November 2011: As part of a larger 2-week trip that included Congo, and Tanzania, I spent 4 days in Rwanda traveling with my friend Sterling with a car and driver visiting various locations where some of the most horrid murders of the genocide of the 90’s occurred and also to visit the largest rainforest in the country in Nyungwe National Park to track wild chimpanzees. Rwanda would also be our transit point into Democratic Republic of Congo. Rwanda proved to be one of my most surprising African country visits because of the enormous progress it has made to bounce back after the tribal hatred, mass killings and turmoil that it faced only a few decades ago. 

 

 

My route in Rwanda

No visit to Rwanda is complete without learning about its genocide. To understand the world is to understand its history and there are so many historical factors that combined to eventually lead up to the genocide beginning with Belgian colonization that favored the Tutsi tribe in government positions over the Hutus, who were far more numerous. This led to generations of resentment and when the Belgians left Rwanda, it left an imbalance in power that on top of the animosity between the two most populous tribes the Hutus and Tutsis that eventually exploded into mass indiscriminate killings in the streets. In 1994 about 1 million people, Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers, were rounded up and systematically massacred by the Hutu govt, Interahamwe and militias. Here at this university, Tutsi’s were promised by the govt to be protected by the mobs and so 48,000 people sought refuge here only to be deceived by the govt and butchered over the course of one day. The museum is a sad reminder of what happened here. The museum curator who I could tell carried a heavy heart because of the crimes committed here. He was a kind man who expressed hope in the new Rwanda and in its ability to put the past behind it, but I could sense that he lost a lot in 1994. Most Tutsi’s that we met, had lost many family members during the genocide.

 

 

My Rwanda Itinerary

Day 1
Fly from Nairobi to Kigali, Rwanda
Drive to Nyungwe National Park Forest Chimp Reserve
Hotel

Day 2
Track chimps in jungle
Visit Murambi Genocide Museum
Travel to Gisenyi on Lake Kivu.
Stay in resort on Lake Kivu

Day 3
Cross Goma Rwanda/Congo border and begin Volcano Nyiragongo climb.(Volcano Nyiragongo climb). 

Day 4
After a week in DRC and returning via Uganda, return to Rwanda from Uganda border by private vehicle
Hotel Kigali

 
 

 

 

The Countryside

Rwanda is one of Africa’s most densely populated countries and has rich fertile volcanic soil that is used to plant some of the world’s finest coffee and tea. The rolling lush green hills are covered in tea plantations and we often stop our vehicle to chat with friendly locals working in the fields or walking to/from fields to their plantations and everyone was accepting of my camera. 

Tea plantations

Backbreaking work picking tea

Village boy

Girl I met along side the road who let me take her photo

I saw this cool cat with a pipe and had to take his photo. 

Genocide

Visiting the genocide sites of Rwanda was difficult. I knew I had to do it and see with my own eyes the evidence of the unspeakable horror that humans are capable of inflicting on each other. But there is a limit to how much I could take, and I decided that one day of visiting these sites was as much darkness and evil as I could process. We visited two key massacre sites. One was a university-Murambi genocide Center where the Hutu forces tricked the Tutsis into thinking the university would be a sanctuary during the uprisings and instead it turned into a massacre where Hutu militias butchered 50,000 Tutsis including infants. This scale of savagery will never leave me and to make the massacre even more visceral, thousands of boidies are preserved in lime inside rooms of the school.

Murambi genocide Center

Inside these buildings are thousands of lime preserved bodies, victims of the genocide. Evident in their preserved bodies are the mortal wounds of knife wounds in skulls that killed them. I’ll never forget the sight and stench of lime mixed with decomposing flesh of these bodies, many of them being infants lying on tables.

Skeletons preserved with lime-victims of genocide with fresh machete wounds in skulls. The smell in this place was nauseating 

Sadly, thousands took refuge here in this church during the genocide only to be betrayed by the priest, who turned their names over to the govt, which in turn sent the death squads. Thousands were killed here in this church. Even though the priest betrayed them, a catholic nun gave her life for the victims of the genocide. She tried to bring international attention to the impending genocide and she was knifed to death by militia members.

I saw this in the window of one of the churches where so many were senselessly butchered and I couldn’t help but to see some irony in this image.

Another sad site where children were hidden only to be discovered by the murderer’s and killed-Spear used to impale victims –

This shoe which lay on the ground with the bloodied and soiled clothes of the victims of the Rwandan genocide was likely worn by one of the thousands of Tutsi’s or Hutu symphathizers that hid inside this church seeking refuge when the doors were burst open with grenades and violent mobs of machetti carrying Hutus flooded into the church followed by a blood bath.

Articles of clothing from the dead where left in the church as a memorial 

Blood stained walls

These flowers were placed on top of this mass burial tomb at the church were the victims were murdered. Inside thousands of skulls and bones were placed in rows inside glass cases.

Too expensive for us to stay at but we did have dinner and some drinks at the luxury hotel Rwanda, famous for the movie depicting the genocide and the Tutsi hotel managers heroic attempt to save as many lives of Hutus as he could from marauding gangs with the intent to murder them. The hotel is very nice, and it is hard to imagine a genocide when there. The bar was full of prostitutes, who are very determined and one of them wouldn’t believe me when I said I was taken so when I was on the phone with my girlfriend, I had my girlfriend explain this to the lady on the phone.

Hotel Rwanda

Sterling and I in the Hotel Rwanda, where a group of foregners and Tutsis hid during the genocide from murderous gangs.

Today Rwanda is very prosperous and on the rebound. The bitter hatred and scars of the genocide are healing somehow under the leadership of Paul Kigame, a bit of a dictator but one that has healed the country, When I asked my Rwandan friends if they are Hutu or Tutsi, they would usually respond, ” we are Rwandan.” This response is an attempt of the Rwandan people to put the tribal divisions behind them and move on. The main perpetrators of the genocide have been arrested and put in prison and others have fled into Congo but for most, the government has decided to not to open old wounds by prosecuting them. The government has focused on development and unity and so far, the country is doing great. Any open discussion of tribal divisions is banned, and neighborhoods are required to meet once per month and discuss different ways they can improve and discuss any potential strife. I was in Rwanda on one of these days and everything closed down for the day as the neighborhood meetings were mandatory. Ideas like this are controversial but they seem to be working and are promoting community unity. 

Tracking Wild Black faced Chimpanzees in Nyungwe National Park

We spent the night in a guesthouse on the outskirts of Nyungwe National Park in order to get an early start to the next morning tracking chimps in the forest with the rangers. To find the chimps, a group of rangers will go ahead early in the morning in effort to spot the chimp nests and then radio the ranger with us with the location. Every night the chimps will make a new nest so without the efforts of the trackers, the chimps would be very difficult to find. The chimps are slightly habituated since they are familiar with scientists and rangers being in their presence, but they still maintain all of the wild characteristics of normal chimps in the wild.

 

 

Nyungwe Forest

Sterling and our ranger trackers

Giant Rhino beetle

Big male chimp

Huge male chimp sneakinging up on me

Undenounced to me, this rather ripped fella snuck up behind me and Sterling frantically tried to get my attention. I turned around expecting a snake under my feet and instead the chimp was on the trail face to face with us about 10 feet away. I tried to get my camera out, but it was too late he took off. As he went off, he beat a tree trunk to display his dominance.

 

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