Reflecting on the Rwanda genocide: A visit to the genocide memorial in Kigali

The first interaction I ever had with the Rwandan genocide was when I was about ten. I would come home for lunch and quickly put on the telly and by then the only private tv station in Kenya would have much of its content during the day on American news media house CNN.

I was barely in my teens so I never really understood the images that kept on making the headlines then, about a tiny country in the neighbourhood going through humongous turmoil at that time.

The images coming out of Kigali then, were scary, even in my naivety, the bodies scattered in the streets was something I could barely understand and at that time, I didn’t have the courage to ask my mum or dad any questions as to what was going on.

In their chats at the dinner table, they would talk about how Kenya needed then to reflect on the happenings in Rwanda and learn from how just a small spark would ruin an entire community.

….29 years later, I’m standing at the Rwanda genocide memorial in Kigali and the images come rushing through. But as an adult, it’s sinking in better when I’m taken through the memorial that not only captures that dark hour in Africa but also other global massacres and genocides including the killings in the former Yugoslavia and other global events…

This piece of history is beautifully presented and kept alive, though it represents the death and pain of a people, whose resolve is to never harm each other again.

My guide says that we have just a few minutes before closing time as we came here just after 4 pm. The scenic view looking the hilly Kigali city is stunning, but once one walks in, the seriousness of this facility comes to life.

The history of Rwanda in colonial times is all documented, here, the governance system and the cultural and political matters that boiled over in a period just before all hell broke loose in early April 1994.

If my history serves me right, the death of the then President Juvenal Habyarimana had been on the same flight from Arusha Tanzania with the Burundi President Cyprien Ntarymira, when their plane was shot down by a missile near Kigali.

This was on the evening of 6th April 1994, the events that followed this key accident was a massacre of just about a quarter of a million people inside Rwanda, the majority of whom were butchered by their neighbours and fellow Rwandese nationals.

In the galleries, I was able to catch a glimpse of the weapons of choice by the killers, machetes, wooden sticks and clubs stored in glass boxes under images of human corpses piled up in what seems like a sea of humanity…

The emotions in the rooms cannot escape one, no matter how strong you may think. Herbert our tour guide tells me, “It’s harder to watch these images, no matter how many times you come here.”

One image of a child sleeping curled up in a foetal position alone on the street, moves me….oh maybe the thought of it being my 9-year-old daughter, is what scared me the most.

The old {seemed like colonial era ) shotguns and wooden guns caught my eye, and I wondered how this type of weapon was part and parcel of a genocide executed almost exclusively by a garden tool, that is easily available in many homes and that was distributed then in trucks and vans in huge numbers – the machete.

The guns are old, but still look like they can be fired if cleaned well. But the dust and dated look they have, show that they have seen the test of time, even longer than the three decades they have been sitting in storage under the care of the government of Rwanda.

Paul Kagame, the president in the present day has always stated that this gory past is what keeps Rwanda ticking today and that the nation has come a long way, to heal and unite.

In a few days, I will visit some local villages in the south, I’m told that this is where I may get to see the reality of those events three decades ago, first hand and speak to the people on how they have picked up the pieces, since.

Rwanda is beautiful now, Kigali to be precise, and the city has preserved that dark history in beautiful gardens where the graves of over 100,000 people lie at the genocide memorial.

The terrazzo slab looks like an ordinary place to sit and just relax, but a sign politely asking visitors not to sit on the graves, brings out the reality of what lies within this beauty.

In one tomb, a glass window shows the brown caskets laid neatly together. They could be of small-bodied adults or children, many of who died along with the women in the genocide. One such image of bones lying outside a hut where the child was hacked to death stands in the galleries…

Again, the thought of how they died, and the question of, did it hurt, races through my mind, however fast, it must have been painful.

29 years have passed and an anniversary is coming up, I’ll get a front-seat view of how this country marks this part of their history.

The grounds are being cleaned and fresh white flowers are placed in wreaths on top of the cleaned cemented graves…

I have several thoughts in mind, how can this moment cage my perspective on how we see each other as Kenyans, how we relate and deal with each other, especially in hotly contested political seasons?

Let me just keep that in my chest for the moment.

Kuibuka, 29, is bringing me closer to connecting with my ten-year-old self, watching the live reports of a war, whose impact is felt so many years after the killings stopped.

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