Friday, June 29, 2012

Kigali: Remembering a Genocide

Rwanda is an interesting place because although they experienced a life- and country-shattering genocide less than 20 years ago, it is not visible to the casual visitor. The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre ("Gisozi Memorial") is hidden on the side of a hill and the Hotel des Mille Collines, on which the movie Hotel Rwanda is based, continues to be a functioning posh hotel.

But the scars from the genocide are there and they run extremely deep. Everyone knows who was involved in the killings, who lost their family, and who helped or stood by as this all happened. That means the social life there is bracketed by this knowledge and many individuals really only socialize with a select few family members and friends. Joining a social circle there is extremely difficult and although everyone on the street is excessively helpful, they will never get into the personal discussions that you may get if you were a foreigner in say, Tanzania or Turkey. I was also talking with two girls who work in mental health in Kigali, and they said the matter is further complicated by the lack of appropriate words for feelings in Kinyarwanda. Very few people are willing to talk about how the genocide affect them, and those who do struggle to find the right words to express anger, frustration, dismay, and loss.

Hotel des Mille Collines is also interesting because in Kigali most hotels let you use their pools for $5/day, but in this hotel you know you're swimming in a pool that played an integral part of protecting over a thousand genocide refugees. Guidebooks expressly recommend going to this hotel and swimming in their pool because of this, a very odd recommendation in my opinion. I found it discomforting and strange just to sit in the bar there because all I could think was that a thousand people hid for their lives in what is now the most expensive location in the city. The garden is truly beautiful and it provides this amazing oasis from the sounds and discomforts of the city, but there is a constant feeling of parallel histories as you imagine the fear and anguish that existed only 20 years ago in the exact same location. The disparate realities are difficult to process.

Rwanda has recovered miraculously from the devastation that followed the genocide economically and politically, particularly since the current government is doing everything it can to memorialize the event while continuing to push the country forward to development and modernity. Nonetheless, I wonder sometimes at the underlying emotional damage that follows people around. Will they pass these scars and fears on to their children? Will the country ever open up emotionally or will it continue to grow as a guarded society? Will there later be outward manifestations, like a high level of mental disease or physical aggression?

If you ever are in Kigali, the Gisozi and Hotel des Mille Collines are must-visit locations, but both only really scratch at the surface of what happened and is continuing to develop in the country.

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