On our first morning together as a group in Rwanda we took a brief city tour before heading over to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center. I knew it was a necessary stop on the trip, but I really had no desire to see once again how brutal one man can be towards another; my trip to Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Germany was quite enough. Still though, I went with the group and toured the center.
We didn’t have much time to tour the museum as we were on a bit of a budget when it came to time, but no one hurried the stop. It was something that we obviously needed to learn about in order to appreciate just how far the country has come since 1994. And in a way, we were all here because of what happened then; in an attempt to help draw tourism back to Rwanda after a sharp decline from the genocide, we were invited over as travel writers and bloggers to talk about everything there is to do there.
Not even after an hour of being inside the museum I found myself sitting back outside on a bench near the ever-burning flame. I had made it through the Rwandan section of the museum, but was finally overcome with disgust while going through the upstairs portion that documents other various incidents of genocide, like the Holocaust. The rest of the group was still inside, but I was ready to leave and get on with the rest of the city tour.
Unfortunately the stop wasn’t over.
I was flagged by another group member to follow everyone else into the garden area. I got up and strolled across the patio and down some stairs only to find myself in the middle of one of several mass graves at the memorial. In total, there are more than 250,000 people buried there from the genocide, and all under plain slabs of concrete.
I again found myself not wanting to see any more, so I continued on ahead of the group and wandered through a manicured garden on the back side of the memorial. I didn’t ask its purpose, but I assumed it was a healing garden of sorts for survivors and the loved ones of the deceased, whether it be parents, friends, family or children.
When we got back in our bus to continue on with the city tour, I couldn’t help but look around at the faces of the people on the street and wonder where they were when this happened, what they did, and what their story was. Since it was sixteen years ago many people weren’t born yet, but I couldn’t help but question if any of the older people had any involvement in what happened, or if they were one of the fortunate to escape. I found myself doing this periodically throughout the rest of the trip too, and definitely struggled with it.
A visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center is definitely a necessary stop on any visit to Rwanda, there’s no doubt about it. And while part of me is glad we did it right off the top of the trip, and another side can’t help but wish it was the last thing we did before leaving since it did set a bit of a tone for me for the rest of our stops. Of course, then, departure can be quite a sour occasion too, so there’s really no best time to go – you just have to do it to understand and appreciate just how far Rwanda has come in 16 years.