At first sight Rwanda is a young country – young, green and clean. Most of the time we have no idea what the hell people are saying but they seem to smile a lot. After almost four months on the road The Land of a Thousand Hills managed to climb all the way to the top of our “favorites list”, seemingly without even trying.
A small landlocked country, Rwanda is most known for the genocide that brutalized its people in 1994. It is often viewed as one of the most savage genocide that mankind has ever seen but as you drive through the spotless, friendly streets of Kigali you find it so difficult to believe. Kigali seems more like a European city than an African city and it is not just because of the cleanliness. Unlike most other African countries there is no method in the madness of the traffic because there is no madness in the traffic. Even with driving on the wrong (right) side of the road for the first time, both Guillaume and I feel safer on Rwanda’s road than in any one of the nine other countries we had driven through. Car doors are unlocked, people seem very honest and there is a general feeling of safety and order.
Yet just 18 years ago this country was thrown into the deepest, darkest pit of cruelty and trauma – worlds apart from where we were back then. April 1994 was for South Africa, our home, one of the happiest times and brought our long sought after democracy, for Rwanda it brought the death of a country. While we celebrated freedom, they were running for their lives.
One word keeps coming to mind to describe the atrocities that had taken place here – unimaginable. The hideousness of the genocide, all the blood spilled and bodies rotting in the streets, all the fear, hate, anger and mankind’s ability to commit such ghastly acts is unimaginable, and then 18 years later your mind can hardly comprehend that all this played out in the stunning, welcoming boulevards of these cities and towns. If not for all the museums, books, mass graves and historical reminders of the genocide one would never imagine that Rwanda was once a society of “brutal, sadistic and merciless killers and innocent victims”.
But at a closer glance I realised that the genocide is still everywhere – “many of the survivors are young and will carry the trauma with them through their lives”. About 500 000 women were raped, intentionally by HIV-positive attackers and they will carry the scars with the disease till they die. The Genocide Museum in Kigali proclaims; “Almost every corner of Rwanda was in some way touched by the genocide. It is impossible for us to forget the past but also extremely painful to remember”.
After hours spent in this museum I was emotionally drained and almost relived to leave the building to roam Kigali’s peaceful streets but the genocide seems to sneak up on you from within the beauty in the city. The very local and cheap hotel we stayed at is run by three kids, no older than 22, they too were orphaned by the attacks. Saddened again by another account of the carnages it does however not come as a surprise. The genocide made orphans out of 300 000 children. Kids were also not excused from dreadful deaths during the genocide and many were tortured, hacked to death and shot. The museum commits a room to these tiny victims introduced by a heart wrenching dedication: “In memory of our beautiful children who should have been our future”. In 1994 Rwanda lost its youth and the ones that remained lost their childhood – scar that are still visible today.
In the end Kigali was a whirlwind of emotions and contradictions. A scenic as well as humanitarian inspiration. A phoenix which had risen from the ashes of rampant, lawless looting and unimaginable cruelty. I left the magnificent land of a thousand beautiful hills, a million murders and a nation oozing immense forgiveness, behind, with one quote I will remember forever, a quote by Felicien Ntagengwa which I hope the whole world will remember: “If you knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me. ”