Kigali – 1st impressions

We arrived in Kigali at 3am on Wednesday morning, and spent the next two days locked inside the Marriott hotel at a tech conference.  So it wasn’t before Friday morning that we first stepped out into daytime Kigali – and moved over to check into the infamous Hotel des Mille Collines – AKA Hotel Rwanda.

The short version of the story – the manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines during the 1994 genocide sheltered over 1,000 people inside his hotel, refusing to let the murdering militia into his compound, saving lives. Checking into our retro room which has barely been updated, we were acutely aware of the history of the hotel – the very walls seem to buzz with what they’ve seen.

On Friday evening the hotel was hosting a cultural evening – with live music and dancers showcasing Rwandan culture.  Why not.  Two friends of ours came over, and we spent the evening shielding our ears from frankly headache inducing wailing and out-of-tune recorder playing.  The “choral performance” (ahem) was only rescued by a short highlight in the form of a warrior dance – featuring knee-length wigs, loincloths, spears and drumming… before we retreated to the poolside bar for chats and a far quieter end to the evening.

Saturday morning came, and it was finally time to explore Kigali at our leisure… or, in reality, time to face facts.  When in Kigali, we could only start by visiting the Genocide Memorial.

The tour began with a 10 minute witness testimony video, with survivors telling of watching their families massacred in front of their eyes – a sense of pervading guilt for having survived the attacks which claimed their loved ones. Video over, we stumbled out into the air, eyes already welling up – this was going to be brutal.

Steadying ourselves, we went through into the main museum, which first took us through an explanation of the factors leading up to the genocide, before turning a corner into graphic details, photos, and videos of the massacres which took place.  There are no words to describe the emotional burden of walking through that exhibition – every single person was sobbing, the scale and extent of the brutality is impossible to put into words.

Stumbling through rooms filled with skulls, bones, and thousands of photographs of loved ones donated by grieving relatives, we ascended into the last room – the Children’s Room.  Here, homage was paid to the little ones who were murdered in the genocide, with photographs, snippets of their favourite toys and foods, and the ways they were killed.  Seven year olds bludgeoned to death.  Two year olds macheted to pieces.  To say that I bawled my way through the exhibit would be an understatement, I honestly thought I might faint from the horror of it all.  Tom, groaning with sadness, led us out as it was “too much to bear”.

Paying our respects to the 250,000 people buried in the Memorial grounds, we were picked up by our taxi driver.  With us still snivelling in the backseat, he cheerfully waved his thumb back at the museum: “Ehhh, full of bad news that place, isn’t it?” And carried on whistling along to the radio as we stared at him speechless.

And there, is my first observation about Rwanda.  A place that has seen such total, hellish horror – and 24 years later people can speak about it in near-nonchalance, a fact of matter of the past.  HOW CAN THESE PEOPLE PROCESS THE TRAUMA????

Next morning, the weather wasn’t in favour of our plans to spend the day by the pool, so we decided to walk to the Belgian Peacekeepers Memorial – the place where 10 Belgian soldiers were massacred in an attempt to coerce the country to withdraw its forces.

And here’s observation number two – walking along the streets of Kigali to the memorial, the streets are SCARILY clean.  Pristine.  Not a speck of dirt anywhere. Trees and hedges perfectly trimmed.  I’ve never seen anything like it.

We made it to the memorial – an ex-army camp, a place where the 10 Belgian peacekeepers had been promised safe passage out.  Instead, they were encircled by a hundred armed soldiers and slaughtered, managing to resist for hours.  What can I say, the building is a mere shell – more shot-up than anything I have seen in my life.

Here too, the tour guide (a man of few words), led us over to tributes to the Belgians, notes from their families, amid the pock-marked walls and offered dead-pan comments like “Some of them had children”, “His sister wrote that” – “Take as many pictures as you want”.

Enough death, enough mutilation, the sun came out and we rushed back to the hotel for Sunday at the pool in Kigali (also the title of one of the best books I’ve ever read).  We spent the afternoon sunning and swimming – in the pool that once sustained a hotel full of people with water to drink, while they were sheltering from the unfathomable outside the walls of the compound.  It is a true oasis of calm, and Sunday at the pool is a local institution – people flock to enjoy the live music, Primus beers, and lush gardens around the pool.

These first days in Kigali have left me with nothing but questions, disbelief, and juxtapositions.

Having seen the remnants of the genocide with my own eyes, nothing could have prepared me for the extent of the horror – a horror I’m incapable of understanding. Questions reel in me.  Disbelief – at how friendly, down-to-earth, and composed the locals are.  How?? And the sheer juxtapositions of walking down the safest, cleanest, most modern streets in Africa – where shops put your items in recycled paper bags, as plastic is banned – … to memorials graphically showing the very, very recent utter hell that happened here.

Just, I don’t know. I really don’t know.