Day 7: Touring Kigali

On my last day in Rwanda, I had the chance to do a bit of touring around Kigali. There is not much to see, but I knew I wanted to visit the Genocide Memorial of Kigali.

To refresh your memory, the Rwandan genocide began in April 1994 and lasted 3 months. During this time, one million Rwandans died at the hands of neighbors, friends, and soldiers. This was not the first genocide in Rwanda–that occurred in the 1950s, and killings continued periodically until 1994. I will not explain all the politics of why the genocide occurred, but I would suggest reading more if you are interested. Please also forgive me if my re-telling of this history is incorrect–I’m a bit sleep deprived!

I knew the memorial would be a tough visit. I have been to the Holocaust Memorial. Museum in Washington, DC and remember being horrified that humans could do such terrible things to one another. I guess that for me, the difference between the Holocaust and Rwandan genocide is that the people who killed and died in Rwanda were from my generation. I’m not sure why that matters, but I think it adds to my disbelief that people in this day and age, even in a developing nation, could be so cruel.

The memorial is set up on a hill overlooking the hundred of other hills that make up Kigali. It was a beautiful, sunny and hot day. Our tour guide started by leading us to the burial grounds, where the remains of over 250,000 people are interred under concrete slabs. Remains continue to be brought there from other areas of Rwanda, and most of the remains do not have an identity. There is also a black granite wall, similar to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC, which lists the names of people who are known to be buried there. There is a lot of empty space on that wall; I would guess that fewer than 5,000 names are listed.

The last part of the burial grounds is covered with glass, allowing you to look inside. I will post a photo when I get back home. You can see several fabric covered caskets, each with a cross stitched on top. Very austere.

The next part of the tour was inside the memorial, which is divided into several sections–the history before the genocide, what happened during, and how the country has recovered and reconciled. I want to talk about the recovery and reconciliation because that it the part that most interested me.

As I said before, neighbors and friends killed each other during the course of the genocide. The Hutu leaders ordered that all Tutsis must be destroyed. The killings continued for several years after those first three months, until the government drove out the killers. At some point, the government developed a plan for Rwandans to deal with the killers–the genocidaires. The Hutu leaders were tried and jailed, but there has been no retribution. No, “You killed my family so now you will die”.

The genocidaires, of whom there are many, are still serving time, either in jail or in the community. They wear pink outfits with a red hat while waiting for trial, then wear orange after they are sentenced. I posted a picture of two men in pink who were working at the hospital earlier this week. To be released into the community, the genocidaires must explain what they did and ask any remaining victims’ family members for forgiveness. If possible, they must also tell where their victims were killed. If they refuse to admit and explain, they stay in jail.

After touring the memorial, most of our group was spent–they wanted no more terrible stories. I just felt numb. I’m certain I will continue to process this experience over the coming days.

Before leaving for the airport, I sat with the MDs over dinner and listened as they discussed the few remaining patients who needed a plan–to come back for surgery with the April mission, to go home and wait until diversion is available (years away, potentially), or something in between. These last few patients were tough–there was not a black or white solution. We cannot help everyone; it’s not fair to give hope where there’s not much chance of surgical success, but it’s also cruel to take away hope.

So today’s theme is hope. Hope that we will stop standing by while our neighbors hate and kill each other, and also hope that medical care can continue to improve for women in developing countries.