Darkness in the spring of 1994
1989-1994, 1962-1994, 1953-1994, my year of birth-1994. Between the meters high trees several graves are scattered. The year of birth on the gravestones differs, the date of death is the same everywhere: 1994. The spring of that year was by far the darkest period in the history of Rwanda. In a hundred days more than a million Tutsis and with them sympathetic Hutus and Twa were murdered. Massacred may be a better description. Many villages we pass by have their own memorial sign, sometimes a large stone along the road with names painted on it, sometimes a memorial place in front of a church and on eight places in the country a large 'monument' to commemorate the deceased people.
Almost always these places are accompanied by the words 'Never again'. And now, more than 25 years after the date, there are special days in the year on which people mourn collectively and on which the 'heroes' of that time are honoured. February 1st is the official Heroes' Day, a public holiday, as a tribute to humanity during the horror. The week after 7 April is one of national mourning.
Kathleen knows of herself that places of remembrance where so many atrocities are commemorated, paralyze her and grab her throat too much. Even at night the images don't leave her alone, so she chooses to leave the memorial places for what they are.
So early in the morning I decide to stop one of the many moped taxis to take me to the 'Murambi Genocide Memorial Site' three kilometres away. It is a former school building that was renovated in 1994 and therefore was empty at the time. The many Tutsi refugees were led here, saying that they would be safe there. It turned out to be a trap. On 21 April 1994, fifteen days after the President of Rwanda was shot out of the sky, an event considered to be the start of the genocide, between 3 a.m. and 11 a.m. 40,000 to 50,000 people were brutally murdered. Only a few dozen people survived the massacre.
Panels explain how it could have come to this. The blame for the genocide is laid on the West. Belgium as the last colonial power is blamed for changing the distinction between Tutsis, Hutus and Twa from a social structure to an ethnic structure. Before colonisation, you were Hutu if you had 1 to 10 cows. If you had more, you became a Tutsi and if you had none, you were a Twa. During the colonization that was changed. People were classified according to body characteristics; especially nose shape and body height. From 1932 onwards, 'your status' was also mentioned on your identity card and it was no longer possible to become a Hutu, Tutsi or the other way around, as was normal before colonial times. At the same time a 'divide and rule' strategy was followed. The Hutu's were led to believe that their development was blocked by the Tutsi.
The above is mentioned as the cause of the genocide, but the biggest blame is placed on the UN and the French. With the UN because they were far too slow to intervene and with the French because they had military troops in the country, but instead of protecting the refugees, they supported the government army that carried out the massacre and, after the war, even offered them an exodus to neighbouring Congo to escape persecution.
The panels talk about individual French soldiers who saved people, but in general the French army looked the other way when they saw what happened.
I ask the director of the museum, who accompanies me, why the French did this. According to him it was mainly because the liberation army had its base in Uganda, which was an English-speaking country. Rwanda was still French speaking at the time and the French would have had that as a reason to support the government army and not the liberation army that wanted an end to the genocide. The relationship with France is still tense to this day and since 2008 French has officially been replaced by English in schools. A year later, Rwanda joined the Commonwealth of Nations to strengthen its ties with the Anglo-Saxon world at the expense of relations with the French.
Completely absorbed in thought, I walk out of the former school building. As the only white person in this museum I feel a burden resting on my shoulders. The Belgians and French were active here, but in other parts of the world the Netherlands doesn't always have a history to be proud of either. As a Westerner, I even feel somewhat attacked. I probably don't manage to be completely objective and I realize that I know far too short of the period after the colonization, but I miss a bit of self-reflection. After all, the country had been independent for over 30 years when the genocide took place. I think it's a bit extreme to put all the blame on the West, even though mistakes were certainly made. But the government also had the opportunity for 32 years to change the structure introduced by the Belgians; to bring reconciliation between the tribes. But the blackening of the Tutsis continued in all its intensity. I cannot shake off the impression that in the period after the colonisation the government set the Hutus even more against the Tutsis. There's a manifesto on one of the panels read by the then Rwandan president in the late 1960s. It contains ten points. If I'm to believe the manifesto, the Tutsis were the most terrible, unreliable people you could meet. I read in testimonies about that period that Hutu thought they were doing a good job by murdering their Tutsi villagers; after all, it was encouraged by the country's leaders at the time, and through the many propaganda and decades of systematically portraying the Tutsis as thieves, liars and sloths, people were convinced that the country was better off without the Tutsis. However, I don't read anything about that period in Rwanda and its consequences in relation to the genocide.
And I can't help translating it to the present time. ‘Never again!’. It also comes back to this place on a regular basis. I, like probably everyone else, fully support it. But is it enough just to agree? What is the situation now in Europe, or more concretely, in the Netherlands? The Islam and the Moroccans have been systematically blackened by Wilders for more than ten years; according to the PVV they are very bad. Freedom of speech is a great good, but hasn't Wilders passed the stage of 'freedom of speech' long ago? After all, in the meantime he has expressed his opinion in complete freedom and it is more than known. What is actually the difference with the manifesto I have just read? In Rwanda at the time a group was systematically blackened for years. Shouldn't there be a lot firmer action against Wilders?
After all, haven't I been unintentionally influenced in recent years and think a little differently about these fellow countrymen? Do I give an individual Moroccan a fair chance, or do I allow myself to be guided somewhat by the image portrayed by various politicians, without ever having had any problems with one of them myself? In fact, am I not wrong even now to call them 'Moroccan'? The youth were all born in the Netherlands and have a Dutch passport. I have the latter too, but I was born in Italy. And I'm just seen as a Dutchman. In short, when are ‘Moroccans’ not Maroccans anymore? Can they ever become Dutch?
Light in the spring of 2020
As soon as I take two steps outside the fence of the complex, I hear behind me 'Mzungu, how are you? Give me money, give me 100 Frank!’. Two 10-year-old boys standing right next to me. I hadn't noticed them before. No more time for thought and reflection. I am back in the Rwanda of 2020 and my attention is drawn to that. And that current Rwanda impresses us.
President Kagame has been leading the way since 2000, in the years 1994 to 2000 he was vice president. There was hardly any economic activity after the genocide. The whole country was devastated and Western investors had left Rwanda. Kagame had to rebuild the country from scratch. The flag has changed, districts have been simplified and cities and villages have been renamed. The latter sometimes creates confusion with us, because the names along the road do not match the names on our maps. One of the first things Kagame also did as president is banning the distinction between the three tribes. The description 'Hutu', 'Tutsi' and 'Twa' has been removed from the passports. It's even forbidden to use these words and you're not allowed to ask about them. From that moment on everyone is only Rwandan.
President Kagame, former soldier of the liberation army at the time of the genocide, does not tolerate contradiction. Critical journalists have been silenced and there is no freedom of the press. He has also recently amended the constitution so that he can remain president at least until 2034. In that sense he seems little different from the image we have of African leaders. There is, however, another side to the story.
We read that 98% of the children in Rwanda go to school. A similar percentage of people have health insurance. If someone can't be helped in their own country, they look for better opportunities in India or South Africa. Obama is said to have been inspired by Rwanda for his 'Obama-care'. It all seems grandiloquent until we meet Theo. He sits in a wheelchair after a serious bus accident and says he is now in a procedure to be treated in India. His pictures are being studied one of these days and within a month he expects to get a rash if there are chances for (partial) healing. If that is the case, he will soon get on a plane.
And from a medical team from Sweden, which we happen to meet in one of the guesthouses, we hear that they have come to Rwanda to see how medicines are transported by drone to remote areas in Rwanda. Sweden recognizes that problem and now comes to Rwanda to hear how it is organized here.
The poorest children get extra food supplements from the government to break the one-sided diet. Corruption is not tolerated and the government also seems to be known for its diligence and lack of bureaucracy. The president recently launched three new programmes: 'one cow per familiy', 'one child, one laptop' and 'free wifi everywhere in the country'. It is part of his ambition to make his country a middle-income country and to profile himself as a knowledge-based economy. He doesn't do it alone, by the way. In Rwanda 64% of the parliament is a woman. On the one hand it is the conviction that with women in power such a terrible thing will never happen again. On the other hand, after the genocide, women were by far the majority, as a result of which they took over many, originally male activities; also politics. In addition, over the past 25 years, the joint aid organizations and countries have donated 9 billion dollars to the country to rebuild it. These donors unanimously agree that the Rwandan government spends the resources as one of the best developing countries.
When we cycle through the country, we see for ourselves that a lot has already been achieved. Today's Rwanda is called the 'Singapore of Africa'. It's clean, safe (according to the World Economic Forum Rwanda is the 8th safest country in the world; both Belgium and the Netherlands have to put Rwanda ahead of that) and everything is well organized.
The main road structure consists of smooth asphalt. In the towns there are sidewalks along the roads and sometimes we even come across cycle paths. There is - working - street lighting which consists entirely of LED lighting. There are pedestrian crossings for which traffic actually stops when you want to cross. The moped riders all have helmets on and there is a maximum of 1 passenger on the back, of course also with a helmet. For the first time in a long time we see bus shelters in the streets again and the buses are in no way inferior to our Dutch buses. Two days a month it's car-free Sunday. That doesn't really matter a lot; even on not car-free days we hardly see any cars.
Bicycles, on the other hand, dominate the street scene. Often coloured and equipped with many reflectors as decoration and with huge bales of goods on the back; they are the trucks of Rwanda. They are also used as taxis. All bicycles transporting goods or people have a number plate.
Nowhere is plastic or other dirt in the roadsides. Plastic is forbidden in this country and the last Saturday of the month is 'community day' and everyone aged 18+ is obliged to do two hours of social work, which usually involves cleaning the public space, but also, for example, painting the school or mowing the local football field. If you don't show up, there will be a firm conversation. After all, the aim of the day is not only to clean up or refurbish something, but above all to strengthen social cohesion in the village.
Although we realize that the locals here don't always have a simple life and the president still has a long way to go before it's really a middle-income country with a knowledge economy, for us as Western cyclists it's really just a matter of getting home. We'll keep it up here for a while. Actually Rwanda is 'Africa for Dummies'. And I certainly don't mean that in a derogatory way, but as a big compliment. Certainly with the knowledge that of the 7 million people who lived in Rwanda at the beginning of 1994, 1 million have been murdered and 2 million have fled to neighbouring countries. 80% of the children at that time lost family, 90% were convinced to die themselves. They are now the young adults who are building the country. What only remains for me is to express an enormous respect to this special, fascinating country with her extremely helpful, gentle and hospitable population.