Photos by Julia Dimon/Metro Toronto
In Ntarama church, a genocide memorial a few hours away from Kigali, the remains of the Tutsi victims are on display.
From tracking endangered silverback gorillas, to hiking volcanic mountains, Rwanda is a dream for eco-tourists. Despite its natural beauty and rich culture, Rwanda’s tourism industry is relatively untapped.
Tainted by a gruesome history of ethnic conflict, many tourists may fear that Rwanda just isn’t a safe place to travel.
I spent two weeks touring the “land of a thousand hills.” I was surprised to find a vibrant, politically stable and friendly country with posh restaurants, modern hotels, and pleasant tree-lined streets.
You’d never know that, in 1994, dead bodies, not trees, lined Kigali’s streets. Over three months, some 800,000 Tutsis were brutally massacred by the Interahamwe, a pro-Hutu militia group.
Though it’s been 13 years since the genocide and the country seems back to normal, there’s no forgetting what happened there. The Rwandan government has preserved many genocide memorials and made them accessible to locals and tourists alike.
Though the genocide memorials are disturbing “tourist attractions,” I felt compelled to learn more about this important part of history.
After all, travel isn’t just bungee jumping and piña coladas; sometimes, travel gets serious.
I started my visit at the Kigali Memorial Centre. This free museum provides a historic overview of Rwanda’s colonial history: from the ethnic division created by the Belgians, to the government sanctioned mass killing, to the apathy of the international community.
Displays are informative and powerful, with survivor testimonials and human remains in glass casings.
From the museum, I travelled through rural Rwanda to see Nyamata and Ntarama, two churches where some of the most violent crimes took place.
The scene at Nyamata church was grim and surreal. One room was filled with towering piles of human bones. The tin roof was still littered with bullet holes; there was dried blood on a cloth covering the alter and shards of a geometric glass Jesus.
The site has remained relatively untouched since April 7, 1994, when the Interahamwe stormed the small brick church and slaughtered the 10,000 Tutsi men, women and children hiding inside.
In Ntarama, another genocide memorial not far away, the scene was just as shocking. Skulls were lined up like books on a shelf; some with bullet holes, other skulls wrapped in silk scarves to indicate the victim was a woman.
With careful footing, visitors stepped over wooden pews and observed greying possessions of the now dead. A shoe, a purse and a rosary, scattered among rubble.
I was one of those tourists, pacing mournfully around the church, past machete-cracked skulls and decaying femurs. No one spoke. I felt awkward taking photographs. This certainly wasn’t your typical “tourist attraction,” but it needed to be remembered. Somehow, I felt safer behind the lens.
When watching the news from my couch, it’s easy to feel detached from the world’s distant atrocities. Being on the ground, seeing the victims with my own eyes, was an emotional experience.
I felt ashamed — in myself, in my government, in the human race. How could people do that to each other? How could Canada and other Western powers just stand by and allow it to happen? Surely the international community would never allow such atrocities to occur again …
As conflict surges in Sudan and Somalia, Rwanda remains calm. Today, citizens aren’t categorized as Tutsis or Hutus; they are simply Rwandan. While the decade-long International Criminal Tribunal drags on, Rwanda does it’s best to move forward, promote its travel industry and attract eco-tourists.
Julia Dimon is editor of The Travel Junkie, an online magazine for independent travellers. She can be reached at www.thetraveljunkie.ca.