I won’t go in to details over who was to blame and why (this BBC article from 2011 sums it up quite concisely – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-13431486) – but in the space of a hundred days in 1994 20% of the population of Rwanda were murdered in a horrendous genocide of unimaginable barbarity. It is reckoned that over 800,000 people were killed and over three quarters of the population displaced by the events.
Tiny Rwanda, in the Central Eastern highlands of Africa, is dwarfed by its neighbours Tanzania, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo, with only its southern neighbour of Burundi being of a similar size. The events of 1994 thrust a previously inconspicuous nation into the global spotlight and it wasn’t until after the atrocities that the world took notice. The United Nations and powerful Western democracies were heavily criticised for their inaction during the bloodshed but they arrived to help the millions of refugees who fled across the border and those left behind whose lives were left in ruins. Many of the survivors had become overnight orphans and help was needed on a large scale to help the displaced. My translator, on a previous trip to the Central African Republic, had becme an orphan during the genocide, fleeing Rwanda for Bangui where he now lives after rebuilding his life. (A recent coup only last week has thrown the Central African Republic into disarray though – another indication of how fragile the region can be).
It is thought that there were as many as 200,000 perpetrators during the killings, which begs the question where are they now? Whilst some of the murderers were caught or fled, many of them have managed to integrate themselves back into society and this did cross my mind when I spoke to men of a certain age during my visit.
The critically acclaimed film Hotel Rwanda shows the Hollywood take on the genocide and gives an insight into the real life events of a hotel manager at the Hotel des Mille Collines. The hotel is in the centre of the capital, Kigali, and was used as a refuge to shelter hundreds of persecuted citizens and I recommend the film if you haven’t seen it already. I watched it for the first time the day before flying out and, fresh from the viewing, I landed in Kigali for the first time with thoughts of 1994 in my mind – oh, and supermarkets. Today, remarkably, Kigali is a far cry from those dark days.
The norm for westerners arriving in many African countries is to be hounded by taxi drivers looking for a fare (some genuine, some scammers) upon exiting the terminal building and grabbing your suitcase. I was expecting much the same at Kigali’s tiny airport but instead was met by polite, uniformed men with identification tags on their smart lapels. And driving from the airport to the city with sweeping green hills all around it was a world away from the war torn streets I’d seen in the movie. I actually stayed at the Hotel des Mille Collines which is still one of the top hotels in the city and it was all rather surreal checking in. Any other hotel which was the focal point of a Hollywood movie would advertise the fact to bring in business but there’s not a single hint on display of the hotel’s history.
Hotel des Mille Collines translates as ‘hotel of a thousand hills’ and the city is certainly very…er…hilly. The city centre sits atop one of these hills and, with several modern skyscrapers, it seems to stand proud from a distance. Before embarking on the supermarket hunt I took a trip to the Kigali Memorial Centre to reflect on the events of 1994. I’m a big fan of horror movies and not easily shocked but the simplicity of the centre and the harrowing stories of survivors made for a rather disturbing visit, akin to the few Holocaust museums I’ve been to.
A long walk back from the centre via various shops and supermarkets was a pleasant way to spend the rest of the afternoon. Considering that some of the people I passed may well have once been involved in the bloodshed the atmosphere around the city is very relaxed and I saw dozens of expats milling around town, giving a cosmopolitan air to proceedings. In most African countries I’ve visited, expats drive from place to place or have their own drivers (even for short distances) but Kigali is very safe these days so, if you don’t mind the hills, walking is often the preferred mode of transport.
On the whole, the trip went very smoothly, with the only hiccup being a fire at one of the supermarkets! In some locations it can be a real nightmare tracking down all of the goods which I price but if the shop is on fire there’s not really much you can do about it. Fortunately there are quite a few supermarket options for expats in the city.
Another surprise for me was the widespread use and understanding of English. Collecting data in francophone African countries usually presents a linguistic challenge for me (my French is very limited) but in Rwanda I had no troubles at all. Most street signs are in English and since 2008 schools have been teaching in English. Intrigued, I looked in to the reasons and it seems to stem back to the genocide. This Economist article briefly explains the reasons – http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2012/10/language-rwanda.
I have a couple of weeks until my next trip and will be attempting to finish the Paris Marathon this weekend, but before I go I’ll leave you with the answers to my question about famous quotes from the film Casablanca, so well done if you got them all! The six quotes are:
“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
“Round up the usual suspects.”
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
“We’ll always have Paris.”
“Here’s looking at you, kid.”
“Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By’.”