The return to normalcy

RWANDA IN FOREIGN PRESSKigali is booming. Shopping centres, glistening new glass office towers and luxury hotels are - quite literally in some cases - paving over the country’s immediate past of mass murder.

Kigali is booming. Shopping centres, glistening new glass office towers and luxury hotels are - quite literally in some cases - paving over the country’s immediate past of mass murder.

Among the grandest of the new buildings is the sprawling Serena Hotel, a testament to the birth of a new Rwanda. As are its clientele. The hotel is a favourite for foreign businessmen riding an economic boom and American tourists hoping for a glimpse of the region’s famed gorillas.

The visitors spend their evenings in the hotel bar with its faux Africa trappings to hear stories of Dian Fossey.

What no one tells them is what happened right beneath their feet.
Where the Serena Hotel now stands was once the Hotel des Diplomates. It was a scrawny affair even before the 1994 civil war and Genocide, with threadbare 1970s furniture, a dark and uninviting bar in the basement and dire food. It was also, for a few murderous weeks, the seat of government.

When Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) took a large part of Kigali, the Hutu extremist regime overseeing the genocide retreated into the Hotel des Diplomates.

Its meeting rooms became ministries. Governors and mayors were summoned from across the nation to meetings with the prime minister, Jean Kambanda, and his cabinet colleagues where they were variously congratulated on the scale of the slaughter in their home provinces or upbraided for not having sent enough Tutsis to their graves.

The memos that flew out of these meetings carried all the code words - ‘work’ was a euphemism for killing - but they are clear enough in their intent.

Eventually the rebels were close enough to force the administration out of Kigali altogether. It trekked west until finally re-establishing itself in Gisenyi on the border with what was then Zaire (now DR Congo). There the administration set up in what is now another luxury hotel, though by this time it governed almost no territory and commanded no authority.

But before leaving the Hotel des Diplomates, the retreating regime saw to it that a group of its opponents was butchered on the top floor of the building.

Eventually the Hotel Des Diplomates was bulldozed and built the palace that now stands in its place. There’s nothing there to mark the terrible and very recent history. But it’s impossible to escape, if you know.

That is the reality across Rwanda today. To the casual eye the country has made a remarkable recovery from a tragic past.

The Genocide is not forgotten but it is compartmentalised into selected sites where some of the worst atrocities took place and in a memorial in the heart of Kigali where 250,000 of the victims from the city are interred in 14 mass graves.

There is some form of monument to the “jenoside”, as it is called in Kinyarwanda, in every village. But the real memorials are in the heads of the survivors, the witnesses and even the killers as they pass churches and schools transformed into extermination centres or street corners where the Hutu militia cut down those with the wrong ethnicity written on their identity cards.

Walk out of the Serena, turn left and after a few hundred yards you come to the military barracks where ten Belgian peacekeepers were tortured and butchered by the Rwandan army on the first day of the Genocide.

Turn right at the barracks, follow the road round and after a few minutes you reach Kigali hospital, where the army dragged Tutsis from their beds and bayoneted them. Some time after the Genocide, a mass grave with 2,000 bodies was discovered in the hospital grounds.

Move on down the road - past the French embassy where diplomats were more concerned about saving the ambassador’s dog than human beings - and you reach a large roundabout. Half way around is the St Famille church where a notorious priest, Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, stood at the entrance with a cross around his neck, a gun on his hip and a list in his hand, ticking off the names of those he had chosen to hand over to the waiting militiamen and their machetes.

It is possible to travel through most of the west and south of Rwanda and encounter such reminders of mass murder every few miles or even every few yards, though few of them are formally marked.

Some Rwandans choose to go on as if nothing happened. Pious congregations assemble each Sunday in churches like the one in Kibuye where the 11,500 people who had sought sanctuary there were killed in a single day in April 1994, including the parish priest, a Hutu who turned down the opportunity to save his own life.

But for others the appearance of normality is an added torture.

More than a decade on, other survivors walking the streets of Kigali have that same repressed fury at what passes for normality. One is Olive Rutayisire, now 45, widowed and with two adopted children in their teens to care for in place of her four-year-old daughter, who was murdered with her father.

Like many survivors she lives with a mix of anger, grief and fear that her world might implode again. She is also not alone in saying she is “condemned to live”.

Olive said she has a hard time walking the streets of Kigali because the ghosts of the past are everywhere, but it seems to her that others are blind to them.

Next to the mass graves at the main Kigali memorial is a museum that seeks to explain, or at least lay out the facts. It is no fault of the museum that the terrible pictures of mutilated bodies and the heart-rending accounts of survivors telling of the fate of relatives cannot convey the full horror of the 100 days of murder.

Even the most moving part of the museum, a hall lined with family snaps of the dead - a wedding picture from the seventies, nervous children on their first day at school with post-genocide captions added: “Yvan Musabe, Murdered age 16 years. C’est inimaginable” - leaves you more numb and disbelieving than anything.

Rwanda’s post-genocide government believes the wider context is important in purging the ideology of extermination from the country by drumming home the message that not only the Tutsis suffered. All Rwandans have paid the price in some way or other and it must never happen again.

That is not, however, a universal view. Last month, the education ministry said it had purged schools of about 50 teachers for continuing to spread the “ideology of genocide” in their schools by making Hutu and Tutsi children wear different uniforms and repeating the old canards that dehumanise Tutsis.

The ministry said that Mataba Secondary School, in the north of the country, was teaching from a book that included the following turn of phrase: “Tutsis are snakes, we’re sick of them and we will kill them”.

Gaseke Secondary School, about 30km from Kigali, was still circulating the Hutu Ten Commandments published by extremists in the run up to the Genocide. They include: “Hutu must stop taking pity on the Tutsi” and “Hutu must stand firm and vigilant against their common enemy: the Tutsi”.

It is an important struggle to win for the day when no one is left alive who can see the ghosts of genocide as they wander Kigali’s streets.

This is a slightly edited version of the article first published in The Guardian last week

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