Looking death in the face
12.03.2008 - 13.03.2008 16 °C
Despite having spent only one and a half days in the only real city in Rwanda we were ready to leave. It had an uneasy feel to it. Whilst I never felt genuinely threatened there were several occasions when the locals would do their best to intimidate us, especially at night time. So without remorse we retraced our steps to the conglomeration of mini-vans and bought a ticket to Butare. We were treated to more sights of beautiful, rolling green hills for the three hour ride south.
After dropping our bags in our room and Di had eaten her fill of slops from a local buffet eatery we walked to the National Museum. The museum was almost as big as the town itself. It was filled with a diverse array of articles and information boards. They ranged from land use and erosion, to colonisation and traditions. Like so often in Africa we were the only ones there. It was a shame to see such a well presented exhibition going unnoticed. Towards the end of the displays Di started to lose concentration but found amusement in the ramps which linked the different areas. She found that they were polished enough that she could slide from top to bottom on her feet, I tried it but my thongs (flip-flops for non-Aussies) were too grippy. So whilst Di amused herself on the ramps I finished studying the rest of the displays.
That night we discovered a very satisfactory staple of Rwanda. Like much of East Africa, brochettes (meat skewers) are found in abundance. The difference in Rwanda is the meat quality, the size of the servings and the fact that they are served not only with chips but also salad. Happy we ate and drank our fill, this marked the downturn of the buffets.
Day two down south we determined the differences between buses and mini-vans. Buses are cheaper, slower and leave at a fixed time albeit irregularly. We caught a bus to Gikongoro and then took a motorbike to a near bye tech school come genocide memorial. It was the locale of one of the most blood thirsty massacres of the genocide. Something like 45,000 Tutsi were murdered here in just one day. As a memorial many of the bodies exhumed from the mass graves were covered in lime salt for preservation. They were then placed on display throughout the many rooms of the school as a permanent reminder of the bloodshed.
As Di and I waited for our guide to unlock the doors I prepared myself for what we were about to see. The first door swung open, Di and I took each others hands and walked in. It was a horrific scene with bodies laid out willy-nilly across cyclone fencing mattresses.
It may not have been stomachable if the bodies had not been turned white from the mummifying salts. It gave them a slightly non-human appearance when combined with their shrivelled forms. Yet the hair and teeth were testament to the realness of the people that lay before us and the machete wounds and cracked skulls evidence of the pain they had suffered. Many of the victims had wounds across the back of their ankles where their Achilles tendons had been cut to prevent them from running away whilst they were tortured. The most horrifying sight of all was the death screams impregnated on the faces of some of the victims. Faces that immediately draw tears to the eyes yet someone looked into them as they delivered the death blow.
The memorial consisted of dozens of box like rooms each filled with as many mummified bodies. Some cells contained nothing but remains of babies no more than a few months old. I thought of my nieces and my friends new baby back home. I had to grab the wall for support.
There were too many rooms to visit them all so our guide just took us to a selection. One contained a couple of uncovered weapons. They were crude instruments such as a short heavy stick with an iron ring surrounding it. When the guide started to explain it to me she began to get emotional. Soon she began to explain to me that she was from a family of twelve. Her nine siblings and both parents had been murdered. Many of them at this site. Unfortunately my French was too lacking to understand everything she said yet alone to offer my condolences.
Our guide led us from the mausoleums to a large hall. The clothes of the victims lined the walls. There were so many clothes here that it would make the Salvation army blush, not so long ago these had been stripped off the Hutus by the Interahamwe.
The remainder of the sites were outdoor. A plaque marked the location where the French flag was raised during operation turquoise. The second marked the spot where French soldiers played volleyball during the same period and right beside that was the first of many mass graves. In is inconceivable that a western country could support such an evil event and even assist the retreat of the genocidaires whilst in their spare time play games on the graves of the dead.
Not much better were the countries including my own who watched it all happen. In perfect summary is a press conference by Clinton where he casually acknowledges that with just 5000 troops they could have saved around 400000 lives. His words were something to the extent of "I think we coulda saved about half of them".
When the tour was finished we left a donation and a tip for our guide. We asked someone to call us some motorbikes which took an age to arrive. As we waited the only other tourist there sprang up a conversation with me. He was an American guy who was working at the genocide tribunal in Arusha. He was really interesting to talk to and gave me some insight that few could.
When the bikes did come they took us to the town where we waited for a bus going to Cyangugu. The first section of the drive was the ever stunning Rwandan countryside. Whilst the majority of the second half cut through the Nyungwe National Park. Dark green trees stood thick on steep hillsides, the air was cool and the only noises came from within the bus. Apparently a haven for primates I kept my eyes peeled for a chimpanzee but saw only a few baboons. After leaving the park boundaries we began our descent to the town of Cyangugu which is nestled on the shores lake Kivu.
The town was split into two main parts, the upper being the rougher region and the lower sitting right on the lake's edge. Both had their charm but we chose to stay at the bottom. It was only a small town so with no activities as such we just soaked up the serenity from our hotel's decking. The restaurant looked nice so we ate where we slept although I was a little unsure about the option of horse which appeared on the menu.
For our final day on the southern border we decided to take a hike in Nyungwe National Park so we doubled back on the ground covered previously. The ride was uneventful but I did have a good laugh when Kenny Rogers was thrown into the mix of traditional African songs coming from the tape deck. We arrived later than desired at the gates but it was still morning. The ranger said due to the time restrictions we could not do a walk exceeding 3.5km. Then he proceeded to inform us that recent rule changes meant that all walks must be accompanied by a ranger. The nail in the coffin came when we were given a price: 65 USD each, we declined. I was tired of being treated like a cash cow in Tanzanian and Rwandan national parks and I started to get annoyed. I can sort of understand that if we wanted to track the primates which the park is famous for then they may charge us a high fee but we just wanted to walk in the forest. Whilst we sat to eat our shitty sandwiches I noticed my sunglasses had broken, they were only crappy street jobs but I crushed them to vent my frustration. Ever patient, Di tried to comfort me but I was still worked up when we left the park. I am embarrassed when I remember these tantrums but at the time, somehow, I think I am right. We hailed an already packed bus and filled it even more. I started chatting with another passenger and soon forgot my problems. During the return trip to Cyangugu a great mystery was solved. For some reason everyone always assumed Di was my sister. The guy I was talking to had made the same assumption he was surprised when I said she was my wife (many East Africans don't know the term girlfriend). The he explained that Di looked 16 and I looked 28, so much made sense.
Back in town we decided to go explore. There was a a hill on a peninsula which looked like a good place to view the lake. We walked towards it and came to some boom gates on the road. They looked strange but we just walked around them. As we approached the bridge which connected our position with the peninsula we were stopped by a man with an AK. It was a common site and were kind of used to standing face to face with people carrying automatic rifles. He asked us if we had visited customs and immigration, with surprise we turned around to see where he was pointing. The penny dropped we had inadvertently passed into the no man's land between Congo and Rwanda. We apologised quickly and got out of there. The rest of the town was pretty deserted so we returned to our hotel.