The Kigali Genocide Memorial Center perches on one of the many hills that surround Rwanda's capital city. From the outside, it's a picturesque building with white-washed walls and pretty gardens - but the Center's pleasing aesthetic is in sharp contrast to the horrors hidden within. The Center's exhibitions tell the story of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, during which approximately one million people were murdered. In the years since the genocide has come to be known as one of the greatest atrocities, the world has ever seen.
History of Hate
In order to fully appreciate the Center's message, it's important to understand the background of the 1994 genocide. The seed for violence was sown when Rwanda was designated as a Belgian colony in the aftermath of World War I. The Belgians issued identity cards to native Rwandans, dividing them into distinct ethnic groups - including the majority Hutus, and the minority Tutsis. The Tutsis were considered superior to the Hutus and given preferential treatment when it came to employment, education and civil rights.
Inevitably, this unfair treatment caused great resentment amongst the Hutu population, and the resentment between the two ethnicities became entrenched. In 1959, the Hutus revolted against their Tutsi neighbors, killing approximately 20,000 people and forcing nearly 300,000 more to flee to bordering countries like Burundi and Uganda. When Rwanda gained independence from Belgium in 1962, the Hutus took over control of the country.
Fighting between the Hutus and the Tutsis continued, with refugees from the latter group ultimately forming the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Hostilities escalated until 1993 when a peace accord was signed between the RPF and moderate Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana. However, on 6th April 1994, President Habyarimana was killed when his plane was shot down over Kigali Airport. Although it is still uncertain who was responsible for the attack, retribution against the Tutsis was swift.
In less than an hour, extremist Hutu militia groups Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi had barricaded parts of the capital and begun butchering Tutsis and moderate Hutus who stood in their way. The government was taken over by extremist Hutus, who supported the slaughter to the extent that it spread throughout Rwanda like wildfire. The killings only ended when the RPF succeeded in seizing control three months later - but by that time, between 800,000 and one million people had been murdered.
Back in 2010, I had the privilege of traveling to Rwanda and visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center for myself. I knew a bit about the genocide's history - but nothing prepared me for the emotional onslaught I was about to experience. The tour started with a brief history of pre-colonial Rwanda, using large display boards, old film footage, and audio recordings to depict a unified Rwandan society in which Hutus and Tutsis lived in harmony.
The exhibit became increasingly more upsetting with information on the ethnic hatred instilled by the Belgian colonialists, followed by examples of the propaganda later designed by the Hutu government to vilify exiled Tutsis. With the stage for the genocide set, I descended into a nightmare of rooms filled with human bones, including the tiny skulls and femurs of dead children. There's video footage of rape and slaughter, and of survivors telling stories of their own personal tragedies.
Glass cases house machetes, clubs, and knives that were used to butcher thousands within a mile radius of where I was standing. There are firsthand accounts of heroes who risked their lives to hide would-be victims or to save women from the wholescale rape that was an inherent part of the slaughter. There is also information about the aftermath of the genocide, from tales of more murders within refugee camps to details of the first tentative steps towards reconciliation.
For me, the most harrowing sight of all was a collection of photographs depicting children killed without a second thought during the heat of bloodlust. Each photograph was accompanied by notes of the child's favorite foods, toys, and friends - making the reality of their violent deaths all the more heartbreaking. In addition, I was struck by the lack of aid given by first world countries, most of whom opted to ignore the horrors unfolding in Rwanda.
After the tour, my heart sick and my mind filled with the images of dead children, I stepped outside into the bright sunlight of the Center's gardens. Here, mass graves provide a final resting place for more than 250,000 genocide victims. They are marked by large slabs of concrete covered with flowers, and the names of those known to have lost their lives are inscribed for posterity on a nearby wall. There is a rose garden here too, and I found that it offered a much needed moment to sit and simply reflect.
As I stood in the gardens, I could see cranes working on new office buildings springing up in the center of Kigali. School children were laughing and skipping past the Center gates on their way home for lunch - proof that despite the unimaginable horror of the genocide that occurred just two short decades ago, Rwanda has begun to heal. Today, the government is considered one of the most stable in Africa, and the streets that once ran red with blood are amongst the safest on the continent.
The Center may be a reminder of the depths to which humanity can descend and the ease with which the rest of the world can turn a blind eye to that which it doesn't want to see. However, it also stands as a testament to the courage of those that survived to make Rwanda the beautiful country it is today. Through education and empathy, it offers a brighter future and the hope that atrocities like these will not be allowed to happen again.
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on December 12th, 2016.