Long before visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial, even before stepping onto Rwandan soil, I had so many questions.
Questions every visitor to Rwanda must ask to begin the journey to understanding a country that has been to hell and back.
What led to the unconscionable, systematic slaughter of 800,000 Rwandans — mostly ethnic Tutsis — over just 100 days in 1994? How does a country not just survive but recover from such a harrowing human catastrophe? How does the atrocity influence the interactions between Rwandans today and what deep, dark holes are left in their hearts?
In his gentle voice, my Ugandan guide Baker explained that although there is no explicit animosity displayed between Tutsis and Hutus now, who knows the depth of pain and sense of injustice buried inside? If anyone has a right to feel bitter, I thought, it’s Rwandans — some children at the time — who have seen their entire families murdered by militia groups and even neighbours. Men hacked with machetes like cattle at the butcher. Women forced to kill their husbands before being raped and killed themselves. Children clubbed to death.
Remarkably though, Rwanda today is a country rebuilt. As I was driven into Kigali, I found a clean, developed city (Rwanda is one of the cleanest countries in Africa) with a strong infrastructure, modern buildings and well-paved roads — the very streets where Tutsis were openly maimed and killed just 21 years ago. I wanted to learn more, to reconcile the Rwanda of progress with the Rwanda of 1994 and its blood-stained past. There was only one place to start: the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
Sites of this kind aren’t new to me. I’ve visited the Anne Frank House in the Netherlands, a former Nazi concentration camp in Austria, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia, but this? The Rwandan genocide was not just shockingly rapid, it was alarmingly recent. I was a university student at the time, anxiety-ridden about my exams and grumbling about my commute between home, school and my part-time job — all while the greatest atrocity of my time was being committed on a distant continent.
Inside the Kigali Genocide Memorial
Opened a decade after the genocide, the memorial is a solemn, tear-inducing museum. With giant wall displays, archival documents, photos, video footage and weapons encased in glass, the indoor exhibit sheds light on the Rwandan genocide, as well its pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial roots. The room filled with human skulls and bones was chilling but most heart-wrenching was the children’s memorial. From the details displayed next to their photos, I learned each child’s favourite foods and activities. It was like viewing a family album — except it abruptly ends with how the youngster’s life was violently snuffed out.
To provide an historical perspective, the indoor exhibit also delves into the sinister ideologies that provoked the world’s largest genocidal massacres from the Namibian genocide to the Holocaust. The Kigali Genocide Memorial is an important reminder that ethnic cleansing of this kind is a global phenomenon.
The Outdoor Exhibit
By the time I reached the exit of the indoor exhibit, I was yearning for daylight and fresh air. I stepped outside. Surrounding the centre are peaceful gardens for quiet reflection, created as if the developers knew visitors would need to recompose themselves after such a core-rattling experience.