We had an extra day in Kigali, Rwanda before our flights back to the States in the late evening. My mother and I had just finished a wonderful, 2-week trip through Uganda and Rwanda, highlighted by trekking to observe the incredible mountain gorillas in both countries. Most of our group had already departed; but we, along with one other couple, remained.
When we first drove into Rwanda from Uganda three days earlier, two things were immediately striking. First was the total lack of trash, anywhere. Second was the law-obeying drivers. There was development as far as the eye could see in Kigali. From the outside, it would be easy to label the country–as some have–the “Switzerland” of the region. Whether facade or not, first impressions were impressive.
It didn’t take long to start talking about how things were in Rwanda, now, with our Ugandan guide. I’m sure we were still given a rosy version of the situation but it wasn’t very rosy. They suggested we tread very lightly when asking people anything about current politics, as rumor had it that spies reported anything the least bit disparaging or dissenting back to Kagame’s government. (At the time, I thought they were exaggerating a bit; the day we returned, The New York Times Magazine released this fascinating piece about Kagame.)
Our guide had graciously agreed to be our driver for our free day, and he picked the four of us up bright and early at our hotel. We were greeted by two additional people in the car, who were introduced to us as an uncle and a cousin (Ugandans, living in Rwanda). I’ll never really be sure if they were actual relations or if that was just the easiest way to explain their presence, but it didn’t matter. We were headed to the churches outside the city, where thousands were killed in the genocide just 20 years earlier.
The churches are about an hour from the capital. We had only planned to go to one (Ntarama Church), but the uncle said there was another nearby the first (Nyamata Church). They aren’t well-signed, but some friendly children pointed us in the right direction. I’m sure they see a fair number of lost visitors.
Each person reacts and copes differently to memorials and sites such as these. Many people don’t want to visit at all, because it’s too “uncomfortable” or “sad”, which is often disheartening to me. I think it’s so easy–too easy–to be detached from world events, even ones that occur in your own lifetime. Visiting these places certainly isn’t easy, but I feel strongly it is important–even if its a tangle of difficult emotions. In my opinion, to “Never Forget” is not compatible with refusing to see, listen, learn, and talk about what happened.
There is no way to explain or describe what these memorialized churches are like, at least not in a way that does them any justice. But I will unequivocally say that if you are in Kigali, you should visit. They have done an impressive job preserving these sites in a manner that is respectful but still confronts you with the atrocities that occurred in 1994. Unlike the Holocaust or the Khmer Rouge, the Rwandan genocide happened in my lifetime. There is no saying “it was so long ago” because it wasn’t. I would have been about 10, an age I can vividly remember.
That means most people you see living and working in the Rwandan cities and villages lived through the genocide. Publicly they (voluntarily or otherwise) identify as “Rwandan”, though it seemed–from the number of times numerous people explained that the government strictly forbade the mention of ‘Hutu’ or ‘Tutsi’ but everyone knows who is who–that the ‘old’ distinction lies still lies not far under the surface.
When we arrived back at the hotel, the cousin and the uncle expressed to us how grateful they were that we allowed them to tag along. And though Uganda has certainly had it’s own share of violence in the not-distant past, each quietly remarked about how horrible the Rwandan genocide had been. In fact, neither our guide or his family members seemed to have a whole lot of faith that either Rwanda or Uganda or the region would stay violence-free in coming decades. Maybe it’s pessimism…maybe it’s realism: politics, issues of natural resources, corruption, oppression, complex histories, and different cultures continue to incompatibly collide. Does “Never Forget” inherently imply “Never Again”?
As the New York Times Magazine article explains, Rwanda continues to have some brilliant successes and epic problems as it develops and moves forward. There are not easy answers, and the more I learn the harder the problem seems. In many ways, progress that has been made is credible and laudable. Five steps forward, three steps back? The people’s resilience in Rwanda is incredibly inspiring, as is their outward stoicism. But the memorial sites at Ntarama and Nyamata Churches were a clear reminder to me of how close the past remains despite all that has been accomplished.