Saturday, October 18, 2008


Wow, Bre was right, it is a beautiful country although there are those of us in this group that were still more impressed with Burundi. In all honesty they are probably both the same with the mountains and terracing, it was just more fun to see all the bicycles with bananas in Burundi :)
Rwanda is even more famous than Burundi for it's civil war and if you haven't seen "Hotel Rwanda", now you have an excuse :) Ok, so it's not the happiest film but it gives you an idea of the kind of mess that went on here back between April and July of 1994. Not surprisingly our trip to Rwanda sort of centered around this theme. Like in Burundi, the whole issue was between Hutus and Tutsis who as different ethnic groups were at various times incited by outside forces, and especially their own government, to hate each other to the point of genocidal violence.
We did things a little backwards though because we entered Rwanda from the south and the capital, Kigali was our last stop rather than first. From Butare we did a little day trip to the Murambi genocide memorial site at Gikongoro. It was the site of a massacre, killing about 50,000 people who had come to an unopened school on top of a hill just outside of town. Apparently the people were told to go there for their safety by the powers that be and in the end they were all slaughtered. The creepiest part of the whole experience is that the mass graves were dug up later and the rooms of the school (which was never opened) now have 1800 of the bodies that have been preserved with lime to show to people like us. They have been completely desicated to the point of being more of less just bones, but the twisted bodies, some in obvious agony, and their death wounds are still visible. Smashed skulls, broken bones, etc. Lots of families and children were killed too. It's not a pretty scene but in the perverse ways of chance, the hilltop setting gives perhaps the most beautiful view in all of Rwanda that we saw. Unfortunately there was no information given and we were mostly confused as we left having received no background on the genocide.
We ended up killing a few days in Butare because of another one of those travel problems that makes you smack your head and wonder how you made such a simple mistake. As we were leaving Burundi and getting stamped out, Kees suddenly realized that his carnet (the papers for temporarily importing a vehicle) was finished, he had no more countries left to enter, and he needed a new one. He'd been working on it in Dar and was going to have it sent to Nairobi when we got there but obviously we wouldn't make it. Somehow, we managed to sneak a 10 ton truck right across the border into Rwanda without having them check the truck and get it stamped in at customs and we were trying to organize having the papers sent to Kigali so we could leave.
Kees also wanted to see the gorillas while we were in the area. Gorilla viewing is done in Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, all very close to each other and all costing $500US for a day trip into the forest to spend 1 hour with the gorillas. Obviously this is also out of our budget but Kees wanted to go. The problem is that due to very limited numbers allowed per day (~40 tourists in Rwanda, at 8 per gorilla family group) the slots are reserved months in advance by tour groups. We drove to Kigali and talked to the National Parks people and found an empty slot for him to jump in on. There were only 3 empty spaces for the whole month so we didn't have a lot of choice and had to immediately turn around to drive up to Ruhengeri in the northeast, right on the border with both Uganda and the DRC. The area is supposed to be the nicest to see the gorillas because the whole area is part of the Volcanoes National Park and the town is surrounded by a volcanic mountain range. The most recent eruption was only a few years ago and managed to destroy some villages across the border in DRC. Anyway, it is the original "Gorillas in the Mist" area and Diane Fossey, who did all her work with Gorillas lived and was murdered here, with her grave being somewhere in the hills nearby.
It is into the rainy season now so the volcanoes were often covered in mist and while we hung out in Ruhengeri for 5 days we learned that the warmest and clearest hours of the day were the first 2 or 3 and by 9am you wouldn't see many more mountains. We still sat around beside the pool at our EER guesthouse (run by a catholic church and for some reason related to an inside joke of his childhood had dad laughing all the time) and watched the thunderstorm and downpours roll up the hills towards us and sometimes hit, but more often just barely miss. Kees swore everyday that it was the most beautiful scenery in all of Africa to which we replied "yeah, but you're a flatlander" and then secretly pretty much agreed. His trip up to see the gorillas was perfect. Sightings are guaranteed now but we'd met a lot of people who came back disappointed because the gorillas were just sleeping the whole time. Not so for Kees. He got some great video of the babies playing and silverback male hitting his chest and mock charging them.
We spent the rest of the days hanging out waiting for the weekend to end and his papers to arrive. While exploring the market we found boxes and boxes of goods for sale with "USAid, not to be sold" written all over them. If you actually still believe aid ends up where it's supposed to.......
And then it was down the hill to Kigali, which we'd seen briefly before, but not really. Kigali, looks and feels like one of the smaller and nicer capitals in Africa. It's very green and built over a number of hills and somehow doesn't seem as chaotic as others, indeed the whole country is a lot cleaner than most we've passed through. There isn't much to do in the capital except visit the Kigali Genocide Centre which is the mother of memorials here. The centre opened only recently (2004 to mark the 10 year anniversary) and has all the info, pictures, skulls and stories about their genocide as well as some of the other major ones of the 20th century. They also have the mass graves for 258,000 people, the number killed in the Kigali area. It was pretty brutal with friends, neighbours and families killing each other and the papers here lately estimating as many as 2 million killed. The effects are still seen today with memorials dotting the countryside and a staggering number of prisoners being held on suspected genocide charges. There are hundreds of thousands of them and it is quite common to see them in the countryside working the terraced fields wearing their pink prison suits. These of course are just the small time guys while many of the architects of those days remain at large with asylum in other African countries.
Perhaps the worst part of the whole thing is that it all seems to be the result of western manipulation dating back to the Belgian colonial days. The Hutus and Tutsis lived together peacefully until then and intermarried and had done so for so long that Tutsi's simply were the upper class rather than an ethnic group (if you owned 10 cows you could be called a tutsi!) and the Belgians forced it back into an ethnic issue, manipulated feelings and encouraged what would ultimately lead to the genocide.
We saw the famous "Hotel Rwanda" right in the middle of the city and spent a night in a different (cheaper) hotel before heading off to Uganda the following day, new carnet in hand. The road up to the border followed a valley that was completely covered in tea plantations. At the border we avoided the whole problem of the carnet by simply passing through without going to customs yet again. They never knew we had a truck at all! How convenient :)


At 8:31 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

The civil war situation that has occurred in the regions of Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, and other surrounding areas is truly devastating. Last week the LRA attacked an entire village in the DR Conga. I work with and it is our mission to unite victims of war and do much work in Africa. Our hope is that we give many the tools and leadership to move forward with their lives and help others that have not found their inner peace from such turmoil. There is always ways to help countries and I urge readers to check out
that is raising money for children of Northern Uganda currently.

At 6:48 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Ammon,
Reading your stuff makes the part of the BOM I'm reading seem more real, and tragic.
Did you feel the dead crying out? Did it feel depressing, or was it just academic and distant somehow.
Heard from Sky, I hope he gets in, he has grown up. old him I would be happy to be a reference.
Anyways, I'm still here, and still getting hammered here. We have a bit of a gang war going on at present. 5 shot the other night, one dead the others lucky

Take care, and say hello to the others, who can't be bothered writing......despite me hanging with you all this time....... is the guilt working? lol

Big Bear Hugs and Love
Big Bear


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