Rwanda – land of a thousands hills!

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Before I start this update, I want to say that its quite a long one compared to the rest of the entry’s. But if you take the time to read it, I think you’ll gain an insight into Rwandan life and it’s history.

We arrived here in Kigali last Tuesday evening after a surprisingly uneventful and smooth ten hour bus journey.

The first thing that strikes you as you enter Rwanda is the beauty of the scenery. It certainly lives up to its nickname of “land of a thousand hills”. As far as the eye can see, there were ravines lush with banana trees and bamboo shoots which created canopy’s of foliage. We passed constant stream’s of people, women in brightly coloured dresses, swaying gracefully under the large parcels balanced on their heads, often with small babies tucked into shawls slung across their backs. Men pedalled what looked in some cases to be handmade bicycles which were draped with all manner of vegetables or other everyday items. Gaggles of smiling boys in baggy torn cotton shorts drove cattle over the hills. Just like every country in Africa, the women carrying banana’s on their head makes for a superb photo. However, understandably they are not fond of foreigners taking their picture, so I’ll have to get into sniper camera mode some day. The bus route was dotted with neat villages of mud-brick cottages, and in the distance the hills were pebble dashed with hundreds of small wood fires which gave off white spirals of smoke. The beauty of this landscape masks the poverty that lies beneath it. It was a very scenic journey from Kampala to Kigali and well worth the time it took to get there.

We got ourselves settled into a small hotel which was as you can see from the photo below….an “all in one” type of a room! Still it’s clean and does the job!


Our home in Kigali!

The next morning we visited the British embassy(no Irish embassy in Kigali) and they recommended the orphans of Rwanda orphanage to us. So we went along to it and its alot more modern in structure than the place we volunteered in Kampala. The orphanage was set up as a result of the genocide in 1994. So there’s boys and girls here that were born as the genocide was taking place, but lost their parents. A high percentage of them are missing limbs and have horrendous physical scars from the massacre, and well as the obvious emotional scars. Its also an orphanage that takes in babies and kids that are found around the city(like sanyu babies home). It has good funding from what we can see and it provides a good home for those living there. We spend a few hours every day visiting and talking to the kids both young and old who stay there. Some of the stories would made you cringe. Really hard to believe what they people must have gone through. One thing we are not allowed in to the orphanage is any camera equipment, phones are electronic devices. We were told that no photo’s or video’s are allowed. We can understand the reasons why but we’re a little disappointed not the get a few photo’s to add to the blog.

Despite it’s natural beauty, it’s very hard to look at the country and not immediately associate it with the genocide of 94.
A UNICEF national trauma survey taken in 1995 states that;

  • 99.9% of children witnessed violence
  • 79.6% of children experienced death in the family
  • 69.5% witnessed someone being killed or injured
  • 57.7% of children witnessed killings or injuries with a machete
  • 87.5% saw dead bodies or parts of bodies

Wednesday afternoon we went to visit the Kigali Genocide memorial center as part of a bus tour of the city. The memorial center is like an educational museum that not only covers the events that happened during the 1994 genocide, but also extensively covers genocides that has happened in the past with Jews, Armenians and Cambodians. There are many shocking exhibits in the museum, but the one that really punctures the soul is the memorial dedicated to the lost children of the genocide. Children were specifically targeted during the genocide to effectively wipe out the next generation of Tutsis. The memorial to the children shows pictures of the victims and underneath is their name, age they were killed, favourite food (i.e. pizza), and some specific personality trait (i.e. loves to play with his father, wants to be a doctor when he grows up), and then at the bottom is states the manner in which he/she was killed; (i.e. smashed against the wall, hacked by a machete while drinking it’s mothers milk, or clubbed to death while witnessing his mothers death). It was absolutely awful to read and see these pictures. What must it have been like for those to actually witness it?


250,000 victims of the genocide are buried here under the memorial center.

The memorial center also has short video clips of actual video footage taken during the genocide. It show’s men,women and children been hacked to death by machete’s, sticks and anything else that their murderers could use on them. Really disturbing video clips. The memorial building is built on top of a grave that hold’s the remains of exactly 258,000 victims of the genocide.

Its a deeply disturbing fact that after the holocaust happened the world said “never again”! However, as we know thisnever again scenario” surfaced many times since. I visited Auschwitz on two separate occasions last year as I was always interested in the holocaust, and I’ve read many books on both Auschwitz and the Rwandan genocide. 6,000,000 Jews were exterminated in four years during that holocaust, but 1,000,000 Rwandans were exterminated in 100 days during the 1994 genocide! Hard to imagine that 10,000 per day were slaughtered in that short time.

Just to give a quick background about the genocide, I will share my understanding of it from the books I’ve read and what I’ve learned… During the Berlin Conference of 1885, the participating European countries concluded that Burundi and Rwanda would go to Germany, while Kenya and areas of Tanzania would go to the British. Germany sort of lost interest in it and handed the powers to Belgium. When the Belgians came to Rwanda, they noticed a stark difference in the people who lived there– one group of people were short and stocky, while the other group of people were extremely tall. The Belgians used this as a way to classify the Rwandans into two ethnic groups, the Hutus (short) and the Tutsis (tall). The ethnic classification was then printed on their identification cards, which later ended up being a grave tool for the collaborators of the genocide to easily identify the Tutsis.

Before the Belgians, the Hutu and Tutsis were different in socio-economic standards so it’s not like the distinction between the groups didn’t exist prior to the colonisation. However, the Belgians did favour the Tutsis, thereby offering more education and job opportunities to the Tutsis, strategically using this as a tool to mobilise and control the power they had in Rwanda. This was the start of resentment between the groups as the Hutus (who were the overwhelming majority of Rwandans) were placed second tier to the Tutsis. During the process of independence, the Belgians started to switch their favouritism to the Hutus, and started to give them more power, resources and opportunities. Once this happened, the power was held by the Hutus and thus they started to suppress the Tutsis in retaliation of the decades of suppression. Soon after, Tutsi guerrillas launched an attack and this was the initial start to the bloodshed between the two groups.

Tensions continued to be high between the Hutus and Tutsis, as the Tutsis felt that they had wrongly been discriminated against, but troubles reached an all-time peak when a plane carrying the Burundi and Rwandan presidents was shot down. Being that the Rwandan president at that time was a Hutu, road blocks popped up immediately after and the killings began instantly. Not only were the Hutu extremists (Interahamwe) killing the Tutsis, but normal, educated Hutus who never even committed a crime took part in the massacre, with neighbours killing neighbours, friends killing friends, and family killing family.

It wasn’t like the Hutus immediately decided or one day woke up with this idea to massacre the Tutsis. The Interahamwe created a calculated plan to kill Tutsis by training Hutus on how to savagely butcher the Tutsis, creating a list of the Tutsis to target first, and by they hold these ceremonies every once in a while when they have recovered enough remains in the nearby villages creating a media campaign (mostly through radio and printed propaganda) that brainwashed the majority to look at the Tutsis as enemies, and that the only solution was to exterminate them, as well as Tutsi sympathisers, known as moderate Hutus.

It was such a brutal time in the world’s history. It’s shameful to accept that so many people turned a blind eye to it(i.e the UN), allowing nearly a million people to be massacred in a period of three months. Equally as shocking is that since the Hutus were now the favoured group by the colonisers, the French supplied the Rwandan government with a massive amount of weapons and money… and those weapons and funds were used during the massacre.


Camp Kigali where 10 Belgian blue berets were killed as part of a plan to get the Belgian army to pull out of Rwanda. The bullet holes are clearly visible.


So we plan on staying in Kigali for a week only. We originally planned on staying here until it was time to travel back to Tanzania and head home, but we are going to head back to Kampala and to Sanyu babies home for another week or so. The orphans of Rwanda orphanage has many good aid workers there and therefore doesn’t need the extra pair of hands. We feel that Sanyu babies home would benefit more from our help. So we head back there on Wednesday.

Kigali as a city is very different from Kampala or anywhere else in Africa that we’ve been to. Its very, very clean for a start. Keadue, back home in County Leitrim wouldn’t stand a chance against this place in terms of cleanliness! There’s very little street poverty around the city center, but poverty is definitely prevalent in general outside and in the surrounding areas. Slums are widespread and clearly visible from all parts of town. English is not common at all here. In fact it’s predominately French that’s spoken here, along with Kinyarwanda. So the language barrier can be difficult at times. I studied French from my leaving Cert, but that was 13 years ago :)!

Food here is very nice, but expensive compared to Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. Buffets are the norm in most places. The standard of the roads in the city are the best in Africa we were told. This is mainly due to the millions of dollars that the UN poured into Rwanda in the aftermath of the 94 genocide. Guilt money perhaps?!!

Our main mode of transport around the city is by way of motorbike…like in Uganda. But the major difference is that you must wear a helmet. You can’t get on one unless you wear one…which is great. You don’t get even get the option to use one in Uganda. This are more structured here. The day after we arrived I hopped onto the back of one to head into the city center and along the way a little 2/3 year old kid ran out from the side of the road. The driver wasn’t looking at the road ahead of him and only for I screamed “watch out” I don’t think he would have avoided a collision! I nearly fainted with shock as the bike swerved around the child, but the driver was’nt bothered at all! Just another incident I’d say for these guys. He said that it was’nt his fault, that the mother should look after here children!


Hotel des Mille Collins(the hotel that inspired the movie “Hotel Rwanda”)

The atmosphere in Kigali is very strange. So far I can’t put my finger on it. The people are extremely honest and in most cases kind and helpful. One thing that is frowned upon almost everywhere here is people like me taking out a big SLR camera a going hell for leather snapping photo’s. The beauty of the land is spectacular with it’s rolling hills making it something that you’d see in a postcard. But beyond what I see, I am confused more by what I don’t see. There seems to be no evidence of the past, aside from the memorials, purple flags and pink uniforms, and I wonder if it’s a real sense of forgiveness and moving on, or if it’s a mask to hide the tensions and reality of what they are feeling or thinking? Kigali was the epic center of the nightmare that was 1994. There are countless men here with legs missing(both legs missing in many cases) and other scars from 94, but apart from that and the memorial center, there’s very little to suggest that anything bad happened here. I don’t know is that a good or a bad thing, but its definitely a strange atmospheric city!