Rwanda: Lessons in cows and blood

The tagline was curious: “Welcome to Rwanda–the land of a thousand hills”. At my desk in Abuja, I didn’t get what it meant until two flights and one connection later, as the final flight swept down into the airport in Kigali.

It was nightfall, and an undulating sea of electric lights winked in the darkness. Looking through the window, I was at eye level with the lights on one side. On the other side, the lights were still far below.

I didn’t quite catch the illusion until daybreak when I saw the land for what it was: an endlessly rolling vista of hills and valley.

Crests and troughs sweep through on every side. Out in rural Rwanda, it is farmlands. Inside the capital Kigali, it is asphalt roads.

Cars pull out of home gates and roll down 45-degree slopes to get onto the main road, then continue ascending inclines and descending declines as steep as house sides throughout the city.

Kigali has a tranquil feel. By day businesses run, markets hum and traffic buzzes. For an African city, and compared against Lagos and Abuja, Kigali is superbly clean.

By night, a chill drops down on the city–and things slow down in real time.

Corners, bars, lounges and grills open up. The seedy ones have endless supply of poisons of choice–alcohol and tobacco.

The posh ones have similar poisons, but they come serenaded by Rwanda’s most famous traditional dance–“intore and amaraba”.

It is a superb production of choreography consisting of a “ballet” by women, the “dance of heroes” by men, and the drums. It comes with a lot of feet stamping that rattles your eardrums while you watch the performance. It is Rwanda’s answer to “atilogwu”.

Rwanda sells tourism. Since 2017, it began selling itself as an up-market gorilla trekking destination. One of those treks sets you back some $1,500–nearly N549,000 or the equivalent of a year and a half’s pay based on the new minimum wage in Nigeria.

It is only able to do that after covering, pulling through and surviving a genocide in which nearly 800,000 people were killed. The speed of killing–800,000 in 100 days–is the fastest on record in Africa, and left the country’s people reeling.

These day, the divisions and grievances are not evident as you mingle with Rwandans, but that massacre is on the tourism menu.

It is on offer at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. At the start of the tour through history is a video documentary that sets the mood back to April 1994, when the killings began.

Families speak of neighbours turning against them on account of their being either Hutu or Tutsi. Recounts of children ripped from the arms of their parents and slaughtered. Narrations of children watching their parents being hacked before them. Women raped as torture, boys and girls used for war at the point of death, bodies thrown into rivers and wells.

The scale was mind numbing. The screams and hacks came pouring back into a small display room through hifi speakers–low volume, low distortion, just a surround sound that rendered everyone in the room mute while my head swelled and goosebumps spread out over me.

Hamzat Lawal, of Connected Development, was in the room. He was in Kigali for a conference and took the tour a day before the conference opened.

People in Nigeria, especially the northeast, should come and watch this and learn, he said, shaken. He was talking about the cheapening of human life and dignity.

There is a lesson in Rwandan terror that Nigerian terror can learn from. In the grasp of genocide, the value of human life hit rock bottom. Insecurity, banditry, terrorism are pushing the value of the Nigerian life off the radar.

After the doccie, the main memorial with exhibits on display is a wealth of historical information, nail-biting pain and bleeding-heart regret.

The Hutu-Tutsi divide started quite differently, according to exhibits in the memorial.

The primary identity of all Rwandans was originally associated with 18 different clans. Categories as Hutu, Tutsi were merely socio-economic classifications within the clans, which could change with personal circumstances.

“But colonial rule made the distinctions racial, especially with the introduction of identity cards in 1932. It identified anyone with 10 cows as Tutsi, and anyone with less than 10 cows as Hutu,” the exhibit read. “This also applied to their descendants.”

Tutsis were a minority but they enjoyed access to education, employment by the ruling Belgian colonial government.

The few were used to oppress the many, creating a legacy of tension that exploded into violence several times before Rwanda even gained its independence.

For instance, up to 300,000 Tutsis fled the country in the wake of a Hutu revolution in 1959. Two years later, the country’s Tutsi monarch was forced into exile while the victorious Hutus declared the country a republic–before official independence in 1962 from Belgium.

One year later, Maj-Gen Juvenal Habyarimana, a moderate Hutu, was in power. The politics don’t make sense to many but he stayed in power for two decades.

Tutsi refugees in neighbouring Uganda massed into the Rwandan Patriotic Front, led by current Rwandan president Paul Kagame, and invaded. The result was a power sharing arrangement that extremists took what’s been described as “swift and horrible action” to prevent.

On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi and other officials was shot down over Kigali airport. Within hours the presidential guard, members of the armed forces and Hutu militia groups set up roadblocks and began slaughtering Tutsis and moderate Hutus with impunity.

One group was the interahamwe (“those who attack together”) and the other impuzamugambi (“those who have the same goal”).

One memorial is dedicated to 10 Belgian peacekeepers assigned to protect the prime minister. A day after the plane crash, the UN soldiers were “captured, tortured and brutally murdered” by government soldiers in an attempt to provoke Belgium to withdraw from the UN’s assistance mission in Rwanda.

The killings were fuelled by the hate and mistrust already sown throughout the country. The Hutu 10 Commandments, published in 1990, had been circulating four years before the genocide.

It  labelled all Tutsi “dishonest in business” and declared as a traitor any Hutu man who took a wife, mistress or secretary of Tutsi background.

The propaganda that went right to hearts–and the clubs, hoes, machetes and guns that went to flesh–are on display in the memorial.

The weapons in glass cases still haunt as though the blood they drew is still there.

The words–in French, then English–printed on paper still torment: “…women beaten, raped, humiliated, abused and ultimately murdered….Children watching as their parents were tortured, beaten and killed in front of their eyes, before their small bodies were sliced, smashed, abused, pulverised and discarded….The elderly, the pride of Rwandan society despised and mercilessly murdered in cold blood….Neigbhours turned on neighbours, friends on friend, even family on their own family members….Rwanda has turned into a nation of brutal, sadistic, merciless killers and of innocent victims…”

Those lives are now rows of names etched onto a marble wall at the memorial. A rose garden winds through the grounds. An inexplicable calm descends as visitors detach red or white roses, then reverently lay them on the graveside.

A warning asks visitors not to sit on the graves. Rwandans already know the rules; they have lived the story.

But it is a human story and one brimful of lessons. Rwanda’s present is a lesson for growing countries. Its past is also lesson for countries on the brink of making the same mistakes.

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