He was very formal, personal and service oriented if not a slightly meek. When he brought me a bottle of the local beer in a 330ml bottle, I admitted my surprise. Most beer in Africa is served in 500- 1.0L bottles. Rarely does one find what we are accustomed to in the US: the equivalent to a 12oz can or bottle, except in a tourist-oriented hotel, restaurant or other service establishment. When I asked for the larger bottle, he said they couldn’t get them. I begged to differ and suggested if there was a problem finding the larger bottles, I’d be happy to offer my assistance in talking with the distributor so that they could better service future customers with the more customary bottle. Of course, the reason the up-market Indian restaurant in the Rwandan capital only sold small bottles was simply to increase per table sales and revenue. Overhearing our conversation, one of the Indian owners of the eatery joined my waiter table side. I repeated my offer to help discuss the situation with the beer distributor all in an effort to increase customer service at the restaurant. He promised he’d look into it.
Sure he will.
Continuing to be friendly while learning more about Rwanda and its people, my waiter, Emmanuel slowly opened up. Learning of my journey he was awestruck.
“You’re a very strong man, Mr. Allan,” he said. Often my African friends describe me as strong when learning about the journey and my time on the road, alone. But there’s a translation difference, I think. The word strong connotes certain strength physically, but also can mean emotionally or even spiritually. We can have strong beliefs, strength in our conviction, be strong willed among others. Perhaps Emmanuel meant any of these things, or perhaps a better translation is “brave”. I don’t know.
“How you can do such thing means you must be very strong,” he continued. “I could never do such things. I would be afraid.”
He admitted that jobs were difficult to find in Rwanda and while he liked the restaurant job and was thankful of the Indian owners who gave him the opportunity, he would like to do more and earn more money. Though he liked serving in this restaurant because of the diverse clientele.
At about 27 years old, he was about 14 years old during the brutal genocide that left nearly 1,000,000 Rwandans dead in about 100 days in 1994. Less than two years earlier, foreseeing the pending doom in Rwanda, his parents, both Tutsi’s sent Emmanuel and his younger brother to a refugee camp in Uganda with a promise to reunite with their children in a few months. A few months went by. The UN eventually moved them to Tanzania. Then less than years later he was delivered the news: both his parents were killed.
“No, Emmanuel,” I consoled and confided, “you are the strong one here.” Uncharacteristically tongue tied and lost for words I knew my journey and adventure, though taxing, could never be compared to living through what many Rwandans did. “I don’t know, Emmanuel. But I’m sorry. I can’t imagine living through the pain and loss you and your brother have. My journey is nothing compared what you went through and go through every day.” My heart bled over the Indian goat stew with marsala and other spices and the wonderful garlic nan. “You have much more strength to be able to get up and face very new day. To learn was you have done and to be able to still have dreams and hopes. You, Emmanuel, are the strong person at this table.”
Though no genocide is short of atrocities and horror, I find the Rwandan killings more brutal. While planned and incited by extremists in the military, the killings were done by everyone — not just military or the organizers. No. The killings were performed by the hands of co-workers, brothers, husbands, kids, employees and next-door neighbors. People were hacked with machetes, bludgeoned with picks, chopped up by axes. Infants were swung by one foot and slammed against bedroom walls until they stopped breathing. Limbs were chopped off and backs stabbed and then the victims left to bleed and suffer to death. Teenaged girls and young children were raped, then stabbed and tossed into latrines left to die among human waste.
And this happened just over a decade ago. In today’s modern society.
Thirteen years later and they’re still finding bodies. The actual number of deaths may never be known.
Emmanuel’s father and mother were bound together in rope their home and then doused with gasoline while the killers locked and barricaded their house shut,. The outside of the house was lit afire. They sat in terror as the flames inched closer to their bodies until minutes or hours, who knows, later they were engulfed in flames and burned to death.
“A few years ago I got real sick,” Emmanuel confided. “I woke up one night and felt so hot, like I was burning.” He spent two days at the hospital but still has nightmares of his parents burning.
About three years ago, at the tenth anniversary of the brutal genocide, a memorial was built on a hillside over looking Kigali. And on this hillside are mass graves of more the 250,000 Rwandans. The site serves as a reminder of the savage and barbaric killings and how it happened. Genocide is a sad part of human history. And while there are patterns, one would reason that with all we’ve learned from Hitler, Pol Pot, the Hereros (another African massacre from German hands in Namibia) Serbia and more that racial cleansing would have relegated to the history books. But here the truth, disgust, horror and skeletons or the Rwanda Genocide are on display. A special exhibit shows photographs of children, their age and how they were killed. It’s mind numbing if not sick.
Though not “technically” a different ethnic group, it was the Europeans who before the turn of the century divided the Rwandan people into two groups – Tutsis and Hutus. Those whose families owned ten or more cows were identified and given I.D. cards as Tutsi’s, while those with less than ten cows were Hutus. The majority of the people were Hutus. And after gaining independence Belgium, the segregation continued. And it got out of hand. Over time the discrimination, alienation and fear of the minority festered in the psyche of the Hutus. Starting slowly, but by the 1990’s the military systematically enlisted more than 92% Hutu. Government was barely more diversified. The Tutsis were left out.
Perhaps the sad part of the story is how the Western world sat back and watched the genocide. The UN refused to offer more aid in terms of troops or supplies to the opposition. And in many ways, the young EU refused to acknowledge what was happening. Though slightly “Hollywood”, the recent movie “Hotel Rwanda” provides a superficial overview of the days of the genocide and the lame Western response.
I came to Rwanda to see for myself. And today I see a new Rwanda. But history will not be forgotten. And ideally not repeated.
Looking down from the gardens at the Rwanda Genocide Memorial at just one of six mass graves where more than 250,000 Rwandans killed during the genocide are buried on this hillside.
The identities of all those killed and bodies uncovered or the actual death toll may never be known. But a wall at the Memorial lists a fraction of the names of those known to have been killed. It’s mind boggling.
Today as I wander the streets of Rwanda’s capital it’s impossible for me to look into the faces of the people and wonder if they are Tutsi or Hutu. And if Hutu, how many people, friends did they kill. Those Hutus who were moderate, married to a Tutsi, sympathized with Tutsis or showed disdain or opposition to the ethnic cleansing were killed too. Many people I spoke to left the country going to Uganda, Zaire (now Congo) and Tanzania. “What could I do?” was the most typical response.
Dealing with the past is something that both the western world and the Rwandans are still contending with. Western guilt is evident in the amount of aid, which seems disproportionate given the size of the country compared to other African nations I’ve traveled. Massive western style high-rise buildings and industrial/business parks are under constructed in Kigali, new home construction in the countryside is overwhelming and a steady stream of UN supply trucks weave through the network of new — and largely pothole free — roads. Yes. This is the new Rwanda.
But where’s the justice? A War Crimes Tribunal held in Arusha has been going on for years. Sadly, the number of convictions processed by the tribunal amounts to no more than two digits – a fraction of the actual killers who brutally massacred one million or more innocent women, children and men. Yet more than 40,000 have been accused and imprisoned. And bringing them to trial has been a testy process. So where the Arusha courts have failed, Rwanda is trying something different — something uniquely African. On hilltops and under trees around the country villagers hold court. The bold experiment is called gacaca – or, justice in the grass. Gacaca is an age old African method of settling disputes. Judges, known as the upright ones, are elected in each village. To date more than 250,000 gacaca judges from university professors to illiterate peasants, have been sworn in. The whole process if very informal and none of the judges are lawyers. Village residents gather and sit under trees, while families of those killed in the massacre listen to the accused, some who confess ask for forgiveness while detailing the horror that led to the deaths. Anyone may air accusations against the accused or anyone in the village. It’s something I wanted to see and experience for myself. But my time in Rwanda didn’t coincide with a gacaca I could find.
So I continue moving on through this journey of adventure and discovery. Riding by the barely six-month old shiny fortress that serves as the US Embassy, I’m proud to be an American and doing what we can to contribute to better living conditions for these people, but sad that we were blind to the atrocities of their past.