Red Soil: A Reflection on Rwanda’s Genocide Memorials

We started the day with a driver who was to take us to some spots of interest in Kigali. We weren’t sure what to expect but went along with his ideas for places to take us as he would know best. First stop was a place called the Presidential Palace Museum. Not too sure what to expect still, we paid the 12,000 Rwanda francs required for entry, and met our tour guide who took us through a series of manicured gardens and up to two buildings that we were told was home to President Habyarimana over a span of some time until 1994 when his plane was shot down. First, we visited a smaller house that was his first residence – spartan, abandoned, a chilling place that held nothing but a past. We were then taken across the way to the palace that he and his family eventually moved into. It was also spartan, empty and held only echoes of what once was. We visited a room that served as the gathering place for government officials planning the eventual genocide. We felt the presence of evil in that room, both chilled to the bone to know that a mass extermination of people was carefully being planned out. We went up to the secret second floor, through the President’s escape door. In one wing of the floor, we stood in a chapel that Pope John Paul II once stood in where Catholic mass would be celebrated. We were then taken across to another wing of the house where the President would secretly meet with a witch doctor, who would be snuck in to meet with the President. We all marvelled at the juxtaposition of what happened on that floor of the house. We were then taken to the back yard where we saw remnants of the plane that was shot down over his own home as he returned from Arusha to sign a peace treaty that would permit the Tutsi refugees to come home to Rwanda. We again marveled at the contradictions of this man’s life. We agreed that the place had overall bad energy and were eager to leave, as we did not want to feel the evil any longer.

We then proceeded to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. We took a deep breath as we entered, both unsure of what to expect, but knowing that we would be tested. We learned about the early origins of the racial divide between the Hutus and Tutsis. I was disappointed to see how integral the Catholic Church was in promoting hatred amongst the races. I hung my head in shame knowing I was once part of that institution that has so much blood on its hands. We then saw the beginnings of the genocide. The propaganda that urged Hutus to turn against the Tutsis, that caused friends, neighbours, even family members to turn on each other and savagely torture, rape, humiliate and bludgeon people they once loved by any brutal means possible. We watched a film that depicted the violence, the mass graves, the violence, the injured children, the piles of dead women, men and children. It was so overwhelming that I sobbed and a little louder than I should lamented, “How can human beings do that to each other?”. Levi pushed me out of that room to protect me. We went into a room filled with thousands of photos of people who had been killed in the genocide. They were photos of ordinary people, living their lives in ordinary ways. rwandamemorialI couldn’t help but recognize that my own family’s albums had many similar photos, taken at the same time, yet in Canada, we didn’t have to worry about being killed by those we trusted. We then entered a room filled with skulls and bones and other human remains. Some skulls were intact, many had giant holes in them where they had been clubbed to death. It was overwhelming, and brought a terrible feeling of sickness to my stomach. We were both silent and didn’t say much to each other throughout this part of the exhibit. The final place we visited in the building was the Children’s room. There were large, blown up photos of children, and under it described their age, their favourite foods, their hobbies, who their best friend was, and the way they died. One little girl’s favourite song was a national Rwandese song, and she was brutally bludgeoned by those men of her own country that she had been so proud to be a part of. These kids were the same age as we were at the time. They were experiencing utter atrocities while we comfortably lived our lives free of fear in Canada. It just wasn’t fair. At that point we had enough and our hearts, minds, and souls couldn’t take it any longer. We emerged from the exhibit to the hardest rain I had almost ever seen. The pathetic fallacy was surprising, yet not, as the weather matched perfectly the way we were feeling inside. It stopped raining and we got ready to leave, but first, made our way down to the mass grave to pay our respects to the 250,000 who are buried there. We went down a series of white-tiled steps to the burial site. It was eerie to see that the heavy rains had washed some of Rwanda’s red soil down the steps. There were streams of red pouring down the steps to the burial site, and I couldn’t help to see that as representing the blood that was shed by all those who were buried there. The mass graves are large slabs of concrete, lacking engraving, artwork or other adornments. Their blankness showed that there will never be an easy way to describe what happened during that genocide that led to such devastation and atrocity. It was a chilling place to be, yet we wanted to pay our respects as best we could.

We entered the car of our driver and back onto the vibrant and lively streets of Kigali. We wondered if the genocide regularly popped into the minds of the citizens of the city, but it appears to the eye that the city has moved on and chosen not to dwell on its recent history. Our driver proceeded to take us to another museum, and we quietly asked him to take us back to our hotel as we couldn’t be tourists any longer. We had come face to face with the Rwanda we knew about yet was too far away until now to fully experience. We were changed people, unable to any longer be ignorant to the atrocities of humanity. We sat quietly for most of the night and talked about what we had seen, reflected on the people we saw around us and wondered what their role in the history was. We are afraid to ask those we meet, and will refrain from doing so out of respect.

We will continue to honour Rwanda this week as we turn our focus from its past to its present and its future. We will travel around Kigali and throughout the country to visit some of its most spectacular scenery and visit some of its most interesting cultural sites. We will honour the Rwandese wishes to not dwell on its past and be committed to peace and promoting, participating in and celebrating the social, economic and cultural thriving of this country. We will never forget Rwanda or turn our backs on what was an what now is.
“I know there is a God because in Rwanda I shook hands with the devil. I have seen him, I have smelled him and I have touched him. I know the devil exists and therefore I know there is a God.” – Romeo Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil.

Never again.

— October 2015

2 thoughts on “Red Soil: A Reflection on Rwanda’s Genocide Memorials”

  1. Anne-Marie, such a touching writing. Thanks for sharing your experience in Rwanda. My respect and support for the people of Rwanda now is deeper.


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