When I was planning out my first few days here in Rwanda, I
thought I would go to the Genocide Memorial Center on my first day here. My mother disagreed. She recommended I take a day to understand my
surroundings, get my footing, and process my arrival in the country. I didn’t listen. It was a shocking way to start my time here,
and a good introduction to what I expect to experience in the next two weeks. Here, and in the future I will try to
describe what I saw with as little melodrama as possible, since these events
need no exaggeration.
After catching up on emails and notifying friends and family
of my safe arrival, I made my way to the Center. I walked into the main reception desk and was
greeted by a very friendly man. He
explained the museum itself was free, audio guides cost 6,000 rwf and donations
were welcome. I purchased an audio
guide, he handed me a map, and pointed me towards my first stop, which was an
overview of the museum. After the
introduction ended, the British voice in my ear instructed me to head towards
the mass graves. I took a deep breath
and headed down the steps. There were
long rows of cement rectangles, under which a total of 250,000 unidentified
remains were interred. It was hard to
have a reaction looking at the cement, since it looked so mundane and
unornamented. I walked further and saw
the wall of names. There were only a few hundred names on the list,
since as the audio guide explained, it was impossible to identify all of the
bodies. Next to the wall of names was an
eternal flame, which like in many other places, burns as a relentless reminder
of the genocide. From the wall of names
I followed the length of the graves until the path split.
Down a short set of stairs was a small forest. The audio guide explained the trees had been
planted by surviving relatives as memorials.
This image reminded me, that during the genocide the interhamwe (Hutu
militia) came over the radio and announced that they must “cut down all the
tall trees,” referring to the tutsi men, who were stereotypically tall. Now stood hundreds of tall trees, growing as
a reminder of the men who were killed.
I continued down the path, past more graves, and I was
confronted with a sign that said open burial ahead. I stood still and tried to prepare
myself. As I walked forward, I could see
one of the graves was covered with a glass panel, instead of cement. My hands started to shake, and I was unsure
of what I would see. I walked up and saw
that it was a large flag with a cross on it, a cloth that is traditional used
to cover coffins during burial ceremonies.
I could not see any remains. I
felt a little light headed and realized I hadn’t been breathing. I sat down for a moment in front of the open
grave and just breathed. Once again,
like in Bosnia, I found myself muttering “I’m so sorry.”
Next the audio guide took me through the gardens of the
Museum. There are about seven different
gardens, all thoughtfully curated to represent a different aspect of
remembrance. The first is the garden of
life, which has a large tree in the center and is dedicated to the women of
Rwanda. Then there is garden, which has
flora from each of Rwanda’s main provinces.
There is a garden of cacti that represent the strength and resilience of
the Rwandan people, even when the international community was absent. A garden of roses, which represents all of
those killed during the genocide. There
are hundreds of different varieties of rose to represent the unique
individuality of all those who were killed.
Then there is a garden with a fountain, that represents the strong and
powerful history of the nation, this fountain trickles down into a second pool,
which is very fragmented. This is called
the garden of division and it represents the hatred and separation which lead
to the genocide. The garden is
surrounded by many different sculptures and statutes, the most prominent of
which is the statues of elephants, since they are known for their memories,
they are a reminder that Rwanda will never forget its past. Finally there was the garden of unity, which
was also connected to the original fountain, this time there was once circular
pool, which was built with a pile of rocks, showing how individuals have helped
to rebuild Rwanda.
The garden set the stage for the museum and after sitting by
the garden of division for a moment, I headed inside.