Remembering 1994

This blog entry about the events of Friday, January 13, 2012 was originally posted on January 20, 2012.

DAY 15: Ah, 1994. Ace of Base, Snoop Dogg, The Lion King, The Cranberries, Pulp Fiction, and Forrest Gump. Most, if not all of you reading this travel blog were alive in 1994, and some of you may even remember what you were doing in the April of that year. I remember being in a painting class chatting up this girl, and she mentioned, “Have you heard about what’s going on in Rwanda?” At the time, I hadn’t; I was more concerned with whether or not I might score with her (turns out she had a boyfriend), and besides, back then, Africa was sooo far away. In 1994, the only thing I knew about Africa was that “Hakuna Matata” means “no worries.”

The reality was that in the tiny African nation of Rwanda, all hell had broken loose. Tensions between two formerly peace-keeping tribes — Hutus and Tutsis — boiled over into chaos on an unimaginable scale. On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Juvenal Habyarimana, the then Hutu-favored Rwandan president, had been mysteriously shot down, triggering a premeditated massacre so relentless that the numbers of the subsequent death toll constituted it as a genocide. During a period of about a hundred days, extremist Hutus slaughtered about one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu people, and about another million were displaced as escaped refugees in neighboring countries. Meanwhile, the world — including the U.N. — underestimated Rwanda’s civil unrest, watched, and let it happen.

“The international community failed Rwanda and that must leave us always with a sense of bitter regret… I realized after the genocide that there was more I could and should have done to sound the alarm and rally support. The international community is guilty of sins of omission.”

– former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan

I pulled this quote from the exhibition wall inside the Kigali Memorial Centre, on the outskirts of Kigali’s city center (where I arrived that morning via minibus from Gisenyi). I had spent most of my afternoon there, observing, learning, and grasping the violent events that happened at a time when I was gallivanting back in America.

An initiative started not by Rwandans but by two Brits inspired by the Holocaust memorial in Israel, the Kigali Memorial Centre came to be after discussions with the Rwandan government about a much needed place to commemorate the tragic events that once wounded the country. It opened in 2004 — the tenth year anniversary of the genocide — after a five year effort during which bodies were collected and brought to the site for a final, respectable burial. Over a quarter of a million bodies remain buried in the many mass graves on site — bodies of innocent people, some with known names, but most without.

The memorial was also created as a place of remembrance and education; architects, designers, and landscapers created the center and surrounding grounds, with symbolic gardens tracing Rwanda’s history. One garden fountain represents a unified nation, with water that drops in a waterfall, representing the fall of society, when Hutus and Tutsi became at odds with each other. In the aftermath of the genocide, Rwanda was rebuilt stone by stone from all parts of a united Rwanda, and the five neighboring countries, represented by animal sculptures, would spread the lessons learned and word of peace. One monkey toting a mobile phone represents the spreading of Rwanda’s peace message with the rest of the world — and it kind of made me wonder how many minutes he had to use; that’s a lot of people to talk to.

Inside the center — where permission to take photos costs a hefty fee — the history of Rwanda’s genocide was explained through photos, quotes, clippings and videos. Rwanda’s history goes back centuries before the genocide though; formerly a land where a hunter-gatherer tribe known as the Hutus lived to hunt and gather, another tribe of cattle-raisers known as the Tutsis arrived, around the 10th century. Over the centuries, the two tribes co-existed under the minority Tutsi rule, and while there were a few skirmishes between them, they survived for generations, living — and sometimes intermarrying — between each other. Hutus and Tutsis got along in their shared kingdom, while a third, smaller tribe of pygmies known as the Twa retreated into the forests.

The divide between the Hutus and Tutsis which led to the 1994 genocide is blamed, not surprisingly, on the Germans. In 1885, the kingdom of Rwanda had fallen under German colonial rule, and it was the Germans that started categorizing their inhabitants based on physical features. Hutus were darker, with wider noses, while Tutsis were taller and lighter skinned. The division between the two tribes was perpetuated by German rule, simply based on looks —  although if you owned about ten cows, you’d become Tutsi by default since they were originally the cattle-raising tribe. The richer, lighter-skinned Tutsis were the ruling minority before the Germans, and it was with them that the Germans worked with to govern the mostly Hutu-populated kingdom.

In 1916, the Belgians invaded and eventually took over the land of Rwanda, but relations between the two main tribes hadn’t improved. In fact, the Belgians continued the Germans’ method of division, categorizing Hutus and Tutsis based on wealth and/or physical appearance, and even took it a step further: making everyone carry ID cards to label them “Hutu” or “Tutsi.” If you’ve seen 2004’s Hotel Rwanda, the movie about the Rwandan genocide starring Don Cheadle as a moderate Hutu that used his hotel as a sanctuary for refugees, you’ve seen that the ID cards were still in use to identify your tribal identity at the time of the slaughter — which only made it easier for Tutsi victims to be identified and marked for death.

Hatred towards the Tutsis by the Hutus spawned from resentment during the colonial rule; Tutsis had been labeled as the elite ones to rule with the Europeans, which obviously caused a stir with the mostly Hutu population. In the 1950s, Hutu revolutionaries became educated and inspired by other revolutions in world history and started planning the day when they would strike back at their Tutsi “masters” on a large scale. The Belgians left in 1962 and there were incidents of violence between the two tribes over the subsequent decades, but they were nothing compared to what happened in 1994. Anti-Tutsi propaganda in posters and radio fueled the hatred towards Tutsis, and it exploded in April 1994 after the death of the Hutu president was revealed.

Through the exhibition, I learned that the killing was not quick and easy, with swift bullets putting victims out of their misery. No, the murderers were a bit disturbed and insisted on torturing and mutilating their victims before death — sometimes not killing them directly, but leaving them to die in agonizing pain over a period of days. It’s a good thing no photos were allowed indoors because some of the imagery in the exhibit was pretty graphic. Many Hutu murderers only killed with machetes, and there were images of children with huge gashes in their heads and bodies. Fingers and entire arms or legs were chopped off of people, leaving them to helplessly bleed to death. Women were raped and sometimes forced to kill their own children before being killed themselves. Orphaned babies breastfed on corpses. Some victims were stoned to death. And there was no escape from the slaughter; many Tutsis and moderate Hutus fled to countryside churches in hopes of sanctuary, but they were no safe zones — in fact, it only made it easier for Hutu militia to kill many people at once in a collective space. (Many churches outside of Kigali also have memorials and mass grave sites.)

Rwanda cried for help from the international community, but all they did was get their own people out — missionaries, NGO workers, and a few journalists — leaving the country to fend for itself, plus a few Red Cross volunteers who stayed behind. The U.N. had been sent to Rwanda to monitor the situation, but was given explicit instruction not to intervene, i.e. use any force — they did not really know how bad the situation was. It wasn’t until the fourth of July 1994 when the violence ended, thanks to the efforts of the Rwandan Patriot Front (RPF), whose army seized Kigali and set up an interim government. Minor civil unrest ensued but eventually, Major General Paul Kagame of the RPF become president in 2000, where he still rules today in what some believe is a dictatorship since he’s won every election since by default. Thankfully, it is a dictatorship that is keeping peace and is actually quite progressive for an African, or even Western nation.

OBVIOUSLY, AFTER GETTING ALL DEPRESSED from touring the genocide memorial, the only thing to do is drink your sorrows away — the guidebook even suggests it. And their suggestion is to head to the poolside bar of the Hotel des Mille Collines (Hotel of the Thousand Hills), the actual “Hotel Rwanda” that served as a sanctuary and refugee camp for Tutsis and moderate Hutus during the massacre. While many parts of the hotel have been renovated since 1994, most of the structure is the same and in fact, the hotel’s logo is the same as it was back then — and in the movie Hotel Rwanda. It was here that manager Paul Rusesabagina, a moderate Hutu with a Tutsi wife, sheltered 1,268 refugees within its compound from the violence happening just outside the gates.

Most backpackers come, have an overpriced drink and leave, but for me and my final night in Rwanda, I decided to flashpack it up and stay there; I’d gotten an internet rate that wasn’t too bad for a four star place (about $180). When else would I stay in a place with so much historical significance, a place that saved hundreds of lives? I figured.  The hotel itself is a sexy, luxurious four star place — only to be bested by two newer five-star hotels in town — and it was for the most part a generically Western hotel, with a gym, comfy beds, cable TV, a rooftop restaurant, a nighttime lounge, and a pool with lounge chairs and a nearby bar.



Two things I learned about staying at the Hotel des Mille Collines: 1) Unlike a backpacker hostel bar area, where you can sit alone and attract attention from other solo travelers and start a nice conversation easily, in a high end hotel (where there’s a live cocktail band), you (as a guy drinking by yourself at the bar) only set yourself to be approached by prostitutes. You can spot one easily when she comes to the bar, greets her girlfriend already there like they haven’t seen each other in forever, but then doesn’t sit with her. Instead they split up and sit near potential clients to chat them up. I wasn’t in the mood for longer conversation with mine, and went to my room to chill out and watch a movie.

2) Watching Hotel Rwanda in the “Hotel Rwanda” (on my laptop) is a very surreal experience. Sure the set from the movie was actually located in South Africa, and was only a two-level building (as opposed to the current five-level building in real life), but there’s something about the hotel logo being the same that made it all believable. I was actually in the hotel portrayed in the movie; I was lying in a bedroom where refugees once hid for their lives — and within my life time too. (There’s something about that that makes it a little more weird too; I was alive when this had happened.)

Watching the movie, I couldn’t help but picture the real events that happened at the gate, the lobby, the hallways, and the pool.  In the movie, the pool had been used as a water source for the refugees — and it was weird to imagine that earlier that afternoon as I sat in a hammock in front of it, in the lap of luxury. Time may heal all wounds, but in this case it heals with a little class.



After visiting the genocide memorial, this poolside hammock photo of me watching Hotel Rwanda in the “Hotel Rwanda” isn’t as funny as watching Gorillas in the Mist amidst gorillas in the mist.

Next entry: Securing Peace with Hot Sauce

Previous entry: Run DRC?

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Comments for “Remembering 1994”

  • One more to go (unless I split it in two).

    Adventures in hot sauce, coming up next…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/20  at  11:44 PM

  • You should read Sunday At the Pool in Kigali. Did you watch the video at the genocide museum, the interview with the head of the UN peacekeepers, General Dallaire? It was fascinating.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/21  at  04:42 PM

  • you should have watched Hotel for Dogs

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/22  at  04:37 PM

  • I’m gonna put it in my netflix queue.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/22  at  04:39 PM

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This blog post is one of eighteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Monkeying Around," which chronicled an eighteen-day journey through Uganda and Rwanda in eastern central Africa.

Next entry:
Securing Peace with Hot Sauce

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Run DRC?


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