The gorilla trek tour was over. I planned to stay around a little longer in Rwanda to see what Kigali was like from a different perspective, so I ended up being an official “wave-good-bye-er” for the others as they departed for their various destinations.
I walked up the hill to a local grocery store, which turned out to have a little cafe in it. I sat down and a waitress brought a menu. Fortunately, the menu had pictures, because the menu was written in Kenyrwanda. She and I figured out what I wanted to order, and then I sat back to watch the people.
Watching people in Kigali revealed that there are many people in Rwanda’s “middle class.” Rwanda has businesses that are starting up, and businesses that are established. It reminded me of Botswana, which a taxi driver described to me as “a middle income” country. Yes, there are poor people. Many. But there are also many students who can afford to go to university, people who can afford to dress in a “middle income” way, and who can afford a car or a motorbike. Their downtown was growing, not in desperate need of repairs.
I passed the district government offices, and was curious about the “pointy thing” that was on top of their building. I discovered that the thing was a representation of a traditional Rwandan basket. When a woman is married, she carries a basket that looks like this, with a pointed lid, which is supposed to carry the wisdom, traditions, and “secrets” of her family to her new family and home. So, I suppose that the district government had this representation on their building to signify a cultural tradition that they were carrying on.
I visited the memorial built by the Belgians to remember their soldiers that were lost during the 1994 Genocide. It was a sad loss of young men, who were told to surrender their weapons and they would come to no harm, and were then attacked. They defended their place, but were outnumbered and unable to communicate their need for help.
There is a pillar for each man. The lines carved into the granite pillars are one for each year of their life, ranging from 18 to 32. There are further details on each pillar so that their families could identify them each.
I found one of my favorite things – a coffee house, “Beautiful Coffee!” The coffee beans are grown around Lake Kivu, where we had been, and the coffee drinks here were wonderful.
They also had food, served by a co-located but separate business, Kijamii Table. It is a wonderful place, very “Rwandan” – friendly, growing, blooming – and I hope they are doing well. Business is tough to start anywhere. Rwanda is ripe for new business, but fragile as well.
It was time for me to move on soon enough. As always, part of me was anxious to see more, and still sorry to leave where I was.
After we left the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International museum, music drew us across the road, where there was a cultural center.
For centuries, African villages were the center of life. Children grew up learning not just skills for daily living, but music, dancing, and other arts. As modern, city life drew people away from their village lives, people realized that their traditional culture was in danger of fading away, and so these centers were organized to showcase and teach traditional culture. For the rest of us, it simply looked like fun!
Artists displayed their works inside the center, and outside when the materials were weatherproof. I was particularly drawn to this painting.
We stopped at the coffee house after the cultural center, enjoyed a really good espresso drink, and then headed back to the Best View to rendezvous with our cohorts and celebrate Jacob’s birthday! It was a great way to spend the last evening out. In the next morning, we would be heading back to Kigali.
Musanze is a district in the northern half of Rwanda, south of the four national parks, but not so far south as to escape their influence. There is a tourism school here, to help Rwandans learn how to help tourists learn about Rwanda and to ease their travel.
Jacob, our guide, was headed downtown and asked – since I appeared to be at loose ends – if I would like to come along, so I did. It seemed to be a good opportunity to see the Rwandan town and have Jacob handy to ask questions at the same time. He was on a mission on behalf of one of our group to check out the bus schedules.
We started by stopping into a tour agency office where he knew people. There were two women sitting at their desks, who both looked up and smiled when they saw Jacob, and came forward to greet him. Jacob, with his wry sense of humor, introduced me as his new wife, implying more than one. They looked at me with quizzical eyes. Men in Rwanda are, in fact, allowed to have more than one wife, but I was laughing, so they enjoyed the joke, too.
They were friendly and happy people, i.e. typically African, and we had a very nice time visiting for the ten or fifteen minutes we were there, and then we moved on to the bus station. Jacob was able to read the schedule board to find what he needed, and then we began walking back toward the hotel.
I asked Jacob about all of the construction that was going on. Buildings were going up everywhere, and I didn’t see any evidence that there would be demand for apartments, even in Rwanda, which has a reasonable economy growing. He said that people with money liked to invest in apartments or hotels – they believed that Rwanda would grow. The corner of my mind where accounting thoughts still lurk was dubious about a reasonable pay-back period, but then again, my estimate of what it cost to build these places was probably over-stated. Working people in hotels, construction, or domestic occupations are paid very little, and so the actual construction cost may be very low. Most of the buildings are made from concrete and rebar skeletons built on a concrete pad or dug foundation, then finished. In a hotel, one can see where the concrete pillars and beams are underneath the finished walls and trim.
We were staying in the Best View Hotel, which was on a side street in Musanze, and a very pleasant hotel for these last two days of our tour. As we walked along the street, we met Lynda and Patrina, who were on the way to the Dian Fossey Museum, and so I parted with Jacob, and joined Lynda and Patrina. I was very interested in visiting the museum.
The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International actually owns the building that houses the museum. The fund began in 1977 as The Digit Fund, organized by Dian Fossey to provide financial support to protect mountain gorillas, but as the mission of the organization expanded into conservation and fundraising, the name was changed. Today, you can find them online simply as “gorillafund.org.”
The museum is on the main floor. It houses educational displays, such as a comparison of a gorilla skeleton with a human skeleton. Gorillas are much bigger overall than humans, but specifically, their hands are much larger than ours as a proportion of our overall body. Gorillas’ canine teeth are larger and more prominent than ours. They use their teeth in defending their group from outside threats, and males use them to establish dominance within the group. Humans have a larger brain, which is housed in a larger brain case than gorillas have. Their heads and necks are very large and muscular, but their brain is measurably smaller than humans’ brains. And lastly, gorillas’ spines are bow-shaped and their arms are longer than their legs. These features enable them to climb trees and move between tree tops more easily than humans could. Humans have S-shaped spines, which enable them to walk upright more easily.
There was a chart that showed the approximate timelines in the relationships among orangutans, chimpanzees, baboons, gorillas, and humans. Orangutans were the first to diverge from our common ancestor, at almost 13 million years ago. Gorillas were next at 10 million years, followed by chimpanzees at 5 million years. Bonobos developed about 2 million years ago from an ancestor in common with chimpanzees. And then came humans.
Other displays discussed ways that our cell phones and other small electronics, including some advanced medical electronics, endanger gorillas. Coltan, the colloquial name for columbite-tantalum, is mined in the middle of gorilla habitat. In 2006, the main sources (80%) of coltan were Australia, Brazil, and Canada. As of 2018, coltan’s main producers are Rwanda, DRC (Congo,) Nigeria, Brazil, and China. Australia and Canada remain important producers, and Mozambique has some production.
In Africa, coltan is found mainly in the forests of the eastern DRC. It is mined by hand in a manner similar to panning for gold. There are three problems associated with this mining activity. First was the existence of “slave conditions” and child labor in the mining process itself. This caused Apple, in 2016, to suspend buying hand-mined coltan from the DRC. Second is the ongoing destruction of habitat by the mining activity that causes displacement of gorilla groups, including lowland gorillas, Grauer’s gorillas, and mountain gorillas. Third, is hunting of the wildlife – chimpanzees, gorillas, and elephants – for food. The mining locations are remote, so miners hunt animals near their location, which means wildlife. This is a major contributor to the decline of the Grauer’s gorillas in the last few years.
Mountain gorillas, on the other hand, have increased their population, due to cooperative conservation efforts by Rwanda, Uganda, DRC and the Dian Fossey Fund, whose focus is on the mountain gorillas. Between 1989 and 2003, the mountain gorilla population grew by 17%. By 2010, they added another 26%. It is admirable progress, but the population is still fragile. The 26% by 2010 brought the census to about 480, so a new disease could still wipe them out, but there is reason to be hopeful for more progress.
Because of Dian Fossey’s studies, conservationists know much more than before about the biology and living habits of mountain gorillas, which were also subjects of the displays.
Mountain gorillas become sexually mature around eight years old, but most don’t actually produce infants until they are ten years old. From then, they have an infant every four years. Gestation is 255 days, whereas humans gestate for 275 days. The survival rate is about 70%. Mortality is mainly because of accidents (including poaching and snares,) illness (they can catch some human diseases,) and extreme weather, which may cause death by hypothermia. Occasionally, the infants are killed by external males or the new dominant silver back when a female with an infant joins a new group.
Social groups are flexible. Group size is anywhere from two to sixty-some individuals. Males may be solitary their entire lives, may lead a group as the sole dominant silverback (DSB,) or may co-reside with other adult males. Mountain groups usually have a dominant silverback, females, and their offspring. Most groups have only one silverback, but groups with up to seven have been observed.
Dian Fossey always liked animals, but didn’t envision a career like this until she visited Africa in 1963. During this trip through Kenya, Tanzania, Congo, and Zimbabwe (which had different names then,) she visited Dr. Louis Leakey’s archaeological site and learned about Jane Goodall’s study of chimpanzees in Tanzania, which had begun in 1960. Dr. Leakey shared with Fossey his belief in the importance of long-term field studies of the great apes.
In 1966, Fossey traveled back to Congo to study gorillas, stopping on her way to visit Jane Goodall and observe her research methods. By 1967, she had founded the Karisoke Research Center in the Virunga Mountains to protect and study mountain gorillas. It has since grown into a conservation effort for other wildlife and to develop programs for people who live near the gorillas.
Fossey became famous after photographs by Robert Campbell were published in the National Geographic’s January, 1970, issue. These photos forever changed the image of gorillas from “dangerous beasts” to gentle primates, and focused attention on their plight – losing habitat and diminishing numbers.
Fossey, who did not have technical credentials in her field, spent 1970 – 1974 earning a PhD from Darwin College, Cambridge, and commuting to and from Africa while completing her academic work. Armed with credentials, she was able to secure funding to protect the gorillas. She used her funds to provide uniforms, boots, wages, and food for the park wardens, who fought poachers and encroachment by herds of cattle, grazing on park lands.
Digit, so-named because he had a damaged finger, and Fossey met in 1967, and became good friends. He was killed in 1977 by poachers. In his memory, she founded The Digit Fund in 1977, which later became the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, as a not-for-profit to collect donations to support conservation and protection efforts.
In 1980, Fossey moved to Ithaca, NY, as a visiting associate professor for Cornell University. During her stay at Cornell, she wrote “Gorillas in the Mist,” about her years in the rainforest with mountain gorillas, and the need for focused conservation efforts. It was published in 1983.
Fossey returned to Rwanda. Sadly, she was murdered in December, 1985, presumably by poachers, but the case was never resolved. She is buried behind her cabin at Karisoke, next to her beloved Digit.
The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International has offices in Musanze, Rwanda, and Atlanta, Georgia. In 2018, The Ellen Fund, a not-for-profit organized by Ellen Degeneres, provided a lead gift to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund to help build a 4500 square meter purpose-built, permanent headquarters in Kinigi, Musanze District, Rwanda. The center will provide a research library, training facilities, on-site residential quarters for researchers and others, and an area for visitor educational displays. Plans and architectural drawings are on display at the current headquarters in Musanze.
Golden Monkeys were new to me. I was told not to confuse them with Golden Snub-nosed Monkeys. Until that moment, there was utterly no danger of that, since I’d never heard of Golden Snub-nosed Monkeys. I am now clear on the difference. You can Google them if you’re interested, but the two species are distinctly different-looking, and Golden Snub-nosed Monkeys live only in China, where they are critically endangered.
The Golden Monkeys that live in Central Africa are an endangered species according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature.) Like too many species, their endangerment has been caused mainly by loss of habitat.
Golden Monkeys live in highland forest of the Virunga volcanic mountains, where the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda come together. There are four national parks there that are contiguous to each other: Mgahinga Gorilla NP (where we visited the gorillas,) Volcanoes NP, Virunga NP, and the Kahuzi-Biega NP.
Golden Monkeys are “Old World” monkeys. This means that they are part of a family of primates known as Cercopithecidae, which includes 24 genera and 138 species – the largest primate family. Baboons and macaques are also Old World monkeys, and Old World monkeys range across Asia and Africa. Old World and New World monkeys diverged from their common ancestor about 55 million years ago.
Cercopithecus Kandti is the scientific name for Golden Monkeys. They have not been studied or observed in the same way as the mountain gorillas, so their day-to-day habits are not nearly as well known. We know they travel in social groups of up to sixty monkeys, and they travel to follow food. Their food consists of fruit when available, and bamboo leaves all year long. It is believed that they also eat insects. At night, they sleep in tree tops or bamboo tops.
We had to hike about an hour to visit the Golden Monkeys, through fields again, then up into the woods, and into the bamboo forest. It was an easier trek than the gorilla trek – not as steep, and we didn’t have to climb rock walls – but it had been raining that morning, and the paths were very muddy and slippery. I fell a couple of times on the way up – my feet slipped out from under me and I landed on my fanny. Mud filled the grooves in the soles of my shoes, so I had very little traction. By the time we were coming down, the paths had dried a little, and were not as slippery.
They are beautiful monkeys, sociable and curious, at least when we were there. I would have liked to settle in and watch for a while, but visitors are only allowed an hour. (It’s the same with the gorillas.)
The monkeys were eating and jumping around, obviously excited that we were there. Their fur shows that they got wet in the rain, too. Cameras were snapping, including mine, so much of this post is comprised of golden monkey photos.
Eventually, we had to leave. Again, I would have liked to stay and watch them as they went about their day, but couldn’t.
The trip down from anyplace I have climbed always seems shorter than the way up. We wound our way back through the bamboo forest and the farms. Our experience was well worth the hike, plus, I didn’t fall! Many, many times in Africa I have been moved by how beautiful the land is, and I hope that, even as it becomes developed, as it inevitably will, the people will conserve as much wild land as possible.
We were headed for Kisoro, a village a little north of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, which is in Uganda. Rwanda raised their fee for a gorilla permit to Volcanoes National Park a few years ago, and it is now about twice as expensive as a permit from Uganda.
Uganda was not very far away, and we soon pulled up to the Cyanika Border Post.
As an American citizen, everywhere in Africa that I had visited, I was able to get a “visa on arrival,” meaning that I did not have to apply for a visa in advance and have it in my possession already when I was ready to enter the country. This is because our passports (and other countries, too, but not all) are “secure” in the sense that our identification and authentication procedures are reliable – there is a high certainty that what my passport says is accurate and another country can rely on it. Visas can be purchased at airports and most land crossings. Uganda, however, required advance application and a letter of approval.
I had filled out the application while I was in Kenya, and paid the fee online. Two days later, I received a letter of approval via an email with a link to my documents. I wrote down the number of my application and letter of approval and put the note in my passport for safekeeping. I didn’t print the letter because I didn’t have easy access to a printer and I figured that the number would allow the border immigration officers to pull it up on their computer screen. When it was time to fly to Kigali and join the tour, I went with confidence.
Well…it turned out I had overestimated their system’s capability to share data. The immigration officer was not able to pull up my documents. That possibility simply had not occurred to me. He also didn’t speak English, but luckily Jacob speaks Swahili and was able to serve as translator as we considered the options.
Considering the options was also an over-estimation because really there were only two options: I could stay in Rwanda and miss the gorilla trek, or I could produce a letter of approval. Eek! The immigration officer was very nice, apologized, but was firm. No letter, no entry. There was an office across the road from the immigration office that had a computer and a printer. The immigration officer sent Jacob and me over there. The man working at the desk was very gracious and allowed us to use the computer. I had to access my Yahoo email, find the email, open the link, and pull up the pdf. Printing was also a struggle – it took a while to get the link to find my document file, and to print the pdf, but the humans prevailed, and I was allowed to enter Uganda. Whew!
Even though the distance was short, Uganda looked different from Rwanda. It didn’t seem as open. The people were nice, but not as outgoing – less likely to wave. More shy in some ways.
We arrived at our hotel mid-afternoon, and were taken on a nature walk. Nature was right there with us, because it was pouring rain, and I mean pouring!
We walked back to the hotel, where we congregated in the bar for a post-walk warming-up. Lynda, my roommate, is a beer person. I’m allergic to beer, so I was looking for wine, but had to settle on a whisky and Coke. The bar didn’t stock wine or liquor, but they would send someone to buy it for you, and then supply soft drinks, water, juice, etc. In this case, hard liquor was the available choice, and a small bottle turned out to be $30. The cost was so high because it was an American brand that was imported.
While we were gathered, the Prime Minister of Uganda and his entourage appeared. It turned out that the owner of the hotel was related somehow to the prime minister, so he stopped in on his way through town. One of his assistants kept suggesting to us that we should ask for selfies with the PM. The PM was a friendly guy, and probably would have been disappointed if he didn’t have people making a fuss over him. I’m sure his assistant was trying to score points with his boss, too.
After the Prime Minister departed, Jacob called us together to talk about visiting the mountain gorillas. We would go in different groups – Lynda, Lily, and Patrina; Shelley and me; and Rosemary and Nancy. Jacob said the trek was strenuous, but that there were usually paths that were easier, and some of us would be taken that way. My nose was a little out of joint – I don’t think of myself as needing an “easier way,” but, in the end, I had to admit he was right.
We were all up and away before dawn, driving to the place where we would start. Our driver would walk with us up the path toward the ranger station. It was not a long walk, but it was rough because the path was covered with small rock – not small enough to become a cohesive surface, but not big enough to provide steps – just big enough to turn unexpectedly when you put your weight on them.
Mgahinga Gorilla NP, where Shelley and I were hiking, is the smallest of Uganda’s national parks, but it is home to three Virunga volcanoes: Muhavura, which has a lake at the top; Mount Gahinga, with a swamp-filled crater, and Sabinyo, where the three countries meet (Uganda, Rwanda, and DRC.) Muhavura is the tallest at 13,540 feet/4,127 meters. The other two are between eleven and twelve thousand feet. Mgahinga Gorilla NP has only one “habituated” gorilla group, which means only eight visitors per day. The gorillas would get off easy today.
“Habituated” means that they are accustomed to human visitors. The groups are generally monitored by the same scouting rangers because, like many animals (including humans,) the gorillas have habits that are knowable and relatively predictable – where they eat and where they sleep in particular.
Volcanoes NP in Rwanda has two volcanoes and ten habituated gorilla groups, while Virunga NP in DRC has the “Mountains of the Moon,” the active volcano Nyiragongo, and six habituated gorilla groups.
When Shelley and I got to the ranger station, our driver headed back down the hill, and we waited there for the porters and another tourist group. The porters arrived, but the other tourists did not, so Shelley and I were the only visitors.
We set out, taking a wide path around the hill, through the local farms, being careful to step on the paths between the fields and not through the farmers’ fields. The idea was that we would walk slowly uphill by going around the mountain, and then – when we were near the gorillas’ location – going uphill more directly.
This was the easy part. It was very wet, the soil was very dark and rich, and the grass-covered paths were slippery to walk on, but they were comparatively level. I did okay climbing over the rock walls that bounded the fields, yet I was feeling it already. Several times during that hike, I would repeat to myself Nietzsche’s quote: “That which does not kill us….”
The guide, a park ranger, was in touch by radio with the “scouts,” the men who located the different groups of gorillas. The scouts had located the group we would visit, and would keep track of them, so our job now was to get there.
The trek was arduous, and my legs were tired. When we turned uphill, the wet grass made it hard to climb upward. I was jealous of the rangers and porters – they did this all the time and it was just another day for them!
We were getting closer, though, and that gave me some energy. The guide indicated that there was a hole in the ground, under the grass, so jump over this place….
I tried to jump. I didn’t have a lot of energy in my legs, so naturally, I landed exactly where he said to avoid. I started to fall in. I grabbed at the grass. Luckily, they grabbed my arms to stop me from falling. I kicked my legs to try to climb out of the hole, but there was nothing for my legs to get a foothold. They just swung in empty air below the grassy ground. I was unnerved a little by that. I had no choice but to stop struggling and let them pull me up. As soon as I could get my knees on the ground, I was able to get to my feet and scramble up the hill away from the hole.
I got over the fall almost immediately, because we were there! One of the scouts came to us and showed us where they were. I counted eight. They were spread over a large area, eating fruit from the trees growing there. The “kids” were now looking at us and showing off by jumping around the trees and swinging from the vines. It was an amazing sight.
One scout waved to me to come over to where he was standing, near a large silver back who was sitting, contentedly pulling the small, fruited branches from the tree and munching them.
Eventually, we had to leave. It would have been fascinating to spend a whole day watching them. But, they were human enough that they wanted privacy, and they retired from view.
Hiking down was easier, and seemed shorter, as it always does. We stopped to have some lunch, and to get a group photo.
We all compared notes, sitting in the bar, and relaxing after a strenuous, but satisfying day.
Lake Kivu is one of Africa’s “Great Lakes.” The lake covers an area of 2700 square kilometers (1,043 square miles) and is 480 meters deep (about 1,575 feet.) It sits in the East African Rift – a groove in the Earth’s crust – at the foot of the Virunga Volcano chain. The western shore is the DRC, Democratic Republic of Congo, and the eastern shore is Rwanda. The border runs roughly through the center, with the large island in the middle going to the DRC. The lake used to drain to the north, but the Virunga volcanoes there blocked it about twelve thousand years ago, and now it drains to the south, into the Ruzizi River and then into the Congo River.
Lake Kivu is one of a few lakes in Africa that are called “killer lakes” because of their carbon dioxide content that seeps into the lake through the volcanic rock from nearby volcanoes. There are two other lakes in Africa, Lake Nyos and Lake Manoun, both in Cameroon.
Lake Kivu has an additional hazard. The water of Lake Kivu sits on top of not just one, but two huge layers of gas: carbon dioxide and methane. Bacteria have spent about 15,000 years converting dead organic matter and magma-related carbon dioxide into methane, which is a process unique to Lake Kivu. There are efforts now going on to tap into the methane gas reserve and use it to generate electricity, which Rwanda needs.
And we were off to Uganda to visit the mountain gorillas.
We drove by the Hotel des Collines today, which was the scene of the movie, “Hotel Rwanda.” The name means “Hotel of the Thousand Hills,” a play on Rwanda’s nickname during the Belgian colonization, Pays des Mille Collines, or “Country of the Thousand Hills.”
It is still a working luxury hotel, and not a scheduled stop for us. A few days later, I went there for lunch, but I didn’t see anything there to commemorate the 1994 genocide. That wasn’t really a surprise.
Our guide, Jacob, says that the movie is banned in Rwanda, that it has never been shown because the government does not feel the story has been portrayed accurately. I have not seen the movie, so I have no opinion one way or the other. Rather, let me tell you what we have seen and heard in the last two days.
The three months, “the hundred days,” of extreme violence, usually referred to as “The Genocide,” began on April 6th. President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was flying back from a meeting with leaders of Uganda, Burundi, and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo,) where agreements had been made to defuse the growing tension between the Hutu and Tutsi. Those countries had significant Tutsi and Hutu populations, most of them refugees from previous conflicts.
The party responsible for shooting down the plane carrying Habyarimana, his staff, and the president of Burundi has never been determined. Some say Hutu extremists, anxious to eliminate the Tutsis, who did not support the negotiated approach of Habyarimana, and some say President Nagame, then leader of the Rwandan Peoples Front (RPF,) who has always vehemently denied these accusations.
The reaction was immediate: road blocks, checkpoints, and militia were all moved into place, making the plane incident appear to be part of a larger plan made by someone. In the space of a hundred days, April 6th to about July 19th, perpetrators of the genocide, mostly Hutus, killed between 800,000 to 1,000,000 victims, mostly Tutsis. “Moderate” Hutus and Twa, an indigenous minority (about 1%, who were a smaller-statured ethnic group, were killed also. We visited three memorials – the Murambi Genocide Memorial, the Nyamata Genocide Memorial, and the Kigali Genocide Memorial, each with their own story.
The Murambi Genocide Memorial is located in Murambi village, in the Gikongoro region of Rwanda. It is housed in what was intended to be the Murambi Technical School, which was under construction at the time of the genocide. As the government’s Interhamwe militias arrived in Gikongoro region, they started killing Tutsis and looting and burning their houses in an organized, efficient operation. Local government leaders, Hutus, at the outbreak of violence, told the Murambi area Tutsis that they could not protect them while they remained widely scattered, and so the government would escort them to a place in Murambi where they could be protected.
In the next two weeks, Tutsi residents were sent or taken to the school. Hutu residents were separated and sent elsewhere. According to our guide at the Murambi memorial, French soldiers were present, and entertained themselves by choosing women to rape. (France denies this.) Once gathered at the school, the water lines were cut and food was withheld. On April 18th, the interim president, Theodore Sindikuswabu, and Prime Minister Jean Kambanda, both Hutus, met with Gikongoro leaders, also Hutus. On the next morning, April 19, 1994, the attacks began.
The Tutsi resisted with bricks and stones, during two days of attacks, but then the main assault began. This assault was perpetrated by militia, police, and Hutu residents of the area, and the attack was much more forceful. They circled the school, which was on a hilltop. Tutsi trying to escape were easily spotted and killed. There was no escape. Of the approximately 50,000 people in the area, there were 34 survivors.
The local Hutu leaders and French soldiers organized bulldozers to dig mass graves. No one’s story includes the French soldiers in the actual killing, but they were accused of protecting the Hutu who had perpetrated the genocide. France denies this, too. Our guide told us that the French soldiers built a volleyball court on top of the graves.
Our group had read the displays in the lobby of the school building that had some history of the leaders of various groups, such as Nagame, who was the leader of the RPF at the time, and Ferdinand Nahimana, a radio personality, a Hutu, who spent his energy inciting hatred of Tutsis in the months leading up to the Genocide.
Our guide, a woman in her forties, was a survivor. She did not escort us to the next building, but told us what we would see in the classrooms. In September, 1995, the hastily made mass graves were opened and bodies were exhumed. The bodies had been so tightly packed together that they had hardly decomposed over the intervening months. Of the thousands, over 400 bodies were covered in lime powder to preserve them. What we would see were these bodies, placed on wooden tables in the classrooms, but, she said, she could not accompany us there. She didn’t say why, although it was obvious that the trauma was just too great for her. She said that she would meet us over by the new graves.
I stepped into the first classroom filled with bodies. I still remember the air, which was thick and humid, with a slightly acidic smell. The bodies were laid out, but not like a funeral. Some were on their back, some on their sides, all of their arms and legs and heads at awkward angles, depending on how their bodies had taken shape in the mass grave. They were not bodies at rest. They were bodies in torment. They had not been simply executed, they had been beaten, tortured, and hacked to death. You could see it.
Looking back, I wondered why I had not felt more emotion in those rooms. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I get choked up during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” watching a husband and wife enjoying a joke together, or trying to tell some stories about amazing kindnesses. But, there, in that room, I stood, dry-eyed, staring at victims of such unimaginable inhumanity.
I have concluded since that the sight of those bodies was just that: unimaginable. I have been lucky in my life, and there was simply nothing that I have experienced that could help me grasp and internalize what had happened here. I was solemn, as were others in our group. The scene made us quiet, looking, standing still, trying to see what was in front of our eyes.
We joined our guide again over by the large mass graves. It was not possible to identify all of the victims buried in the mass graves and re-bury them individually, so there are now these large places of interment. It seems right that they should be together in death as they died, the ones bonded forever by the ghastliness. Occasionally, even now, twenty-five years later, new remains are discovered in Gikongoro. Their identity can rarely be determined, and they join the others in these crypts.
In the Bugesera region, thirty-five kilometers from Kigali, is the Nyamata Genocide Memorial, formerly a Catholic Church. This place became representative of the brutality perpetrated against women in particular, and the area suffered some of the greatest devastation.
Our guide, a member of the church and a survivor, began their story. As the Interhamwe began attacking Bugesera, area residents gathered in the church, hoping that they would be protected there. Churches were traditionally places of sanctuary. People padlocked the gates and bolted and locked the doors.
The Interhamwe, a name meaning “the ones who attack together,” the Hutu militia acting on behalf of the government, broke through the locked gates.
Along with the Rwandan government forces and other Hutu militia, the Interhamwe entered the church area with rifles, grenades, and machetes. They used sledge hammers to break holes into the walls, and then tossed hand grenades inside. The grenades killed the first people, and then, breaking through the doors, the attackers used guns and machetes, killing about two thousand five hundred people who were hiding in the church. Bullet holes are still visible in the walls and in the ceiling.
The clothing of the victims was placed in piles on the pews. Men’s, women’s, children’s, and infants’ clothing, sometimes grouped in “families.” Occasionally, you can spot a bone peeking out of a blood-stained sleeve. The blood spilled onto the altar cloth, which was spread across the place of Holy Communion. She did not say that the church had been de-sanctified, but the church is no longer used for any services, only to stand in silent witness to the acts of inhumanity that occurred here.
The church basement, accessible in back of the church, has become a permanent catacomb. On either side of the narrow halls are shelves that hold bones, skulls, and coffins. The coffins do not hold individual bodies. Instead, the coffins were used to gather the bones of families together, and the family name was written on the end of the coffin.
Two thousand five hundred were killed at the church, but across the Bugesera region, there were over ten thousand victims of The Genocide. The remains are interred in two mass graves behind the church.
Above the entrance to the church itself, there is a banner in Kinyarwanda, “If you had known me, and you had really known yourself, you would not have killed me.”
In the capital, Kigali, is the Kigali Genocide Memorial. This was our last visit to a genocide memorial. The mass graves hold the largest number of victims, over two hundred fifty thousand (250,000.) Equal parts museum and memorial, it serves as a place for relatives and friends of victims to grieve and pray for those they lost, and also as a place to educate Rwandans and foreign visitors about what happened, what the causes were, what Rwanda is doing to prevent recurrences and to promote unity.
In this museum, the Genocide was described in painful, grisly detail: “The genocidaires often mutilated their victims before killing them. Victims had their tendons cut so they could not run away, they were tied and beaten. They were made to wait helplessly to be clubbed, raped, or cut by machete. Family members were made to watch on as their parents or children were tortured, beaten or raped in front of their eyes. On occasion, victims were thrown alive down deep latrines and rocks were thrown in one at a time until their screams subsided into silence. On other occasions, large numbers of victims were thrown down pit latrines. Victims trampled each other to death. The piles were sometimes ten bodies deep. Death was made a painful, agonizing, frightening, humiliating end.”
“Many families had been totally wiped out, with no one to remember or document their deaths. The streets were littered with corpses. Dogs were eating the rotting flesh of their owners. The country smelt of the stench of death. The genocidaires had been more successful in their evil aims than anyone would have dared to believe. Rwanda was dead.”
What happened to cause such deep-seated hatred between Hutus and Tutsi? History doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It was not the first nor was it the last of the fighting. Killing happened not just in Rwanda, but also Zaire/Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Burundi.
Many scholars believe that the Hutus settled in the Great Lakes region of central Africa, which would be Rwanda, Burundi, and southern Uganda, between 1000 – 500 BC. The Hutus were agricultural people living in large family groups. The Tutsis (aka “Watutsis”) were nomads who arrived about 1600 AD, settling alongside the Hutus, adopting their language, beliefs, and customs. “In Rwanda, the Tutsi and the Hutu are the same people.” [“Heart of the Hutu-Tutsi Conflict,” PBS News Hour presentation, October 10, 1999.]
But the cattle-tending Tutsis accrued more wealth than the farming Hutus, resulting in a society that was dominated by the Tutsis, even though the Tutsis were the minority. While the cultures and religions meshed, the economic class divisions became synonymous with ethnic designations. According to Congolese Professor George Izangola, “If you were close to the King, you owned wealth, you owned a lot of cattle, you are a Tutsi. If you are far away from the King, you are a cultivator, you don’t own much cattle, you are a Hutu.”
Germany colonized “German East Africa” in 1891. German East Africa encompassed Burundi, most of Tanzania, and Rwanda. After WWI, the Belgians occupied Rwanda. It was the Belgians who forced the Hutus and Tutsis to carry ethnic identity cards, their “ethnic group” determined by certain physical characteristics. They favored the Tutsi, and Hutus were barred from higher education and governmental positions of power.
When independence came in 1962, the Belgians left, and Ruanda and Urundi became Rwanda and Burundi. Rwanda became a republic with a Hutu majority. The Hutus’ resentment boiled over and thousands of Tutsis were killed and hundreds of thousands of Tutsi fled to Uganda. In Burundi, which became a military dictatorship, the Tutsi retained control of the military and used it to terrorize the Hutu. When the Tutsi Yoweri Museveni seized power in Uganda, Tutsi refugees from Rwanda, the RFP, had a base from which to attack the Hutu government in Rwanda. Violence in these countries broke out sporadically, from independence up to, and including, the worst – The 1994 Genocide.
The UNAMIR task force, created by the UN Security Council to see that the Arusha Accords were enforced, arrived too late to prevent the bloodshed, and even then, their commander, Canadian Romeo Dallaire, was prohibited from involving the force in protecting civilians. The international community did virtually nothing to prevent or stop the killing.
The 1994 Genocide was so especially violent, so especially cruel, and so especially vast, it was as if the survivors on both sides were so shocked by what they had done and what they had suffered, that there was born a determination to prevent it from happening ever again.
There are still resentments. People who murdered their neighbors still live with survivors. As hard as it is for Rwandans to face one another, I think it must be impossible for anyone who wasn’t there to understand. The Kigali Genocide Memorial runs programs to help understand what happened, to enhance communication as a way to prevent or resolve conflicts, and, most of all, to remember the victims and help survivors cope.