INTO THE HEART OF DARKNESS

Rwanda 25 Years After Genocide – Story and photos by Lynne Joiner

In the vast expanse of the African continent, Rwanda looks on a map like an inconsequential topographical dot near the equator. The tiny country covers slightly more than 10,000 square miles, about the size of Maryland, but with something over 12 million citizens, it ranks among the most densely populated countries in Africa.

Rwanda is famous as one of the few places in the world where you can trek into a mountain jungle and mingle magically with rare wild gorillas at breathtakingly close range. But Rwanda is best known as the infamous site of one of modern history’s most brutal and tragic genocides, the 1994 three-month slaughter of some 800,000 mostly Tutsi citizens by their mostly Hutu countrymen, and the rape of between 250,000 and a half-million women. It has left the country with a challenging legacy of poverty and malnutrition among its surviving widows, orphans, and refugees, many who suffer from AIDS/HIV.

In November, a dozen travelers from Sonoma headed to the central African country on a goodwill mission organized by Anna Bimenyimana, the owner of  Sonoma’s Bon Marche thrift store, and Cathy Webber of the End World Hunger Foundation. For years, Bimenyimana has funneled funds from her nonprofit to her homeland, despite her own hardships in the U.S. recession and a fire that destroyed her original shop. We were heading to Rwanda to help celebrate the 10th anniversary of “International Gardens for Health” (IGH), an organization supported by Anna and Cathy’s nonprofits that works to combat chronic malnutrition in the country. I had another goal as well—to commune with gorillas.

As we descended into the Kigali International Airport after an eight-hour flight from Brussels, I looked out the window and thought we were still approaching the airstrip when I heard the reassuring “thunk,” that the wheels were on the ground. I couldn’t figure out why the visible lights still seemed so far away as we taxied to the terminal, until the next morning during a tour of the capital city. The airport, it turns out, is built on its own strategic plateau above much of Kigali, that sprawls across several hills and valleys. 

Rwanda sits about 70 miles south of the equator, yet its terrain of steep hills and deep valleys keeps it fairly temperate year-round. I would soon discover why it is known as “the land of a thousand hills.”

For the next 12 days, we chugged up and down the hilly countryside in our little van, with its speed governor set at 35 mph, as mandated by the national police. That made it tough for our driver, Noelle, to pass heavily laden trucks on the steep roadways, because whenever the van exceeded the speed limit, Noelle got several “beep” warnings. The police, we learned, can electronically issue citations to drivers who seriously exceed the limit. Talk about government control!

On our first day, we toured the capital, passing landmarks like the parliament building (which boasts the highest number of female legislators in the world, in a government that has also established a Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion); an impressive new Chinese-built convention center; the fortress-like American embassy compound surrounded by high metal fences; and the Hotel des Mille Colines, made famous by the Oscar-nominated 2004 movie, Hotel Rwanda.

The film tells the story of hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina’s heroic efforts to shelter his family—and more than a thousand others—from the marauding bands of Hutu murderers that plunged the country into the heart of darkness 25 years ago. Shamefully, the international community and the U.N. stayed on the sidelines during the nightmarish killing rampage by machete-wielding Hutu militias known as Interahamwe (“Those Who Attack Together”) and units of Hutu-led government forces. The murder spree was touched off when a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was mysteriously shot down near Kigali airport.

The genocide was finally brought to an end by Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) forces under the leadership of Paul Kagame, a Rwandan Tutsi raised in Ugandan refugee camps. In the process of quelling the ethnic violence, some human rights groups have accused RPF forces of brutal killings of its own. Since 2000, Kagame has been president of the country and embarked on an ambitious program of national reconciliation and economic redevelopment. The new constitution abolished any use of the ethnic terms Tutsi, Hutu, and Twe. The crime of “divisionism” was added to the penal code, but some critics claim the new law has become a way of quashing dissent against his ruling party.

Today children are taught they are all Rwandans. No one is ever officially identified by ethnicity. But the deep trauma still haunts many survivors and thousands of refugees who fled the violence and now have returned from all over the world to rebuild their country. Those Hutus suspected of involvement in the killing, who returned from refugee camps in Congo and Uganda, were initially sent to re-education camps for attitude adjustment and to learn useful skills.

“Never Again” is a slogan we saw on small signs on city streets that 25 years ago had been littered with dismembered bodies. Those streets are now immaculately clean. In fact, as we traveled around the city and the country, we saw absolutely no litter of any kind: no trash, no empty Coke cans or discarded plastic bottles —and plastic bags have been outlawed. We saw women everywhere sweeping the streets, and we were told all citizens—even President Paul Kagame—must volunteer one Saturday every month doing public service cleanup jobs assigned by their local neighborhood districts.

The Kigali Genocide Memorial was the last stop on our city tour. Opened in 2004 to honor those who perished, it serves as a powerful educational tool for the next generation. It is filled with exhibits that document the genocide, a room filled with photographs of many who were murdered (including many of Anna’s relatives), an audio-visual room with recordings of survivors, a children’s room filled with photos of young victims including details of favorite toys they carried to their deaths, and an exhibit placing the Rwandan genocide in the context of other holocaust sites found in Germany, Japan, Cambodia, and Serbia. Five more memorial centers have been built in other Rwandan locations where the genocide took place.

Each visitor is handed a long-stemmed red rose from the beautiful “Memorial Garden” that surrounds the building and overlooks concrete slabs covering the mass graves of 250,000 victims. It is a sobering sight. Nearby is a wall engraved with the names of all the victims that have been identified and buried here.

Moved by the whole experience, I took a photograph of my rose in the foreground of the wall of names. A tall Rwandan woman watched as I leaned awkwardly across a low hedge to frame the photo, and I then showed her the shot on my phone. She viscerally reacted and I offered to email her a copy. The next day I received a thank-you email from her. “I visit the memorial at least twice a year to grieve and to honor my family and friends who perished,” she wrote. “I was so touched to see you, a foreigner, care enough to take such a beautiful photograph. Thank you.”   

The next day, we drove 45 minutes to Ndera to visit the headquarters of International Gardens for Health (IGH) and its experimental farm. The first half-hour we traveled on a new asphalt roadway built by a Chinese construction company. The last 15 minutes we bumped and jiggled along a deeply rutted dirt road and experienced our first “African massage,” the euphemism used by locals for the poor condition of Rwanda’s many unpaved roads.

To combat chronic malnutrition, IGH teaches poor rural families to farm organically and cultivate home gardens. It provides them with a two-year supply of a variety of vegetable seeds and trains them how to cook healthy, nutritious food for their families in “one pot in one hour.”

After welcoming introductions at a small farmhouse serving as headquarters, we were immediately plunged into a hands-on demonstration inside an open-air pavilion in the middle of vegetable plots and banana trees. We were shown IGH’s “Four Color Vegetable Wheel” displaying the nutritional values, vitamins, and minerals of each vegetable and why every meal ought to incorporate all four colors. In a country where 35 percent of children under 5 are malnourished, and many citizens suffer from AIDS, getting this message across is critical. 

While we talked about how IGH works at “the grassroots intersection of health, nutrition, and agriculture,” in cooperation with the Ministries of Health and Agriculture, a staff member built a small wood fire and set a big metal cauldron on top of stones in the fireplace. As the beans and vegetables were added in proper sequence to the pot, we learned IGH now places a major focus on reaching pregnant women to assure both healthy mothers and babies. When the cooking was done, we were invited to enjoy the results as children from a nearby elementary school joined us for their daily lunch at the IGH gardens.

We witnessed these lessons put into action as we traveled around the country, visiting IGH learning centers and families in rural towns and villages. Whenever children caught sight of our unusual van full of old white foreigners (except for Anna and our driver), they smiled and waved. At rural town junctions there were always motorcycle taxis stationed like swarming bees, and in provincial towns long-distance bus depots were always crowded. But the sheer number of people who simply walked, carrying heavy loads on their heads or piled high on bicycles up and down Rwanda’s steep hillsides, was one of the most amazing sights we saw. They patiently trudged along the roads before disappearing on steep mountain trails off to remote villages with their supplies. Bicycles and “foot power” turned out to be Rwanda’s workhorse modes of transportation in rural areas, where 80 percent of the population lives.

We visited three national parks during our tour. Nyungwe, near the southeast border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was the first. It is one of the oldest rainforests in Africa and encompasses the major watershed for both the Nile and Congo rivers drainage systems, supplying water for 70 percent of the country. As we entered the mountainous park along a smooth, new Chinese-built roadway in the late afternoon, we saw black-and-white Colobus monkeys casually walking in the road, much to the delight of photographers aboard our van—and were soon surprised to see green camouflage-uniformed soldiers carrying automatic rifles within the park perimeter, closely spaced every few hundred feet along the road. They stand 12-hour shifts, and many more patrol within the thick forest.

Security is a critical priority for the country that is still facing the fallout of the 1994 genocide, including occasional incursions by Hutu militias and former Rwandan soldiers who fled after taking part in the killings and now operate out of refugee camps inside DRC and Uganda—sometimes with the blessing and material assistance of those neighboring countries. This is a key reason there are always tensions along Rwanda’s borders and safety within the country is so important.

Just a month before we arrived, there was a deadly terror attack in the northwest corner of the country near Volcanoes National Park, one of our destinations. Before security forces killed 19 attackers and captured several others, some Rwandan civilians were shockingly murdered with machetes and hammers near the park. We knew nothing of that raid when we checked into the Gorilla Mountain Lodge a month later. Volcanoes National Park lies within the Virunga Mountains, the home of the endangered mountain gorillas whose range extends across the Rwandan borders into Congo and Uganda.

The opportunity to trek into the gorilla area was an important reason why I joined Anna and Cathy’s goodwill tour. I was one of two in our group who paid an extra $1,500 for the privilege of trekking into the bamboo-covered slopes of the Virunga Mountains to spend an hour with these gentle giants. Only eight visitors are allowed to visit one of the12 gorilla family groups each day. We arrived at the park ranger headquarters at 7 a.m., where I was assigned to join the small group of trekkers to hike up to the “Muhoza” gorilla group.

The park rangers briefed us on protocols and rules for our visit. We would spend a little more than an hour in the gorillas’ community and were told scouts were sent out early in the morning to find the exact location of the Muhoza family that forage within a specific area of the mountains. We were told it would take approximately two hours to climb to our family’s location.

Soon we were bouncing along another “African massage” road in a Range Rover before stopping near a small village. We hiked through narrow lanes of thatched bamboo-and-mud huts filled with children shouting, “Helloo,” before taking a steeper trail across fields strewn with lava rocks where their parents were tending crops. I was nervous as we gradually gained altitude and thankful for the lightweight walking sticks I’d carried from Sonoma, the gaiters I was given at the Gorilla Mountain Lodge, and the porter who now carried my backpack and water. Finally, we came to a fence line separating fields from forestland and an unobtrusive entry to the parkland where a camouflaged guard stood with an automatic rifle casually slung over his shoulder. 

As we climbed higher, over muddy crevices and slippery boulders, at one point all four porters and our three guides had to form a human chain to ferry us up and over a steep outcropping of rock. At other times, the guides used machetes to cut back the rapidly growing bamboo and vines over the trail. Sometimes I literally lost sight of the trail in the thick tangle of vines. 

But the higher we climbed, the better I felt. Along the way, the guides made time for rest stops and water breaks and to report the latest news from the gorilla trackers.

Then, suddenly, we emerged on a bamboo-forested hillside at about 7,000 feet to see small groups of female gorillas sitting quietly with their kids and babies clinging to their sides or atop their backs. The guides grunted ”um- umm” in gorilla talk to signal our approach and told us to stay 20 feet away as we sat observing their activities. Many were chewing strips of bamboo, their favorite food. Occasionally, one would get up to “knuckle walk” over to visit and gossip with another group.

The group’s dominant male (called a “silverback”) made his appearance, then quickly moved downhill to chase away a challenger our scouts had reported in the area. If they battled and the intruder won, he would claim some of the females to start his own group—and kill any babies sired by the old silverback. That helped explain why the young gorillas seemed to cling closely to their mothers. Cradling her baby in the crook of her arm, one mother came uphill past some bamboo trees to sit directly in front of me, only about 10 feet away. Our eyes met and I smiled as one mother to another, then quickly snapped a few photos of mother and child. The guides later told me her baby was the youngest in the group, only two weeks old.

Suddenly, the big male silverback returned to camp, briskly knuckle-walking through the bamboo trees and brushing right past me. I sat still and put my head and camera down in a submissive position as the guides had instructed us to do. I wasn’t afraid, but had no idea where he would go next. Soon he returned and settled down on the slope just in front of me on my left side. I sat quietly, and then turned my head uphill to check with a guide who motioned me to quietly stand and move up and away from the silverback. Another member of our group snapped a photo showing just how close we were to each other.

We departed without knowing if the challenger would be back to threaten the group again. As the silverback led his family across the slope and we headed uphill again, there was no doubt in my mind that these gorillas were other sentient beings, and I felt grateful for the special privilege of spending time among them. 

The mountain gorillas in the Virunga range now number about 1,000.

In the 1960s, Dian Fossey inspired and pioneered the protection of these endangered creatures through her field work and her book, Gorillas in the Mist. In the past decade their numbers have been increasing—and poaching incidents are down. The fees collected from ecotourism treks like mine help pay for the trackers, guides, and porters and also provide funds for local community projects like schools, health centers, and roads.

When we returned to Kigali for GHI’s 10th anniversary celebration, we presented a check for $6,000 raised from the people of Sonoma. I kept thinking about the gorilla and human babies and children I had met on my brief visit to Rwanda, a country trying to move forward beyond the nightmare of its past. Now, 67 percent of the population is under 25. Everyone seemed genuinely proud of the progress their country is making. A popular Kinyarwanda song, called “Tuzarwubaka,” enthusiastically reflects their hope and promise of a better future:

We will build it

We Children of Rwanda

We will make it like a Paradise

From all over the world

We will build it…

Electricity everywhere

We will build it

Health Centers and Water

We will build it

Bridges and Roads…

Infrastructure everywhere…

We will build it

Our Dignity

We will build it

Self-worth

We will build it