The early morning mist shrouded our vehicles as we rolled past the town of Kabale headed for the Rwanda border about 20 miles away. We completed the border formalities without a hitch just as the fog banks were beginning to rise around us. Some immediate differences were the switch to the more familiar right-hand side driving, noticeably improved roads, and reduced traffic. The road snaked along valleys blanketed with fields of tea, rice, corn, sugarcane and flanked by steep hillsides sporting terraced fields, many eucalyptus and blue gum trees, and adobe houses. The orderly, clean swept roadside hamlets seemed like a far cry from the bustling and somewhat hectic roadside towns of Uganda. Just over an hour after crossing the border, the high rises of Kigali’s hilly central business district came into view and the countryside gave way to a city that epitomizes the turning economic fortunes of the African continent. Just like Kampala, prosperity seemed to prefer higher elevation, but Kigali had much better infrastructure, less traffic, and was much cleaner than Kampala.
By the look of things it was difficult to imagine that twenty years ago cataclysmic events were sweeping through this beautiful, green country extinguishing the lives of an estimated one million people in about one hundred days. This event, the 1994 genocide, touched every corner of Rwanda. Its all-encompassing reach was apparent if one noticed the periodic roadside memorials, such as the stone marker that we saw a few minutes after crossing into Rwanda, nestled into a verdant hillside, commemorating a site of mass slaughter. Besides the roadside markers, memorial sites appeared in cities, towns, and villages throughout the country. There were banners in every town marking the twenty years since the genocide and proclaiming the message of “Remember – Unite – Renew.”
After a lecture and discussion at the National University of Rwanda’s Center for Conflict Management about the history of the genocide we visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which from the street and parking lot resembled, at first glance, a quiet park in a wealthy suburb. The site has an exhibition building, archive and fifteen mass graves containing the remains of 259,000 individuals murdered in and around Kigali. The mass graves and exhibit seem deliberately constructed to take visitors inside the statistic of 1 million+ deaths by making it comprehensible in the only way that it can do: by transforming numbers back into individuals. Below the parking lot and initial garden like setting, visitors confront concrete slabs, eternal roofs over more than a quarter million victims interred underneath.
Next we turn to a wall of names. As the statistics start to become individuals with families and lives of their own, first names such as Innocent and Placide highlight the injustice.
The individualizing of victims continues in the indoor exhibit. To remember means to piece back together–the opposite of to dismember–and the exhibit endeavors to put back together the lives that were so violently sundered. Through the indoor exhibits, we are introduced to the social stratification that existed in pre-colonial Rwanda, which was transformed into an ironclad ethnic/racial divide under Belgian colonialism, laying the foundation for periodic killings after independence, and ultimately the events of 1994. The indifference of the international community, except for perhaps Uganda which was the base for the rebel movement that ended the genocide, is laid bare for all to see. The French come in for special criticism, with one image, for example, showing jubilant members of the murderous militia jogging alongside a convoy of seemingly smug French troops. A room with photographs of victims presents us with people’s faces in the bloom of life; then a room of skulls, showing what faces were reduced to; and then a room of ripped clothing worn by victims in the final moments of their lives, stained with dirt and dried blood. Everything that we see tells us that before they were statistics, before they were corpses, before they were victims . . . they were people. We leave the site in silence. There are many types of silence–the world’s silence during this genocide among them. What can we do to make our silence productive of good? When we return home to speak to our students and colleagues of what we have seen, what words shall we choose that are worthy of breaking the silence?
We spent the next day learning about Kigali and the topical issues of transitional justice and gender in post-genocide Rwanda. In the pre-colonial period the Kigali area was used as a site for ceremonies and part-time royal residence. The city, with a population of just over 1 million people, was founded under German colonial rule in 1908. It was favored because of its relatively central location. The topographic setting, on a series of prominent hills, could not be more different from the Chicago metropolitan area. We experienced the smart CBD (Central Business District), the general cleanliness of the city and learned about environmental measures such as the banning of plastic bags throughout the country in 2007. We saw extensive construction sites for the homes of Kigali’s burgeoning middle class. A new international conference center was coming up at the edge of the government office quarter. International hotel chains, including some from the United States, were setting up shop. But, Kigali’s struggles were evident too. In the valleys there were poor neighborhoods without street lighting, and on the hilltops, tree-lined and paved boulevards. The struggle to create affordable housing in Kigali has turned many of the less well off into daily commuters from the nearby rural hinterlands.
The following day found us driving south towards the town of Huye, formerly Butare, where the main campus of the National University of Rwanda is located. The drive reminded us why Rwanda has been known as “the land of a thousand hills” or la terre des mille collines. We wound continuously through terraced hills covered mostly with small family farms consisting of various mixtures of banana, millet, sorghum, sugar cane, papaya, sunflowers among other crops. Occasional tea or coffee plantations and clusters of pine, eucalyptus, blue gum, acacia, and bamboo trees hugged hillsides. Rice paddies and occasional fish farms were seen in many of the valleys. Our noses joined our eyes by taking in the fresh air and scents of the countryside – the minty aroma of the blue gums was unforgettable. In spite of the verdant beauty of the countryside, lower standards of living of many rural households were in stark contrast to the prosperity of the Kigali hilltops and relatively well-to-do sections of the towns that we passed.
After about 90 miles, we arrived at the Murambi Memorial Centre (formerly the Murambi Technical School). The site stands atop a grass covered hill with red clay, which sits within a surrounding amphitheatre of larger hills with clumps of eucalyptus trees, blue gums, and terraced homesteads. This beautiful setting belies the memories of the horror that took place there on April 21, 1994. Here 50,000 people sought refuge and were ultimately killed in the buildings of a school that was then under construction. The site includes a cemetery, preserved bodies of victims, several excavated mass graves (including a large open pit now empty) and an indoor museum exhibit. Most affecting are the preserved bodies. A pungent aroma of lye and musty decay pervades the four rooms where corpses are positioned as they fell in their last moment of life. For the second time in as many days, we walk away in silence.
As in Kigali, the indoor exhibit is brilliantly constructed to drive home the point that we are bearing witness not to numbers, not to corpses, but to people, and that all Rwandans and all people are one. Construction of the school at Murambi was never completed; the site was converted into a memorial. It never became a school. Or perhaps it has become a different kind of school, teaching lessons about humanity. The challenge for us as educators is how to suffuse those lessons into our classrooms, curricula, and students. And yet, as we had been reminded earlier that day by Professor Paul Rutayasire, director of the Center for Conflict Management at the National University of Rwanda-Kigali, education does not take place only, or perhaps even primarily, in classrooms. Much of it takes place in homes and other settings, formal and informal.
Our next stop was the main campus of the National University of Rwanda – Huye, where we interacted with department chairs and faculty members from a variety of disciplines. These connections have laid a foundation for ongoing dialogue and future collaboration in teaching and other scholarly activities. We had the opportunity to visit the library, administration block, and other sites around the sprawling campus, which had trimmed glades with an impressive collection of trees. A visit to the campus genocide memorial site reminded us that formal education does not, alone, root out bigotry, which can all too easily transform into the evils of ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and genocide. Mass atrocity is not only committed by uneducated masses. Tragically, at the university, students killed students, staff killed staff, and faculty killed faculty.
At the memorial sites in Rwanda, we experienced remembrance and recovery. We honored national memorialization. We participated in re-membering. And we tried to understand. Now we must forever bear witness.