Just some of the names etched on walls at the Kigali Memorial Centre - representing the many slaughtered during the Rwandan genocide. Contributed photos by Rae Wilson
Just some of the names etched on walls at the Kigali Memorial Centre - representing the many slaughtered during the Rwandan genocide. Contributed photos by Rae Wilson

Million murdered in 100 days: discovering Rwanda's dark past

AS we crossed the border into Rwanda, we were told not to ask whether people were Hutus or Tutsis.

It seemed such an odd warning at the time; why would we risk offending anyone by asking their tribal heritage?

I am ashamed to admit I did not know about the Rwandan genocide despite it happening in my lifetime.

I had studied the Holocaust, Apartheid and the killing fields under the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia during my senior high school years but somehow Rwanda had escaped my attention.

When we arrived at the Kigali Memorial Centre it all unravelled before me.

There are more than 250,000 people buried there - a bleak reminder of the cost of the world's ignorance but also a place for families to grieve those lost.

In 100 days, more than a million people were murdered.

People were screaming for mercy hour after hour, day after day - and receiving none.

As a journalist, the propaganda and the role the media played in spreading it was disturbing.

I understand there were about 20 Rwandan clans, with the Hutu and Tutsi names for socio-economic classifications within the clans.

Under colonial rule, the distinctions were made racial with identity cards in 1932.

I learned this was the beginning of a divide which would see Tutsis exiled for ethnic cleansing and prevented from returning.

The ensuing civil war resulted in many Rwandans being displaced internally, many held in government camps.

The hate propaganda was so effective that the Hutus began to turn against their Tutsi neighbours, eventually partaking in organised violence that almost wiped them out in the 1990.

Radios and newspapers incited violence, urging the Hutu to strike pre-emptively because the Tutsi were planning a vicious war.

Flowers left all over the Kigali Memorial Centre grounds urge visitors to never forget the atrocities that occurred in Rwanda. Contributed photos by Rae Wilson
Flowers left all over the Kigali Memorial Centre grounds urge visitors to never forget the atrocities that occurred in Rwanda. Contributed photos by Rae Wilson

One newspaper printed the infamous Hutu Ten Commandments which branded any Hutu a traitor if they interacted with Tutsis, mixed married couples included.

There were road blocks and house-to-house searches to hunt down the Tutsis.

Neighbours turned on each other, friends too. Even mixed families turned into brutal, sadistic killers seemingly overnight.

Tutsis were murdered in the streets and slaughtered in their own homes.

The photos and video footage of the bloodshed is horrific.

Bodies piled on top of each other.

Mums. Dads. Children. Grandparents.

No one was spared.

People used machetes, clubs, guns or any blunt tool they could find.

HIV positive perpetrators raped women, often in front of their own families.

Many of those half a million rape victims who survived have subsequently either died from aids or still suffer under the debilitating disease.

Children saw their parents tortured and killed before their own bodies were sliced up, pulverised and discarded.

There are still mass graves discovered and victims reburied with dignity.

Videos throughout the exhibition show victims sharing their haunting accounts of the nightmare that engulfed the tiny country during the 1990s.

Interviewers have gone door to door since 2004 recording thousands of stories, indentifying victims and collecting photographs from the survivors of lost family members.

The generally accepted view within Rwanda seems to be that the international media mostly ignored the events in Rwanda.

Rwanda is known as the country of a thousand hills, with incredible vistas and green fields in contrast with much of Africa.

The pride the Rwandan people take in their surroundings is evident, making it easily the cleanest place I visited in East Africa.

But that beauty belies the dark past which is etched in the pained faces of too many.

The Kigali centre teaches that genocide is never spontaneous; rather that is an intentional act of multiple murders, aimed at destroying the presence of the victim group.

Its perpetrators do not respect age, gender, occupation, religion or status.

The exhibition not only details what happened in Rwanda but gives a snapshot of some of the other genocides in the past century.

Again, I felt part of the cover up, not knowing about Namibia, Armenia and several others explained in about 100 words each.

Education is the key.

No matter how overwhelming places like the Kigali Memorial Centre are - and trust me it's hard not to shed a few tears - they are vitally important for future generations.



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