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Rwanda: Let there be light

The sky turns black and thunder roars overhead. The people of Kigali run for cover, seeking shelter wherever possible, leaving Rwanda’s colourful capital eerily quiet. And then the downpour stops. Rays of light penetrate the darkness: a metaphor, if ever there was one.

Rwanda: Let there be light
Flowers in the memorial garden at the genocide memorial centre. Image: Gavin Haines.

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For reasons other than the weather, today is not a day for exploring Kigali. It’s not a day for imbibing the city’s flourishing arts scene or sipping coffee in its trendy cafes. Nor is it a day to be shopping in its sleek malls or taking a bite out of its burgeoning culinary scene. No. Today is a day for reflection in Rwanda. Today is Genocide Memorial Day.

On this day in 1994, the darkest chapter in the country’s history began. Over a period of 100 days, beginning on 7 April, the country witnessed a genocide in which some one million Tutsis and thousands of sympathetic Hutus — the two main ethnic groups in Rwanda — were slaughtered by Hutu hardliners.

‘Rwanda was dead,’ is the frank assessment of the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, where around 250,000 victims have been laid to rest in the memorial garden.

The museum is devastatingly sad, but it tells stories that need to be told. It explains how the colonial powers of Germany and Belgium created ethnic divisions in Rwanda, how the country slid into genocide and how the international community stood by and did nothing. It makes your blood boil.

A particularly disturbing exhibition is Tomorrow Lost, which is dedicated to child victims such as Francine Murengezi Ingabire. The picture of youthful innocence, Francine’s favourite sport was cycling, he liked drinking Fanta Tropical and his best friend was Claudine, his elder sister. He was fatally attacked with a machete, aged 12. There are no words.

Among the carnage are tales of heroism. Like that of Sula Karuhimbi, a healer who hid 17 people in her property and nourished them with food from her field. Sula was considered to be possessed by evil spirits and used her reputation to deter murderous Hutus from her home.

Nowadays, it’s hard to believe the genocide ever happened. One of Africa’s safest and friendliest nations, Rwanda is also one of the continent’s most progressive countries — it has more women in government than anywhere else on Earth, has successfully implemented a day of national housekeeping (where every citizen gathers once a month to clean the country), has banned the environmental disaster that is the plastic bag, and has embarked on pioneering conservation projects.

But while the future looks bright, today Rwanda will look back. Later on, the president will arrive at the Genocide Memorial Centre to lay flowers and then he will join Kigali residents in the city’s stadium to attend a remembrance ceremony. The Flame of Hope will be lit.

“The flame will stay alight for 100 days, which is how long the genocide lasted,” explains Dieudonnè Nagiriwubuntu, a guide at the memorial centre. “Those 100 days were a time of darkness for Rwanda, but now they are a time of light.”