It was our first day in Rwanda, in Kigali, the beautiful capital city of the East African country Rwanda, to be precise. We had landed in the early hours of the morning and the place looked like a slice of paradise as we left the airport to our hotel which was interestingly and excitingly named as Gorilla Hotel.
It was definitely a sign of things to come. After a lot of ooh’s and aah’s at the beautiful views of the city that stretched out below us in the hotel, we had a filling breakfast.
We tasted some exotic fruits including the Passionfruit which seems to be ubiquitous in Rwanda washed down with some really invigorating Rwandan coffee.
It was then time to start our adventures in Rwanda, but before that, it was befitting that we first visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial – a must visit place in Rwanda. Frankly, like most of the world, I was not much aware of the Genocide and its aftermath, but the visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial changed my perspective and left me shaken and in tears.
Hotel Des Mille Collines
Before proceeding to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, we had a small stopover at the historic Hotel Des Mille Collines to have a look around. We were actually supposed to stay in this hotel, however as it was full owing to an ongoing high-level conference, we were put up in Hotel Gorilla. We were intrigued by the hotel which now had all the signs of a normal functioning luxury hotel.
But back during the time of the Rwandan genocide, the hotel was the scene of dramatic action. The Manager of the hotel at that time, Paul Ruesabagina was instrumental in providing refuge to and saving the lives of 1,268 people. Paul Ruesabagina’s struggle to protect his family and the people who had taken refuge in his hotel, has been immortalized in celluloid by the movie Hotel Rwanda. It is interesting to note that though Hotel Des Mille Collines is the setting for the movie, it does not actually figure in it. The movie was shot in South Africa.
Kigali Genocide Memorial
We drove to the Kigali Genocide Memorial across beautifully laid roads lined with green trees, a city that seemed to seamlessly blend with its natural environment.
At the Kigali Genocide Memorial, we were received by a volunteer who briefly explained to us about the memorial and advised us that we were free to take pictures outside, in the grounds, but not inside the museum which houses three permanent exhibitions. The main one is a poignant portrayal of the events of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.
As we moved from exhibit to exhibit, as we watched videos and looked at the collection of weapons and instruments used in the genocide, the horrendous past seemed to leap in front of our eyes and we could almost hear the cries of the anguished millions.
Time seemed to stand still as the events of the past seemed to unfold right in front of our eyes.
A brewing civil war, a conflict between the Government and the Rwandan Patriotic force, two ethnic groups embroiled in conflict. A deathly concoction of events that led to one of the most horrific and traumatic holocausts of recent times. April, 6th, 1994, a plane carrying the then Rwandan President Habyarimana is shot down as it descended into Kigali. Immediately after this incident, all hell broke loose. The Hutu ethnic group which was in majority backed by the Hutu Government and Military went on a killing spree against the minority ethnic group known as Tutsi. The violence and the killings raged on without respite for a shocking 100 days as the world watched in mute silence, the rivers and lakes of Rwanda turned red and the air was pierced by the agonising wails of men, women, and children who saw and experienced death and brutality of the kind that the world had never seen before. The Hutu extremists were hell bent on annihilating the entire Tutsi population, no one was spared, not even the infants or the aged. Neighbours of many years became bloodthirsty tyrants as the storm of hatred, violence, and bloodshed enveloped Rwanda in a dark and sinister cloud. The events seemed to lead to an apocalypse of Rwanda till finally after 100 days of bloodshed that saw more than a million dead and more than two million homeless, the killings stopped. The Rwandan Patriotic Front led by Paul Kagame and backed by the Tutsi finally took control of Rwanda. Entire families and villages had been wiped out, lone survivors traumatized and not knowing what to do and where to go were many in the blood-soaked streets of the villages and cities of Rwanda. Somewhere an infant wailed for its mother and somewhere else a mother wailed for her baby. Rwanda now lay shocked and the burden of its dead was a cross that it would bear for posterity.
As we watched the tragic moments of history unfold before us, the tears came unbidden, our hearts became heavy and our voices choked with emotion. We could see that the events were not too far in the past, less than 25 years ago, wounds that were still raw. The one question that seemed to haunt us was, “why did the world allow this to happen?”
We walked out in silence to the beautiful grounds outside, lines of mass graves lay in silent anguish amidst beautifully landscaped gardens. Flowers and wreaths lay on the graves, a mark of respect, a sign of peace and love to the ones who had been bludgeoned with the weapons of hatred and violence. We too lay a wreath and roses at the graves and stood for a minute in silence.
Another volunteer, her voice choked with emotion and herself a survivor explained about the mass grave. We did not take pictures as it would have been blasphemous to the sanctity of the place, we feared that it would disturb the eternal sleep of the people who lay there, their lives snuffed out in the most horrendous manner. Over 259,000 people lay here, their final resting place, a beautiful and peaceful abode, an anticlimax to the last few hours of their lives.
We learned that the citizens of Rwanda who had lost their families in the genocide visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial frequently and spent hours in the peaceful environs. This way they felt they were with their near and dear ones and felt one with them.
As we walked in silence in the beautiful gardens, birds chirped noisily, a bee hummed around a flower bush, but we could only hear the desperate cries for help of children, men and women and we hoped that the world would never see something like this again.
Our thoughts were on War and Peace, love and hatred, the futility of war and violence as we left the Kigali Genocide Memorial. We thought about similar incidents that had happened closer to home, the partition of India and Pakistan and the tragic Jallianwalah Bagh massacre in Amritsar. We thought about the holocaust in Nazi Germany, we thought about the terror that grips the world today and we prayed that peace be given a chance. We walked away from the Kigali Genocide Memorial with a heavy heart and moist eyes and something within us seemed to have been transformed.
The visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial is a must for visitors to Rwanda as it serves as a reminder to humanity about the depths of depravity that the human mind can plunge to. It is also an opportunity to pay our respects to the departed and apologize for our sins, as in some way or the other, the entire world is responsible for what happened during those chilling 100 days.
Important Information for visitors to the Kigali Genocide Memorial
- The Memorial is open to visitors on all days except the last Saturday of each month, Christmas and New Year between 8.00 AM and 5.00 PM., last entry is at 4.00 PM
- On the last Saturday of each month the Memorial is open from 1.00 PM to 5.00 PM
- The Memorial is a 10 minute drive from the town centre of Kigali
- One can opt for a guided tour or audio-guide when visiting Kigali
- It would take about 2 hours for visiting the Memorial
- There is no entrance fee to the memorial, however donations are accepted
- Do check out the Kigali Genocide Memorial website for more details
Have you visited any site that has moved you like we were moved at the Kigali Genocide Memorial? Do let us know in the comments section.
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