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Holidays in Rwanda


For many years, I yearned to visit the home country I left for England almost a decade ago. As the old Kinyarwanda saying goes: ‘Foreign lands may be attractive, but there is nothing lovelier than Rwanda.’ I dreamed of taking my wife and three children there for a summer holiday.

This year, something special happened. While I was making a routine call to one of my sisters in Rwanda, she surprised me with an invitation. She wanted me to come with one child. She told me not to worry about buying the air-tickets; she had finished making the bookings herself. It took us several nights to decide which child was to travel with me. Patrick, my eldest son who had just turned 15, was the lucky one.

‘This was an opportunity to show my son how I had managed to survive the mass killings’

We took a late-night flight for the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, and then continued the next morning with a flight to Kigali. I didn’t know what to expect. My excitement was high – but it was tinged with sadness. Unlike most other teenagers, Patrick would not be able to see his [paternal] grandparents. My parents had been mercilessly butchered during the 1994 genocide of Tutsis.

But those dark thoughts buzzing around mind during the flight vanished upon arrival on my home soil. My Kigali! A dozen relatives and an old friend had come to welcome us at the airport with flowers. After multiple hugs and kisses, we drove off to my sister’s house in downtown Kigali.

I was determined to show Patrick the city that I first knew as a youth in 1982 and to tell him the story of each place. Having lived in Britain for so much of his life, Patrick feels more British than Rwandan, but I don’t want him to forget his roots. This was also an opportunity for both of us to visit the sites of crucial episodes that marked my life between April and July 1994 and to show my son how I had managed to survive the mass killings.

A walk down memory lane

Jean and Patrick arrive at Kigali International airport. They are accompanied by Jean’s sister Martha.

With this in mind, I took him to Jeunesse Ouvrière Catholique (JOC) hostel, the Sainte Famille Church, and Hotel des Mille Collines. JOC is such an important place in my life! It was here that I landed upon arriving in Kigali in 1982 – and here that I was to land again during the genocide 12 years later.

After finishing my secondary school studies, I was unable to get a government scholarship to go to university, so my father sent me to the capital to look for a job. I didn’t know anyone. I had nowhere to stay. The JOC hostel was the best affordable place for someone in my situation.

Though I later managed to go to the National University of Rwanda, from time to time I would come back to JOC to stay with my best friend Ange-Albert. He was a driver for Rwanda’s National Information Office. He, together with dozens of other Tutsis, was killed on 7 April 1994 by marauding Hutu militia.

I explained to Patrick that the victims were taken from the Centre for African Languages where we had sought refuge at the beginning of the genocide. The Centre was next to JOC and a few hundred metres away from Sainte Famille Church.

I then took Patrick to Hotel des Mille Collines (which became ‘Hotel Rwanda’ in the famous film of that name). Moving from hideout to hideout, I managed to reach this hotel in mid-May 1994. This is where I and over 1,000 other Tutsis found sanctuary. From there, we were evacuated to safe areas behind rebel lines.

A warm welcome at the aiport from cousins and nieces.

I wanted Patrick to see the infamous Sainte Famille Church, where Tutsi refugees were butchered at the hands of the Hutu militia, encouraged by Catholic priest Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, who is now living in France.

Further down from Sainte Famille Church was La Pastorale Saint Paul, another centre where many Tutsis were massacred. But a good number survived, thanks to a selfless Hutu Catholic priest who risked his life to protect Tutsi refugees. There I met an old colleague of mine, Justin Mugabo. He was in the process of setting up a studio for a private radio station called Sango Star.

‘My aim is to provide a platform for open discussion of the problems facing our country, notably, national reconciliation, freedom of speech and much more besides,’ he told me.

For Mugabo, it is important that all Rwandans openly debate all issues facing the country in the aftermath of the horrors. His radio is one of a dozen private stations that have been created in the past 10 years.

He reckons that though the genocide happened 16 years ago, Rwandans, especially the genocide survivors, are still haunted by it. In his opinion, radio stations like his can play a vital role in reconciling and healing communities that are still in pain.

‘One parent who took his children there on such a visit, later regretted it.’

I asked journalist Jean Gualbert Burasa, head of the Kigali-based publication Rushyasha, about freedom of speech. ‘Freedom in the wide sense is limited, due to the fact the media in Rwanda has never recovered from its hideous role in inciting the genocide.’

He confided that it was a matter of striking the right balance between exercising one’s right and being responsible for one’s publication. He reminded me of the role played by media such as the infamous Radio Television des Mille Collines (RTLM) and Kangura (Wake up) newspaper in inciting mass-killings. ‘Nobody wishes to see such kind of media emerging again,’ he said.

Initially, I had planned to take Patrick to my birthplace in Gikongoro. But I was discouraged by his aunts, who told me that there was nothing to see except ruins and bushes. I was advised against taking him to Murambi, the site of one of Gikongoro’s notorious genocides where more than 45,000 Tutsis were butchered in 1994.

One parent who took his children there on such a visit, later regretted it. ‘His children were traumatized for a very long time after,’ my relatives told me.

I decided to take Patrick on a more pleasant journey outside the capital to Umutara, to visit some of his mother’s relatives – my wife’s mother and grandmother. En route, we were able to see Rwanda’s beautiful plains east of the capital and the delightful Lake Muhazi.

Clean streets, fountains and gardens

Back in Kigali I wondered at the pace of change in Rwanda. It’s quite dazzling. Sixteen years ago, Kigali’s streets were littered with corpses, most of the infrastructure had collapsed and basic amenities were non-existent. Today, Kigali has a new look, with clean streets, widened roads, beautiful roundabouts with fountains and statues surrounded by gardens.

Much of the cleanliness is thanks to the work of women, many of them widows of the genocide, who get to work before the cock crows, armed with brooms, shovels and wheelbarrows. In a country where job opportunities are scarce, this scheme, organized through the four local districts of the capital, is a lifeline for many.

In the process of transforming itself, the Rwandan capital has increased and expanded. Affluent residential areas have proliferated alongside state-of-the art office complexes. But poverty also persists in the slums of Ndjamena and Biryogo.

As the city has expanded, so has commerce. Supermarket chains such as the Nairobi-based Nakumatt and Simba have stores in the heart of the capital that are open 24/7. New banks are open from 8 am till late in the evening. Shops used to close on Sundays but now most seem to be open most of the time.

The face of the capital may have changed, but good old Rwandan cooking of spicy grilled goat meat, chicken and banana, served up in the city’s cafés and restaurants has not. The difference is that the people sitting in these places can now also watch English Premier League football – a novelty for Rwanda.

Rifts, ructions and fears

‘All these achievements could easily go up in smoke,’ one former Member of Parliament, who asked not to be named, told me. He was referring to the open rift between President Paul Kagame and four former close associates in the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front.

The four include Lieutenant General Kayumba Nyamwasa, former Army Chief of Staff, and Colonel Patrick Karegeya, who headed the country’s external services. Both are now exiled in South Africa. The other two are half-brothers Dr Theogene Rudasingwa, who was Kagame’s Director of Cabinet, and Gerald Gahima, Rwanda’s former General Prosecutor. Rudasingwa now lives in the US. He and other prominent Hutu exiled politicians have set up what they call the Rwanda National Congress (RNC). The four have reportedly allied themselves with the FDLR – the Rwandese Defence Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda – based in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

The four dissidents claim that: ‘Rwanda is less free today than it was prior to the genocide. There is less room for political participation than there was in 1994. Civil society is less free and effective. The media is less free. The government is more oppressive than the one it overthrew... Rwanda’s much acclaimed progress in economic development is not sustainable... Rwanda also remains very unstable and vulnerable to violent conflict. The development of physical infrastructures in an environment marked by mistrust, fear and social polarization does not equate with sustainable development.’

They advocated the use of force to remove President Kagame and the RPF from power because, they said, ‘in the absence of progress towards democratic rule, the marginalized Hutu majority will take up arms and attempt to overthrow what they consider to be a Tutsi-dominated minority regime, in just the same way the marginalized Tutsi rose up against the regime of the past. The overthrow of the present government would, in all likelihood, be preceded by horrendous reprisals by the RPA.’1

According to an uncomfirmed UN report, the dissidents may have already started to mobilize a force that could launch attacks on Rwanda from bases in eastern DRC, with the help of FDLR Hutu rebels. If this were to happen, Rwanda would surely slide back into the mayhem we witnessed 16 years ago.

The group has always denied any link with the FDLR, which is internationally blacklisted as a terrorist organization. However, in an interview with a Ugandan newspaper in August 2010, Karegeya had expressed his intentions to wage war to topple Kagame.

‘A dictator can never step down, they are brought down. It’s only Rwandans who can stand up now and fight. Kagame will have his breaking point and I think it will be very soon,’ he told Kampala-based newspaper The Observer.2

In Rwanda, this splinter RPF group is not openly talked about. But the few people who dared speak to me about it expressed grave anxiety about the possibility of another war breaking out in Rwanda.

Our holidays in Rwanda were short but enjoyable – to some extent. I wish, however, that Patrick and I could have gone back to my home village in Gikongoro. More than 100 of my relatives were massacred during the 1994 genocide and this is where most of them perished. I would have liked to have shown the killers who are still roaming around that the ‘Sebataras’ – the descendants of my great-grandfather Sebatara – are not extinct after all!

  1. Kayumba, Karegeya, Gahima, Rudasingwa. Rwanda Briefing, August 2010.
  2. ‘Exiled Rwanda colonel calls for war on Kagame,’The Observer, Kampala, 2 August 2010.

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