I had been in and out of Rwanda for over a decade before visiting the Gisozi Genocide Memorial in Kigali. I’m not entirely sure why it took so long. During my first visit to the country in 2004 I travelled to the university in Butare, a journey of about 2 hours from Kigali. Two things struck me during that trip. The first was quiet innocuous. It was the built up drainage on the side of the road. To my knowledge it was unusual to have a perfectly tarmacked road all the way from a capital city to a rural town in this part of the world. Literally, it was mind-boggling to see one with perfectly designed drainage lining each side all the way.
The second thing was profound and perhaps the reason that made me stay away from the museum for over a decade. Every so often, dotting the roadside were shrines. Sites indicating mass graves that housed the remains of people who died during the 1994 genocide. Some markers were neat and formal, some looked hastily put together as if the sign writer was too emotional to spend the time to do a good job of it. Many were simply markers of burial sites, while others were of killing fields, with the remains of those who died there clear to see. It was a shock to my system. Especially as it was ten years after the horror that was Rwanda in 1994.
So yes, the reality and reminder of Rwanda’s very real past was visible and despite regular visits to that beautiful country I was never ready to face it. The memory of those markers were too real. Too raw.
The day I finally visited the museum it was in the safety of numbers with a group of colleagues and friends. I’m not sure I would have gone otherwise. As one can imagine, it’s a sobering, haunting place. And it should be because it’s a house of memories, of lives not lived, of realities lost and of hearts first broken, then pounded, then torn to shreds.
One of the rooms hosts the Wasted Lives exhibition, made up of photos of children lost during the war. It’s a heartbreaking testament of families broken, lives ripped apart and grief beyond measure. That room in particular tears down the insurmountable wall of the word genocide which can be too big to wrap ones head around. That room humanizes genocide by introducing us to individuals – children, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, best friends, star pupils, cheeky boys and shy girls. It unleashes the human story of what we all lose when genocide happens, it reminds us, nay, it tells us, that when this happens we lose what we hold most dear. Our very humanity.
In my estimation the most disturbing exhibition was the hallway documenting the path to 1994. I confess to always thinking that a string of events over a relatively short period of time led to the eruption of 100 days of genocide. There in that hallway I learnt that it was a slow burn and not an eruption. It was decades in the making and during that last decade Rwanda cried out repeatedly for help. She cried out and implored the international community and her neighbour countries to step in and help. That they all politely listened for years but did nothing was the true horror. It made me think of all the roundtables and commissions and working groups around the globe today that are likely a slow burn for a future story of genocide, of repeated inhumanity, of more lives unlived.
Ultimately, the museum warrants a visit because its story is not the narrative of one small nation, but rather the story of what happens when the world and her people don’t respond to a cry for help.