Rwanda, The Land of a Thousand Hills

This blog posted is in two parts, the first part might be a little upsetting to a some people.

Our time here in Rwanda included visiting a few Genocide Memorials, I will describe these in more detail later, but first a little background to what happened, and why.

For hundreds of years, up to 1900, the minority population of Tutsis had ruled over the majority Hutu’s in relative peace, even the Arab slave traders hadn’t reached into Rwanda. Then in 1898 the country was formally absorbed into German East Africa, and things started to change. First of all Germany encouraged the Tutsi monarchy to bring the far northern area of independent Hutu controlled regions under their control, this was be a long running sore that started to cause resentment between Tutsis and Hutu’s that was to last a century.

In 1916, during The First World War, the Belgians invaded Rwanda and Burundi from Congo, and overrun the German forces. After the war, Belgium was handed responsibility for both countries, and like the Germans before them, were amazed at the different physical attributes of each of the three different peoples of Rwanda. The Tutsi chiefs and nobles being mainly tall and lanky, the shorter stockier farming Hutu’s (who formed the majority), and the much smaller Twa (forest dwelling pygmy’s). Even allowing for intermarriage, the differences were mostly plain to see.

The Tutsi monarchy was resistant to Colonialism, and especially the missionaries from the Catholic and later Protestant churches, then in 1931 the monarch was forced by Belgium to abdicate and hand power over to his more western friendly son. At the same time, Belgium embarked on a census to record all indigenous inhabitants, using incredibly, tape measures, scales, and even callipers to measure noses etc. Then in 1935 they issued every person in Rwanda and Burundi with an identity card, which stated whether that person was a Tutsi, Hutu or Twa. If after extensive measuring the Belgium authorities still weren’t sure of a person’s ethnic background, they unbelievably looked at things like cattle ownership, if a person had more than 10 cows they must be a Tutsi, if less than 10 cows, then they must be a Hutu! These Identity cards were still in place up to the Genocide in 1994.

During the run up to independence, the Catholic church became very pro-Hutu, and openly supported political parties run by Hutu’s (the Tutsi had resisted christianity being forced onto Rwanda and Burundi), this time in the early 1960’s was the first time for many years that there was bloodshed between the two main groups. But after hastily manipulated elections the new Hutu based government was sworn in, and quota’s were introduced, giving the Tutsis (who were a minority of 9% of the population) a right to only 9% of school places, 9% of the jobs in the workforce, and so on. This was easy to administer as everyone had an ID card, remember. Many Tutsis fled to Uganda, where supported by the Ugandan Government, formed a political group called the RPF, led eventually by Paul Kagame (the current President of Rwanda), and carried out a guerrilla type war into Rwanda from Uganda. At the same time France was actively arming the Rwandan army and local militia, know as ‘interahamwe’ (meaning “those who stand together”), and behind the scenes plans were being put in place for the extermination of the “problem” Tutsis. The power of the media and especially radio was used to spread hate against the Tutsi people.

On 6th April 1994, a plane carrying the Rwandan President and Burundi’s new president was shot down by a rocket fired near Kigali airport, both men died, within hours the killing began. It was well organised, roadblocks were quickly erected, and the army and interahamwe went into action on a rampage of death, torture, rape and destruction. Tutsis, and moderate Hutu’s were targeted (if a Hutu refused to kill his Tutsi friend and neighbour, he and all his family were also killed). 

Over the next 100 days (3 months), over one million people were killed, using machetes, hoes, clubs, guns and grenades. The brutality was on an unbelievable scale, and the outside world just watched and talked about it. On 4th July the RPF (the Rwandan Patriotic Front, that had invaded from Uganda) captured the capital Kigali, and two weeks later announced that the war was over, and Paul Kagame was sworn in as head of a Government of National Unity. France sent in 2,500 troops to act as peace keepers, while the UN were still talking about what to do, at no stage was the word “genocide” spoken at the UN, if they had mentioned the “G” word the United Nations would have been legally obliged to ‘prevent and punish the perpetrators’.

As I mentioned earlier there are a number of memorials that have been set up to commemorate the dead and to remind everyone that this must never happen again.

The largest memorial is the Kigali Genocide Memorial, which is the burial ground for a staggering 250,000 people killed on those horrendous 100 days.

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The museum section is split into a few sections, the first detailing the run up to the genocide, then in the main section the horrors are gruesomely shown via various exhibits and halls, (its all done every tastefully), and then the last section is devoted to other recent genocide carried out, such as the Balkans, Armenia, Namibia, Nazi Germany, and Cambodia. This is a cruel world.

This was a really emotional place, both inside and outside (remember there are mass graves here, holding over a quarter of a million people), the gardens are under development, and it is encouraged that everyone comes to visit the place (entry is free for everyone). It is managed by Aegis, which is a UK charity, that works to prevent and educate against genocide around the world.

There are many stories told in the Memorial/Museum, many involving heart break, other involving heroics (Hutu’s hiding Tutsis), but possibly the most heart rendering tale that we heard was from the taxi driver that we used for the few days that we were in Kigali. He very tearfully started to tell us that as a young boy he took refuge in a church and had to stay there for 60 days while the genocide raged across the country. Being in a church was not the safe haven that they thought it would be, or indeed those that thought that the catholic priests would protect them. He went on to tell us how one day, the interahamwe came and killed 200 children in front of the others sheltering there, he also told us that no one dared to bring food or water to the church, and so starvation was widespread and towards the end of the 60 days that he spent here, each morning involved the finding of up to 20 more adults and children that had died during the night. 

You are allowed to take photos outside in the mass grave and gardens area’s, but somehow it just didn’t seem right, besides we will never forget this place.

The next day we visited two Catholic churches outside of Kigali on the road south, these were both the scene of terrible massacres in 1994. The church at Ntarama was the scene of horrendous acts of barbarity, where over 5,000 people were killed with guns, grenades, machetes, etc, there are piles of clothes on the pews, and coffins inside awaiting burial in the newly built crypts, there were even skeletons under tarpaulins next to the altar waiting to be hopefully identified. But the thing that really hit us at Ntarama was in the Sunday School building, there is still a large blood stain marking the wall in the corner where babies were brought and had their heads smashed against the wall here, sometimes while their mothers watched in horror. There were also large sticks against the wall, which were used to kill women after they had been raped. These were forcibly inserted inside the women until they exited from the upper body.The guide here in this remote place does a tough job with supreme dignity.

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We then went to the Church at Nyamata, it was here that over 10,000 people took refuge from the town and nearby areas. On 10th April (only 4 days after the plane was shot down), the militia came and brutally slaughtered every person here. We were invited to walk down into the crypts under the church were many of the skulls are stored, along with a women in a coffin who was killed in the obscene method described above. Once back out into the fresh air we were taken around to the rear of the church to where in three mass graves 45,000 men, women, boys and girls are buried, before we had time to think about it, our guide said we should enter one of the mass graves via a staircase leading under ground and seeing literally thousands of skulls, bones and coffins in that dim light was truly moving. I now know what the true smell of death is like, we will never ever forget seeing those thousands of coffins and bones piled up.

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Following the genocide, many people were convicted of their terrible crimes, including a priest that encouraged his entire congregation to shelter in his church then locked them inside, and called the militia who bulldozed the church to the ground with hundreds inside. There were also two Nun’s that were convicted of crimes against humanity.

A survey conducted in 1995 by UNICEF concluded that 99.9% of children in Rwanda experienced violence during those 3 months, and 69.5% witnessed someone being killed or injured. So how can a country recover from something like this? 

Well Rwanda has most definitely recovered. Of course there are still raw, terrible memories, (it was only 22 years ago) but generally speaking there are now NO Tutsis or Hutu’s anymore, everyone here is Rwandan, and we have never experienced a country with such a community spirit. For example, once a month on the fourth Saturday of the month, everything stops, traffic, work, cooking, farming, everything for half a day. During this half a day every person in Rwanda, including the President and his family, and tourists, are expected to spend this time working together to clean the streets and generally tidy their environment. The result of this is amazing, the whole country is completely spotless, both in the towns and in rural areas, there is NO rubbish at all. This is also helped by a complete ban on plastic bags (we had our truck checked at the border to make sure we didn’t have any bags on board). The Rwandan’s really do seem to share a common pride for their country. 

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After crossing the border from Uganda into Rwanda (the quickest and most efficient border crossing we have experienced in Africa), we went into the northern town of Musanze (formally known as Ruhengeri), found a bank and changed some money in Rwandan Francs, then headed out of the town to a backpackers type place called Red Rocks, which amazingly for Rwanda had a camping area.

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Red Rocks is run by Harriet, who’s family were originally from Rwanda, before fleeing to Uganda, and then to the United States. Incredibly, Harriet has chosen to leave her relatively easy life as an US citizen to set up Red Rocks here which operates as a community supporting operation. We had a great time here for a few days, especially the last day when an overland tour bus pitched up and Harriet decided that there were enough guests to open up the “night club” at the rear! We would never have expected that we would be dancing to Bob Marley, and local Rwandan music (which was pretty good), under flashing lights and massively loud speakers here in rural Rwanda with a number of locals. A great night though.

We asked Harriet how she thought Rwanda had managed to recover from the devastating genocide, she said a few important decisions were made politically quite early on. One was the decision to drop French as the main “international” language, and teach English at school level (this was a real surprise for us, as we were expecting to have to use our very limited French here), the other was to encourage “forgiveness” against the many perpetrators of the genocide. It really is worth reading about how this forgiveness works here in Rwanda.

This is Harriet and her “crew”.

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Next morning while nursing a couple of mildly sore heads, we set off for the capital Kigali (pronounced Ch-igali). This day we found out why Rwanda is known as “The Land of a Thousand Hills”! the terrain is relentless, long steep up, long steep down, long steep up, long……. you get the idea. Rwanda is a small country, about a third of the size of Scotland, but with a population of about 15 million, it means that there are people everywhere. Thankfully the roads are without a doubt the best we have seen during our time on the continent of Africa, the tarmac is mostly “table top smooth” and are mostly without the plague of crazy speed humps. But despite the excellent tarmac, it takes forever to get anywhere because of the steepness of the hills, especially on the descents.

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Kigali is a very clean, bright, modern and friendly city. In the 3 days that we spent here, not once were we hassled, or felt uncomfortable walking around, its supposed to have a very low crime rate, and thats exactly how it felt. There is an extraordinary large number of police in the city (and on the roads outside), all very well equipped with machine guns. Also everywhere you go, including hotels, shopping malls, car parks etc, every bag is put through an airport type scanner, and you have to walk through a scanner after emptying your pockets. Security is very tight here against a possible terrorist attack. Again it feels very safe.

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There is no camping in Kigali, even the overland tour buses have to stay in a hotel or hostel, so we headed for Hotel Chez Lando on the ‘airport side’ of the city. We tried to convince the staff at the front desk that we would be happy to sleep in the truck in the heavily guarded rear carpark, but in true Rwandan style, said this wasn’t possible as there was a rule staying that no-one could camp here. Rwandans like their rules and regulations. So we took their cheapest room at $94 a night inc breakfast. The room was fine, it was clean, had a decent bed (though not as good as our super mattress in Colonel K), and all was good until I went for a shower. As I turned on the hot water tap over the bath, I heard water running behind me, the high level electric hot water cylinder was pouring out boiling hot water every where, turning off the tap didn’t stop it!!! There was water rapidly flooding our first floor room. After a quick trip to reception they agreed to upgrade us to a room in the ‘new’ block, these were a staggering $154 a night, and the only difference was the bed was a little bigger and the bathroom a bit wider. Next morning we had to move again, this time to a cheaper ground floor room back in the ‘old’ block. Three different rooms in 12 hours not bad eh?

After 3 nights in a hotel room, we were glad to be back in Colonel K, and back on the road. We had planned to head south from Kigali to visit a place called Murambi which is another Genocide Memorial, near the border with Burundi. But we decided that we had seen enough memorials, and visiting Burundi isn’t advisable at the present time due to ongoing troubles there, so we headed east towards Akagera National Park.

Its a shame that we have arrived in Rwanda during the wet season (the ‘short rains’), and this is limiting us as to where we actually want to go. We aren’t actually going to visit any of the national parks, mostly because of both the cost and the rain, and we even decided that its not worth driving over to the far west to visit Lake Kivu because of the weather (we have seen a hell of a lot of large lakes here in East and Central Africa). We also saw the Mountain Gorillas while in Uganda, so there little point in paying to visit Volcano’s NP here in Rwanda. Rwanda does have a lot to offer the tourist, and not just the genocide memorials, its just our timing could have been better!!

We are currently camped at a place called a “Women’s Opportunity Centre”, which really is a great initiative, designed to empower local women, and is typical of Rwanda trying to improve conditions for women. Rwanda has a very high percentage of women politicians, (one of the highest in the world) and this is openly encouraged, some of the thinking behind this is that women hopefully would never let the terrible events of 1994 happen again.

The centre here is a very modern, eco friendly set up, with stunning views over the valley behind us.

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Some of the basket weaving that is done here is stunning, and Jac had a good laugh with the women that work together here.

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Despite the traumatic experiences at the Memorials, we have enjoyed our short time in Rwanda, yes its quite expensive compared to neighbouring countries (diesel is about 88p per litre, compared to about 57p per litre), and imported shop bought food is crazily expensive, but the generally quite shy people here have been very welcoming, helpful and friendly. Rwanda seems to be doing amazingly well, especially given its recent history.

Tomorrow we head for the border with Tanzania, and the long, long drive through the centre of the country.

Thanks for reading, sorry its a bit grim




























3 Comments on “Rwanda, The Land of a Thousand Hills

  1. Amazing how the country has, and continues to recover. Very well covered by the two of you, fascinating.


    • Cheers Dan, its only once you leave Rwanda that you realize what an amazing job they have done there, The rest of Africa starts to look a mess compared to Rwanda.
      Hope you guys are well


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