Travel Essays

Out of Genocide


As expected, Africa once again challenged my perceptions and highlighted both our Western cultures and my own individual shortcomings. Actually, it is more akin to complete ignorance, if we can be frank here. She has an unwavering knack for that.

When I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, I came bearing twenty year old memories of an unspeakable genocide against the Tutsi minority, international apathy and my recall of a searing conversation, which temporarily sealed my fate as a middle-class American white girl. I carried with me baggage in the form of unfounded fears and judgmental notions of just what kind of people could be capable of such an violent history. I will admit I fully expected to see people walking around with bloodstained machetes in the streets. I had no idea of just how affected I would be by my short, but profound visit to this small land in the heart of East Africa.

Rwanda is a phoenix catapulting from the ashes by learning from its violent past. Beyond the tremendous economic and social progress made since the dreadful 100 days that marked the pinnacle of the violence, Rwanda helped me to understand just how easily unspeakable hatred can be ignited and inspired a faint dusting of compassion for some of the perpetrators. But, perhaps more significantly, I wonder why had I never heard one word about this success story?

In June 1994, this country stood in tatters, after almost complete destruction of its society, economy and infrastructure. In this home to 7MM people, Tutsi blood ran through the streets of her cities and villages and not one corner of this small nation was spared. And, to think such violence began so benignly. As most stories go on this continent, colonial roots are once again to blame for sowing the seeds of this “final solution”.  By grouping the population of Rwanda into Tutsi, Hutu or Twa, issuing of national ID cards according to these groupings and supporting the notion of Tutsi superiority, a land which had never before seen division was being keenly separated along ethnic lines. As colonial rule ended, the pressure cooker created by these actions inspired a backlash that would play out over forty years, but would ultimately end in the 100 days of intense and unspeakable violence we now call the Rwandan Tutsi Genocide. A murderous campaign in which 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus died at the hands of Hutu extremists and 1MM others were displaced. That is almost 2MM of a total population of 7MM.

What do you think our country be like if the residents of every 4th house on each street from Boston to San Francisco were brutally murdered or vanished into Canada or Mexico? All gone within 100 days, while the rest of the world did – NOTHING.

And what about the residents of the other 3 houses on each street? They may have survived the torture, hacking by machete, clubbing, among others, but they watched the blood flow and live with such traumatic memories. Some were maimed, some orphaned and some raped with the weapon of HIV/AIDS and left to die a slow death. Some weren’t even born yet. Some are one of the more than 200,000 perpetrators themselves inspired by and who acted upon the racial propaganda that filled the airwaves before the massacring began. They explain it as though a “demon” had possessed them. But, what I saw were a people unwaveringly and unexpectedly united, and the result is miraculous.

I don’t have any dramatic photos to share of the people of Rwanda sobbing, broken and beaten; I’ll let the AP handle that. But I will tell you that it is the past and, while it must always be remembered, what I saw is a country united and running swiftly towards a prosperous future. “Tutsi” and “Hutu” don’t exist anymore, they are one identity now – Rwandans. Working together towards a shared future. Kigali is a shining capitol with not one piece of trash on its streets adorned with formal gardens, coffee shops and elegant restaurants. Smooth roads meander through an emerald green countryside boasting 1000 beautifully terraced hills, which are dotted with houses bearing new metal roofs, never to be burned again. Conservation of natural resources is paramount and plastic bags are now banned. Active teaching of the genocide and what led to it is taking place in Rwandan classrooms.

These observations are so very surface level and are only a few small examples of the fruits of a vision set forth by this small, vibrant country. During this 20th anniversary of the genocide, my message of progress may not be as dramatic and “newsworthy” as the traditional western media’s images of brutality and poverty, but I hope it helps tell a new story of Rwanda. I also hope that it inspires you to learn more about this beautiful place, its people and what it has to offer. And, if I am lucky, you will seek to learn more about what leads to genocide and view your own past, present and future a little bit differently.