My own memories of news reports from Africa in the mid-nineties extend only as far as images of Nelson Mandela smiling benevolently and shaking hands with people who I didn’t recognise. The overwhelming message was that this was not just a new start for South Africa, but for the entire continent. As a politically naive fourteen year-old in central Scotland I didn’t understand or care that Africa is more than one country, and like many people across the globe, my bandwidth for politics, never mind African politics, had been saturated with Mandela’s beaming visage and messages of hope and reconciliation.
Mandela’s ANC was elected on 27th April 1994. Three weeks prior to this on 6th April, the Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana was killed when the helicopter he was travelling in was shot down, most probably by extremists in his own military. Within hours this sparked the systematic killing and planned extermination of the ethnic Tutsi by the majority Hutus, a culmination of a decades-long conflict between the two groups. Within 100 days around 850,000 were dead. The indiscriminate murder, rape and mutilation of men, women and children was not solely carried out by the military and rebel groups, but by neighbours, work colleagues and community leaders, who had been subjected to propaganda and intimidation by the Hutu authorities for years. The international authorities, including the UN, and the press had as much bandwidth for the events as I did at the time and paid scant attention. The Times initially ran a story lamenting the effects of conflict on the plight of Rwanda’s mountain gorillas.
Through learning about world events as I grew up, and a belated acknowledgement of the events in the Western media, I gained a superficial understanding of the genocide. As the day we entered Rwanda neared I tried to build on this. We crossed the border from Uganda before noon and drove towards the capital Kigali and the genocide memorial centre. Passing through verdant hills and tea plantations, adults and children alike waved at us as we negotiated the African roads. The ordinary routine of everyday life and the friendly enthusiasm of the local people was shocking. It’s difficult to reconcile knowledge of the genocide with the placid scenes of daily life.
Quiet, low-key and dignified, the memorial presents the facts of the genocide and tries to explain how the country fell into 100 days of horror. The centre does not just provide information for the public, it is actively involved in academic research, policy advocacy and humanitarian support for victims of genocide. Outside in the tranquil gardens, mass graves covered in large rectangles of concrete contain the remains of around 250,000 people. We noticed one of these on the fringes of the garden with two steel doors, like those on a cellar, used to deposit the human remains still being discovered. On the wall above a list of names of those who died has yet to be completed.
Somehow our second and last day in Rwanda was going to be as memorable as our first…