“And when it rains here it rains so hard
But never hard enough to wash away the sorrow”
Billy Bragg – The Home Front
BARRING our two-day shortcut through Zambia, the three nights we spent in Rwanda places it a the bottom of the list of countries visited on our journey around Africa.
But it punched above its weight, supplying enough memories to jettison it towards the top of the favourite country charts.
Never mind providing plenty of food for thought.
For such a small country, it has plenty to recommend it. The Land of a Thousand Hills is stunningly beautiful and those hills just happen to shelter the remarkable mountain gorillas.
But mention Rwanda to anyone above a certain age and with any interest in world affairs, just one word springs to mind.
The bloody events of 100 days during 1994 claimed the lives of roughly one million people as tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi groups came to an explosive, brutal head with the rest of the world turning its back on a little African nation.
Neighbours turned on neighbours, friends on friends as members of the Interahamwe – a specially-trained militia – reacted to the plane carrying their president (a Hutu) and his counterpart from neighbouring Burundi being shot down by putting into action a well-planned scheme to eradicate the rival Tutsis.
Tutsis – and more moderate Hutus – were butchered in their homes, at roadblocks, in the street and even in churches where they had sought refuge from the bloodshed, only to be betrayed by priests, while the United Nations forces in the capital Kigali were unable to intervene, hamstrung by red tape and indifference.
When they did react to the murder of 10 Belgian peacekeepers, it was to reduce in numbers and help evacuate supporters of the regime which had set the slaughter in motion, using manpower which would have been sufficient to stop the killing.
Eventually, the opposition RPF were able to wrest control of Kigali and drive the perpetrators out of the country with one of their generals, Paul Kagame, eventually taking control of a country in need of a miracle.
And, 21 years on, that is pretty much what they have got.
Kagame remains in charge and is not without his critics, both internally and externally.
Some label him a dictator and his regime has come under fire from many sides, especially concerning its approach to relations with its neighbours – notably Democratic Republic of Congo, where many of the genocide purveyors fled, planting the seeds for some of the conflict which still racks that baffling nation – and plenty of barriers to any freedom of the press or opposition.
But there is no doubting the progress Rwanda has made over the past two decades.
Kigali is as clean, progressive and safe a city as we have encountered throughout Africa.
Yes, there are still men with armed guns outside houses in affluent areas, stationed outside banks and even riding shotgun on lorries, but walking its hilly city streets – which come with the added bonus of smooth pavements and traffic signals people actually observe – felt as safe as anywhere we have been.
It is also a pretty city, spread over a series of those thousand hills, full of green spaces and, judging by the number of high-end building projects taking place, it continues to blossom.
Not that is immune from a shambolic charm which makes it distinctly African – the bowling alley where a group of us decamped for the afternoon mixing (dated) electronic gadgetry with a guy behind each lane leaning down to collect the pins after each roll, stopping occasionally to retrieve a stray ball or pin from the middle of the lane and halting several deliveries mid-stride as an arm appeared in the line of fire.
But even soon enough after such a tragedy that wanted posters (offering rewards of up to US$5m) still hang at the border and one senior figure from those days was arrested in London just days after we left Rwanda, the healing of wounds and forward progress has been staggering.
Not that they have swept it under the table. Far from it.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre stands on the side of one of those hills, alongside a mass grave containing the remains of roughly 259,000 victims.
It provides a chilling reminder of the events of those 100 days, taking you through the history of the tribal conflicts behind the genocide and how it was planned as a form of final solution.
Through video recollections of survivors and the bereaved, matter of fact retelling of events and some truly chilling images, it is a far from easy wander through a shocking chapter in history (and a shameful one in that of the UN), allied with studies of other genocides from the past centuries – the Holocaust and the events in the former Yugoslavia and Cambodia alongside lesser-known horrors in Armenia and Namibia – for a lesson in man’s inhumanity to man and what we should be watching for to prevent repeats.
But, as with Auschwitz, it was coming face to face with pictures of the victims which hit the hardest, concentrating all those horrific facts and tales into a form we can actually take in.
At Auschwitz, it was a long corridor lined with black and white images of bewildered faces awaiting their fate, most with a name and date of birth. Each with a date of death.
In Kigali, those images are different. Anonymous, they are family portraits and shots from happier times spread in alcoves in a circular rooms filled with quotes and eyewitness accounts playing on a video screen.
And most of them are in colour, which somehow gives them an added power and impact. This was not 70 years ago, this was during my lifetime and when I was older than some of the people on this trip.
After the delights of Lake Bunyonyi and the gorillas, this was a sobering return to earth but one well worth making in a country which really warrants a longer stay than we were able to give – although those who sought another night at our hostel were not so vocal after the late-night sounds of the neighbouring karaoke bar.
It is certainly one for the list of places worth a second visit.
One final thought.
It is not considered au fait to ask if people are Hutu or Tutsi nowadays. They are, echoing the words of a class full of students faced with rebels still fighting three years after the genocide, neither. They are all Rwandans now.
And of that they should be proud.