The fighting is over. Nothing but the tears remain.
As the Rwandan jazz singer belts out the American classic “Stand by Me” to the twenty or so business people and tourists sipping cocktails and beer at the Kigali Marriott Hotel Bar, I’m struck by the irony of the situation. On April 6, 1994, no one in the world save for ten Belgian soldiers and two UN groups from Ghana and Senegal stood by the Rwandans as one million Rwandans, many of them women and children, met their brutal death much like Dian Fossey had in 1985 – with machetes and clubs. The US was reeling from our losses in Somalia and refrained from getting into conflicts we didn’t fully understand. The UN peacekeeping troops (except Ghana and Senegal) left when headquarters refused to send adequate help. Pictures of the westerners being rescued while leaving the Rwandans behind provide a striking image of the world deserting the Tutsi to die at the hands of their former neighbors and friends. To some outsiders, it seemed like it could be a civil war. Hutus make up about 85% of the population versus the Tutsi who make up about 15% (pygmies or Twa numbers are often not included in this estimate). The Rwandan government and militia were the perpetrators of the crime making it difficult to bring order. There is no peace to keep in a civil war, the UN said. Others who were watching more closely knew it was genocide. The main target of the torturous deaths that had been occurring for years were Tutsi women and children – bearers of the next generation of Tutsi and the most vulnerable. The previous incidents of genocide were random and not coordinated; however, they were bad enough for officials from surrounding African countries to facilitate a peace agreement signed in Arusha, Tanzania by leaders of the Tutsi and their aggressors, the Hutus, in January of 1994. An agreement most Hutu leaders failed to honor (and those that did were killed).
The Hutus were jealous of the prominent status the Tutsi had been given by their European colonizers first Germany, then Belgium. The Europeans needed a way to divide and conquer a cohesive population so, they made arbitrary race defining characteristics such as the size and shape of a person’s nose. The Hutus wanted more positions of power, money, and resources available for themselves. On April 6, 1994, the Hutus shot down an airplane carrying the Rwandan political leaders who stood out against the genocide. They tortured and shot the ten Belgian soldiers guarding the Prime Minister when they killed her. Simultaneously with the attacks on leadership, the Hutus and the militia launched a full scale, coordinated genocide across the entire country. The world watched in horror at the massive and rapid destruction of a people where race had only recently been defined through the issuance of Identification Cards by Belgian officials. These identification cards proved to be a death sentence for the Tutsi.
The Resistance forces (good guys) were headed by a man named Paul Kagame who had returned from exile years before and was present at the signing of the peace agreement. In less than forty-eight hours after the April 6th attack, Kagame launched a countrywide rescue mission and offensive. Their first priority was to seek and find all injured Tustis and bring them to recovery centers.
The Ghanaians stayed and helped the victims by setting up a rescue center.
At the same time, the French aided the Genociders. Here, I have to stop and say loudly that giving Genociders guns and protection is detestable by any measure for whatever reason (this message has been edited).
The second mission of the resistance was to fight the Hutus for control of the country. Out-numbered five to one, Kagame’s troops didn’t stand a chance. It would be a fight to the death. When the Hutus saw the might and swiftness of The Resistance (aka RPF), they began to lose their momentum. In a series of eight decisive battles, the Tutsi took control of the country on July 4, 1994. A miracle by any measure.
The picture below shows the sad victory march lead by Paul Kagame. The Resistance won. Genocide was stopped. A hollow victory. Most survivors had lost all or many family members.
As the jazz singer finishes her song and I take another sip of Virunga Gold beer, I try to remember what I was doing during the time her country’s women and children were being beaten to death. I remember hearing about Rwanda and thinking it sounded like another civil war the US didn’t belong in. Our hearts and minds were full caring for other countries. Tibetans had escaped certain genocide at the hands of the Chinese and were living in refugee camps created in India and Nepal. In 1990, the US granted one thousand visas for the Tibetans to enter the US, if and only if they had sponsors. Since they were not classified as refugees (to appease the Chinese), they needed support for health care, jobs, and a place to live. That project took until 1995 to complete.
On the day of Kagame’s sad victory march, July 4, 1994, Dave and I were backpacking in King’s Canyon National Park CA celebrating the US’s independence from Britain (since Dave’s a Brit that’s a mixed celebration for our family). We, like the rest of the world, were too busy with other concerns, our celebrations, to give a small country like Rwanda a second thought.
Today, Rwanda welcomes visitors with open arms. In the Parliament Building, they dedicate a wall of pictures showing the now President Paul Kagame awarding medals of honor to those who put their lives on the line to save them. Rwanda is considered one of the least corrupt governments in Africa. #Respect President Paul Kagame. Heart. Heart.
The city of Kigali is booming with new construction, improved infrastructure, health care for its citizens, and beautiful new hotels like the two-year-old Marriott with the soulful jazz singer. Times seem good for the city folk of Rwanda, but we’ll see tomorrow how the country people are doing when we visit Five Volcanoes, National Park.
If you’re thinking of going to Rwanda and want to learn more about the Genocide, here are some resources in Kigali I can recommend:
Genocide Memorial (the story of what happened)
Parliament Building (how Kagame and the Resistance (referred to as RPF) put an end to genocide)
Belgian Memorial (often overlooked but honors those ten men who gave their lives
Pictures of the Belgian Memorial and the Parliament Building
All I can think of, as the jazz singer finishes her song and the mountains of tears I’ve been holding back begin to spill down my cheeks is that, in the future,
I’ll try to be one who stands by her.