We’re currently in McLeod Ganj, India, known as “Little Tibet.” This city is where many Tibetan refugees have fled, and it’s the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. We’re learning so much about the cultural genocide that the Tibetan people have suffered since the Chinese occupation. Since we have a little bit of free time we’d like to continue catching you up on our experiences in Africa, including how the Rwandan people suffered unthinkable tragedy during the most rapid genocide in history.
As our truck made its winding way through the lush green terraced hillsides of Rwanda (Central Africa), we were all in awe. The scenery was fantastic, the people were friendly, and it was just so peaceful. We haven’t been to Nepal yet (we will be there next month) but many of our fellow passengers had said Rwanda’s serene countryside is similar. But what really shocked us was trying to fathom that these gorgeous landscapes had been the stage for a massive genocide less than 20 years ago.
I’m sure many of us remember hearing about Rwanda on the news in 1994. But honestly, I was 11 and it wasn’t something that grabs a preteen’s attention. What an unbelievable tragic event. Words can’t describe the horrors the Rwandan people suffered during that time but I’ll try my best to share what we learned while we were in Rwanda this past January. Most people know the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe in the 1940’s. But it was shocking to hear that the most rapid genocide in history occurred so recently in Rwanda.
Let me give a bit of history to set the scene. Rwanda was colonized by Germans in the late 1800’s and then given to Belgium after World War II. During their time in power, the Germans and Belgians encouraged the divisions between the Rwandan population’s groups of Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa (emphasizing the superiority of the Hutus and considering the groups different races). There were decades of hatred, tensions, and violence between the Hutus and Tutsis. The Hutus blamed the Tutsi minority for Rwanda’s problems. Things erupted in an inconceivable way in early April 1994 when President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down. Messages of propaganda through the media (especially the radio) convinced the Rwandans that they must enact the “final solution” and rid the country of Tutsis. Neighbors, friends, and family brutally murdered one another with machetes. Even Hutu husbands killed their Tutsi wives, and vice versa. Babies and children were violently murdered. The Hutus grabbed their machetes and “got to work” as the radio propaganda instructed them to do. Within three months, approximately 800,000 Rwandans were killed and many others fled the country. Approximately ¾ of the Tutsi population perished, along with thousands of Hutus who opposed the killing. An American friend of ours, who’s spent the last 30 years providing aid to war torn areas, was in Rwanda to help during this time. Although he’s spent decades in wars and conflicts around the globe, he says the horrors he witnessed in Rwanda in 1994 is what gives him nightmares and keeps him awake each night to this day.
We came to Rwanda to go mountain gorilla trekking in Parc National des Volcans on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. But before that we went into the capital city of Kigali to visit the Kigali Genocide Museum and Monuments. This museum was extremely emotional, but informative and well-presented. There are approximately 250,000 people buried on the grounds of the museum in unmarked graves. One of the most upsetting parts for me and others was seeing the exhibit for the children. There were pictures of dozens of the sweet, innocent babies and children that were violently killed during those three months, along with facts about them like their favorite food, toys, hobbies, and how they were murdered. 🙁
Today people involved in the Rwandan Genocide are still being brought to justice. Bryan commented that one of the strangest parts of being in Rwanda was seeing people in their 30’s, 40’s or older and wondering how they played a part in the horrific events. For me, the strangest thing was seeing the children and others waving to us on the hills and wondering how many others would have been there if an entire generation hadn’t been wiped out. The effects of a massive genocide are difficult to fathom. Children are growing up without parents and many people are missing limbs. War-rape left many women with HIV, AIDS, and other diseases. This doesn’t even begin to examine the psychological effects from the genocide. And it isn’t like the hostility just ended when a new government took over. That strong of hatred runs deep. We’ve heard that there are still problems and threats between the groups.
I’ve only just skimmed the surface of the Rwandan Genocide. It’s an extremely complex subject. If you are interested in learning more, the novel An Ordinary Man is an autobiography written by a brave Rwandan man who risked his life to hide and protect over 1,200 refugees in his hotel during the 3-months of genocide. We listened to the audiobook while we were riding through Rwanda (there is also a movie based on the book called “Hotel Rwanda”). It’s a moving and unforgettable story.
I didn’t write this blog to upset you. I’ve learned more about history, geography, and international events in the last 22 months than I ever did in school or from the news. I think it’s important to pass that knowledge on. One thing I’ve learned from traveling is that many Americans don’t know a lot about international events. Other countries have much more international news coverage than we do in the US. Someone recently asked me how travel has changed me. I thought for a few minutes and then realized that it’s made me more curious, especially about world events. I don’t want to be so America-centric anymore. There’s so much more going on in the world than just our often trivial first world problems.
Today Rwanda continues to move forward towards a more positive future. The picturesque countryside, lush jungles (home to the endangered mountain gorillas), and clean, attractive capital city of Kigali are popular must-sees for many travelers. For a more cheerful blog about our time in Rwanda, read about our experiences trekking the fascinating mountain gorillas in African Animal Encounters.