killings. While the pains remained, there was an effort to look towards the future by focusing more on forgiveness. There were stories of two women, a widowed victim and the family that instigated the killing having reconciliatory discussions, some kind of restitution and forgiveness and desire to move ahead.

At the end of the tour of the museum, some of the takeaways are first, the horror of war and need not to resort to it as an option. Secondly, it is difficult to predict the dimension a conflict could take; once ignited, they take lives of their own.

In all we see a country that refused to shy away from its gory past but rather decided to face it squarely to make amend and say to itself ‘never shall we travel this evil part again.’

For those in with question or way of purging themselves of the subdued pains of the conflict, going to the genocide museum in Kigali has a way of bringing the pain afresh, but it helps them cry, shout, kick and let go of the pains. They leave with less burden that they came with.

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