Thursday, 1 August 2013

Kigali: Remembering the Rwandan Genocide

{This post is about various genocide sites and memorials and what I saw. It is not a pleasant topic and what I saw was confronting, harrowing and remains burnt to my memory to this day. I believe it’s important not to forget what happened in Rwanda less than 20 years ago but just be warned that this isn’t a pretty lovely happy travel post. Far from it}
{Rwandan countryside, our taxi driver & guide with our taxi}

Rwanda was never on my itinerary for Africa.  I wanted to go there but between the two group tours I’d booked, I hadn’t really left myself time. Then, after arriving in Lake Bunyoni, Uganda, our group organised a minivan taxi to take  us on a Kigali day trip.  From the get go of this post, let me make it clear that I don’t think a day in Kigali is sufficient time to see the best of Rwanda.  At all. If anything, a day in Kigali just gives you the time to the the worst of it. Or sobering reminders of the worst of it.  ‘

Lake Bunyoni isn’t that far from the Ugandan/Rwandan border and with Rwanda being so small, it’s only a few hours drive. Our itinerary for the day was tight and sobering.  We were heading to a massacre site memorial, the Genocide memorial and Hotel Des Mille Collines (Hotel Rwanda).

Before I go into these sites and the genocide, I should probably let you in on a secret. Rwanda is beautiful.  Incredible scenery, stunning landscapes.  And that’s just along the highway from the Ugandan border to Kigali.  I can only imagine how stunning the Verungas are and other parts of the country might be.

After a bit of a delay at the border (for us Australians to get our visas which, in theory, need to be applied for 3 clear days in advance) and switching sides of the road (yes, despite it being a road border crossing, you just change sides of the road once in Rwanda. I’m not sure how it works with oncoming traffic but luckily we didn’t encounter any), we headed for Kigali.  After reaching Kigali, our first stop was the Nyamata Memorial Site.

Nyamata is a church that was the scene of mass killings of Tutsis during the genocide in 1994. We were told approx. 10,000 Tutsis were killed inside the church itself with more on its grounds in one week at the hands of the Interahamwe (but given the chaos of the time, it is hard for numbers to be substantiated). The church is now home to a memorial and mass graves.  Nothing could prepare us for what we would see when we first went inside. Never has the silence of 10 people hung so heavy. Clothes of the victims remain behind, as do many blood stains, including on the altar cloth.

Downstairs inside the main building is now effectively a catacomb, a collection of skulls and bones of some of the victims. You can see the impact the various murder methods (stabbing, machete, bashed, bullets) impacted the skulls. There is a full skeleton of a girl, raped and cut open from top to bottom, left to right.  Out the back of the church are more mass graves, one of which you can descend into. Family groups are together where possible. Unidentified bones elsewhere. As well as the physical reminders of the human toll, the building is scarred by the massacres.  Bullet holes dot the walls and roof. Never has a building or site had this much impact on me. Hopefully none ever do again.

{Nyamata Church, mass graves behind the church. I didn’t take any photos inside at Nyamata at all but after googling, I’ve found this post on African Walkabout which has some. Worth a look but know that they’re shocking. Google images also shows what we saw.}

After Nyamata, we rode in near silence into the centre of Kigali, to the Genocide Memorial Centre. This is an incredible museum. Less confronting in that you don’t actually see bodies but horrific in that you read the stories, hear about the victims on a personal level.  Broken in to several areas, it covers Rwandan history in the lead up to the genocide, the genocide, the west’s reaction (or lack there of) to the genocide,  the rebuilding afterwards and an exhibition on other genocides of the 20th century (Holocaust, the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Armenia to name but a few). There are victims stories, a children's gallery and so much more to see. Outside of the centre, there are more mass graves in the grounds, a list of victims, a rose garden and sweeping city views. There is also a gift & book* shop on site. It is a peaceful place to visit.

{Part of the list of victims, mass graves (x 2),
the views of Kigali from the gardens}

Last stop of the day was at the Hotel Mille Collines for a late lunch.  Eating by the pool, we were able to wander the building and grounds in which Paul Rusesabagina sheltered Tutsis. This story is now famous and was told in the movie Hotel Rwanda (although the movie itself was not filmed on site).

{In and around Hotel Rwanda}

An incredible day, memorable for how sobering it was. A day that happened to come the day after the best of my travel days to date. That’s travel though, highs and lows, good and bad.

Is Rwanda on your travel list (or have you been there?). Or have you been something similar? Nyamata reminded me of the room of hair at Auschwitz in some ways. Do you remember the genocide occurring?

I'll be back tomorrow with some *book reviews on books relating to this.
Boring things. As I said at the top, I was only in Rwanda for a day. This meant getting a Rwanda visa ($30USD) and then another Ugandan Visa ($50USD). Getting the Rwandan visa didn’t impact my Kenyan single entry visa (that counts as more than one entry if entering from Uganda or Tanzania). It cost us around $100USD each for the taxi for the day, a guide and entry fees.

Australians should apply for their visas 3 days in advance and then collect them at the border. We applied for ours about a day and half in advance so we were aware things might not run smooth. The border people reminded us it should have been three days in advance, took our money and processed them with nothing more than a five minute delay. We smiled and we were lucky, I wouldn’t bank on it though.


  1. How heartbreaking. We talked about the genocide in a few of my college courses and I remember watching a documentary that made me tear up so many times.

    1. It's shocking, isn't it. Worth a visit though and certainly worth remembering. Do you remember the name of the documentary? I'm strangely in to reading and seeing what I can about it at the moment.