7 April 2011 marked the 17th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide. I started writing this almost six months ago but I still feel as though I’m nowhere near capturing the anguish and gut-wrenching sorrow I felt in Kigali’s stadium that day.
It was the day before the commemoration and I was in the middle of a weekly meeting with the local project team. Towards the end of the meeting, one of them mentioned that it was a public holiday on the 7th — I remember asking whether it was possible for them to continue working — or something to that effect. They looked quite shocked, as though I was asking the impossible. But once the facts became apparent and I put the pieces together, my annoyance gave way to embarrassment and shame.
What infuriated me the most was the fact that I’d done so much research on Rwanda and the Rwandan Genocide, read numerous books and watched every available documentary and film on the topic — it was inconceivable that a date as important as this would (or could) ever slip my mind.
That evening I picked up the paper and started to read about events which had been planned for the anniversary. I’d read that the Rwandan Genocide Memorial would be open for extended hours and that President Kagame would be holding a commemorative ceremony at Kigali stadium that morning. I had to go.
There was hardly any traffic on the roads that morning, the sun was shining through a vale of light clouds and the day-to-day bustle had evaporated from central Kigali. A text message beeped onto my phone, in fact, a text message had been sent to all the phones in Rwanda informing everyone of what was happening and where to get more information.
Not a taxi in sight, not even a moto-taxi. I waited for a little while but eventually gave up and started walking down the wide boulevard away from the hotel. I wasn’t planning on walking all the way, at that pace I would never make it in time for the Kagame’s morning address.
The further I walked into central Kigali the more I became aware of the remembrance day. People congregated in small groups, some chatted whilst others waited for organized busses. This wasn’t the carefree Kigali I’d grown to love.
People moved and talked differently, their smiles had been extinguished and replaced instead by sombre-looking sunken faces. Their downcast eyes followed my slow walk down the street and I reluctantly slid the camera into my back pocket because it no longer felt appropriate.
A young boy standing at an intersection sold me a purple lapel ribbon which I pinned to my chest. But as it danced in the gentle wind, I still felt out of place and as if I were invading everyone’s private moment. The depressing atmosphere was starting to weigh on me heavily, I spotted a taxi and waved it down.
It’s hard to imagine a Rwanda as it was during war: death, destruction, famine, pain, loss, grief, murder, fear and anguish. Today, the streets of Kigali are far removed from those awful visual cues. The country is safe, even lone women who walk the streets of Kigali at night supposedly feel at ease. In most places I visit, I find that there is a warning voice in the back of my mind, that call to action, fight or flight. But not here. Such a strange irony, does a country need to go through hell in order to find safety.
The roads are exceptionally well-constructed. Green vegetation stretches out into the rolling distant hills and provide for an easy escape from city life. Interestingly, Kigali is virtually devoid of litter. It’s quite possibly one of the cleanest cities I’ve ever been to — they’ve even banned the use of plastic bags; now that’s progressive thinking.
We drove along a winding road which traced the high contours of the valley. I was reminded of a book I’d read called ‘Shaking Hands with the Devil,’ written by General Roméo Dallaire, who headed the UN peacekeeping operation during the genocide. Early on in the book he makes a reference to the fact that the ‘rains come in April’ and somehow, on that particular day, I identified with his memoires and depiction of Rwanda, Kigali, the rain clouds and its people.
Rwanda has embraced the past, forgiven and moved forward — or so it would seem on the surface at least. Judging from its economic performance, Rwanda is already a powerhouse in East Africa. But after what I’d witnessed in the stadium that day, the truth may be much harder to decipher or understand.
Traffic became more congested the closer we got to the stadium. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of buses littered the streets and any free space which could be used as a parking spot. Streams of people walked towards the stadium gates, which doubled as a tightly guarded single entry point. The armed forces and police checked every bag, pocket and sack for anything that could be used as a weapon — they were very thorough. Not even the inside of my camera case escaped scrutiny.
The stadium was completely full. Along corridors and staircases, people stood huddled together in silence, trying to hear the faint voices coming over the rickety speakers. It was difficult to push through the crowds but eventually I made it to a staircase which overlooked the stadium. It was hard to see anything and my view was blocked in most directions by tall traditional hats. I inched my way closer and higher whenever the opportunity allowed it, eventually making it high enough to see the president and thousands of umbrellas.
Kagame spoke slowly with a faint voice. I couldn’t see him directly but the giant overhead screen magnified his head enough that the inaudible phrases could be supplemented by lip-reading. A sea of umbrellas shielded its owners from the sting of the sun — which showed its full face occasionally — and I was somewhat glad to be standing in a covered area. Everyone was silent and without motion. Even the wind stood still as we listened to Kageme’s words.
Then it started. A woman let out a shriek unlike anything I’d heard before. It was a cry of agony and anger, of pain and powerlessness, of sorrow and sadness. People turned their heads in the direction of the voice. Their eyes searched for the source while their hearts yearned for closure. Some didn’t look at all, instead — battered by 17 years of such memories — they dropped their gaze further towards the ground.
More let loose the tortured screams. The voices seemed to come from everywhere and ricocheted around the bare concrete walls to give anyone present a truly three-dimensional Cinemax experience. It was too much for many who came that day. Their hands couldn’t hide the streaming tears as they visibly sobbed in silence. Those that couldn’t contain their emotions any longer, chose to be escorted out by family.
Like the crests and troughs of a wave, the shrills made me feel nauseous, the silence between them seemed unpredictable or uncertain, and when the next wave eventually came, I was still gasping for air.
By 2pm it was over. Everyone made their way towards transportation — people as far as the eye could see — while I climbed up to the top of the stadium walls for a better view of the surrounding area. The paper said that there would be a detailed exhibition and even films of the genocide later that night, but on this occasion I opted out.
The tormented souls screaming in the stadium are testament that much of the pain is still very close to the surface. I would like to think that words like forgiveness and reconciliation mean something and aren’t just ploys thrown around for political gain. And given the recent troubles in Cote d’Ivoire, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Somalia, Kenya, Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, Algeria & Tunisia, there is a resounding feeling of tension on the continent and that conflict could erupt suddenly and without any warning.
For the sake of all who suffered or died, let us hope that lasting peace has finally descended onto the Land of a Thousand Hills.
[title photo by Rev. Wilfredo Benitez]