I landed in Kigali, Rwanda, yesterday on my first stop to visit the water projects we fund. As my airplane entered over a sea of mountains and hills and landed on a runway surrounded by greenery, I could tell that this was going to be a beautiful country that would astound me on several occasions during my trip.
Even though a few people back home would associate Rwanda with its hills, mountains, national parks or even gorillas, I think many would only be able to tell you about the genocide that happened here in the 90s – an unsettling memory that has left a terrible legacy over the whole country ever since. I knew that if I wanted to truly understand the future of Rwanda and therefore the impact of our water projects, I’d have to educate myself about its past first. As I’m not scheduled to visit our water projects until the day after tomorrow, I made my way over to the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city and where the genocide began 23 years ago. This has to go down as one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had.
The striking memorial building surrounded by beautiful peace gardens full of red roses has a tranquil feel to it as I enter the site.
Apart from at reception, no one spoke a single word or made a sound for the two hours I spent there. Instead, each visitor slowly made their way around the museum and gardens without making eye contact with each other as they held back tears. From videos of survivors telling their stories, to stained-glass window memorials, photos and footage of the atrocities and a detailed account of what went on, the visit ended with a short film of the same survivors saying how they will never forget the evil that happened – but they forgive those who caused it so Rwanda can move on peacefully. This is the moment I couldn’t keep it together. I had to take a break.
I took some time walking around the rose gardens reflecting on what I had learnt. It only then dawned on me that many of the visitors weren’t exploring the museum like me; they were here spending time with their lost friends, family and neighbours – the 250,000 people who have been buried at this site.
I don’t mean to trivialize the atrocities by summarising what I learnt today, but it’s important that we talk about and understand what went on so we can learn, remember and move forward like the Rwandans so clearly strive to. So I will do my best to write this up.
The Rwandan Genocide involved two ethnic groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis, and took place over 100 days from 6th April to 16th July 1994. Before this, there had been an on-going war between the Hutu government and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which was predominantly made up of Tutsi refugees who fled Uganda because of the Hutu violence against them. The catalyst for the start of the massacre was when an airplane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, an ethnic Hutu, was shot down as he returned from Tanzania.
The Hutu extremists took this opportunity to react and try to wipe out out the entire Tutsi population and the Hutus who did not support them. Hutu civilians were forced to arm themselves with machetes, clubs and blunt objects to beat, rape and and murder their Tutsi neighbours and destroy or steal their homes. The widespread slaughter only ended when the Rwandan Patriotic Front managed to take control of the country.
Over just 100 days, one million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered. A devastating statistic that only truly hit me when I found out that six men, women and children were killed every single minute. This wiped out 70% of the Tutsi population and 20% of Rwanda’s total population. A fifth of the population murdered because of their ethnicity.
This horrific moment in time has, of course, had a profound long-term impact on Rwanda and its people. I was just four years old when it happened. As a taxi driver called Job who is not too much older than me drives me back to my hotel where a women who is probably the same age as me works at reception, I wonder (and can’t even start to imagine) what they and their friends and family must have seen and gone through. A recent survey on display at the museum revealed that 80% of children saw a family member being killed and 90% saw someone being killed. I just can’t begin to imagine the hell they went through.
Twenty-three years on it’s clear that Rwanda has taken great strides on its road to recovery. A rising standard of living, steady economic growth and a low incidence of corruption has helped to reduce poverty and inequality across the country. And these are a few of the main reasons why we can implement such effective, long-term and sustainable water projects with the support of the country’s government, districts and local communities.
Twenty-three years on it’s clear that Rwanda has not forgotten. A sign over the entrance at the Genocide Memorial reads “A place for remembrance and learning”. A sign that could also reflect the attitude of a nation that is still badly hurting, but remembers, educates and talks about its horrifying past to help forgive, grow and move forward. And most importantly never let it happen again.
Twenty-three years on and it’s clear that we could learn a lot from the Rwandans. As we elect a President who incites racial hatred and wants to build walls to keep people out, turn a blind eye to a leader who has legalised domestic abuse whilst persecuting individuals because of their sexuality and neglect thousands of refugees who have risked their lives to flee the bombs that fall on their war-torn homes every day – I sincerely wish that we could also learn from Rwanda’s bloody past. Until we’re ready to learn and understand the dangers of persecution, discrimination and hatred due to another person’s culture, race or beliefs and remember, grow and move forward like the Rwandans then, quite worryingly, history will continue to repeat itself time and time again.
“If one cultivates hatred, hatred will grow. If one cultivates love, then love will grow.” Kigali Genocide Memorial