The Kigali Memorial Centre, Rwanda

The Kigali Memorial Centre

After a few more days of driving through Uganda, we finally crossed the border into Rwanda on June 27th. Rwanda has been a country that we’ve been looking forward to visiting for a very long time now, primarily because we’d booked our permits to go trekking with the mountain gorillas months before we even left Ottawa last July. With each passing day, Rwanda and our gorilla encounter was getting nearer and nearer, and it was foremost in my mind — so much so that the country’s very dark and recent past was not in my thoughts as we crossed the border. It was surprisingly easy to forget that we were heading into a country where over a million people died in the 1994 genocide. On our way to the gorillas we made a stop in Kigali for a half day visit to the Kigali Memorial Centre, dedicated to this genocide in Rwanda and the memory of the victims, both past and present. I have to admit that I had a certain na√Øvety about the specifics of Rwanda’s genocide before visiting the centre, but I left three hours later profoundly affected, and deeply saddened.

I won’t endeavor to recount the entire history and circumstance surrounding the genocide, as I’m sure there are more complete and accurate accounts all over the web. Rather, I’d like to talk about the centre itself, in Kigali, because I think that it is playing an important role in educating people about the causes, effects, conditions, and atrocities of genocide, both in Rwanda specifically and where it’s occurred elsewhere in the world. The centre is broken into three distinct sections, each of which addresses a different facet. The outdoor spaces contain gardens and mass graves, and are dedicated to the memory of the victims of the genocide, and to reflection on the passage of time leading towards and away from the events of 1994. The lower level of the centre is a directional path that takes the visitor through the timeline of the genocide proper, including a brief history of Rwanda during its colonial period and subsequent independence, details of the events that contributed to the planning and execution, and a no-holds-barred exposition of the horrible cold-bloodedness of the killings themselves. The upper level is split, with half being dedicated to a brief examination of several other significant examples of genocide throughout other parts of the world, and the other half focussing on the generation of children that were lost to the killings.

Equipped with the audio-guide, we started in the gardens and worked our way through the three areas in sequence. The gardens are nice enough, but the mass graves are the most striking yet subtle aspect of the grounds. They are very simple long, flat stretches of raised paving, unmarked, and if you weren’t told what they were you would probably never guess just to see them. They are so abstract that they had only a minor impact on us as we walked past them the first time. In fact, it wasn’t until we exited the centre two-and-a-half hours later that the full impact of their presence landed on us…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Mass graves at the Memorial Centre

We entered the center and headed down into the belly of the building, taking a path through photographs, exhibits and videos explaining the history of Rwanda, the lead-up to the genocide including the internal circumstances and the shortcomings of the international community, and finally through descriptions of the killings themselves. My feelings progressed through frustration into horror and sadness. The inhuman brutality with which the killings were carried out made me feel physically weak at more than one moment. There was a quote in the exhibition at one point that hit home — it said something to this effect (paraphrased): “to carry out a genocide, you don’t kill one million people. You kill one, and then one more, and then one more…” It was the passionate hatred with which individuals were tortured, humiliated and killed one by one that disturbed me the most. It begs the obvious question: how can people do this to each other?

I was most affected at the end of our visit when I walked through the Children’s Room. This simple collection of rooms displayed photographs of several individual children, mostly aged from 2 months to 10 years, and gave a short summary of their brief lives. Below each portrait was written the child’s name, age, personality (playful, shy, friendly), favourite animal, favourite toy, favourite game (imitating their sister, playing football, running in circles), best friend (brother, neighbour, mother). Lastly was written how they died: hacked with machete, shot, drowned in well, swung against tree…I couldn’t take it, and I cried tears as I passed one after another. These children didn’t even have a chance to grow old enough to choose sides. They were the most innocent victims of the genocide in the truest sense. It challenges one’s faith in humankind when the reality of an event like this sets in.

Rwanda is not the only country to have suffered horrible atrocities, nor will it be the last. The full impact of the Rwandan genocide hit home with us especially hard due in large part to the effectiveness of the Kigali Centre itself, and also as a result of being physically present in the city where so much of the killing took place. As we sat outside afterwards eating lunch and looking out over Kigali, I tried to digest what we’d just experienced. I was overwhelmed with a feeling of guilt, as irrational as I know that sounds. I felt guilty that I should be standing there, eating my lunch and looking forward with excitement to my future travels, while all around me I could still see the traces of Rwanda’s recent tragedy. It was not the aim of the Kigali Centre to provoke such a feeling, but rather to promote education through an examination of it’s own history, but in the face of so much suffering it is difficult to separate the two. It has been said that guilt is a useless emotion, and I am inclined to agree, however hard it is to avoid. Like our visit to Dharavi Slum in Mumbai, this was an experience that I feel will impact me permanently, and I will endeavor to transform misplaced feelings of guilt into more useful future attitudes and awareness. There is a definite value to being exposed to the bad along with the good during our travels — I feel that I am constantly learning about the value of tolerance and compassion, and about the tragic consequences that too little of either can bring about. I only hope that these lessons aren’t lost on others.


  1. Blog Surfer

  2. Spiritual teachers worldwide agree that we all incarnate to experience something of our choice. So instead of guilt, go for gratitude. You did not need to go through what those people did. Hopefully they learned whatever was needed, and will not have to go through it again in another life. I visited Dachau and felt similar guilt. Why did the Jews create themselves such horror? I am grateful for what I have and can honour it by enjoying it. Everyone learns (or not) at their own rate. Happy travels.

    Thanks for your comment, Blog Surfer. Regardless of spiritual faith, I think it is unfair and even unacceptable to suggest that the victims of the Holocaust are somehow themselves to blame for the atrocities carried out against them. How can you ask “Why did the Jews create themselves such horror?” as if it excuses the perpetrators of those horrors? Are you implying that the Nazis’ hand was forced by some past actions of those Jews that were targeted in their genocide? I cannot subscribe to any school of thought that allows this scale of suffering and inhumanity to pass off as simply a settling of past scores. It simply creates a vicious cycle of horror that removes accountability, and denies the possibility of educating ourselves against future repeats.

    I was encouraged in my visit to the Kigali Centre in Rwanda to find an attitude of forward-looking optimism rather than a vindictive anger at past suffering. There was respectful remembrance for the victims, but the events of the genocide themselves were presented with a mind to educate against repeating errors, rather than to provoke retributive anger. Isn’t this a better approach? Let’s not allow spirituality of any persuasion to excuse the persecution of any human beings by any other.

    One of the best books I read on the Genocide in Rwanda is “We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories From Rwanda” by Philip Gourevich. Horrified about just what we (as people) do to one another while reading it, I can only imagine what it would be like to visit the Memorial Centre. I can not imagine what it would have been like on the ground, during the massacres.

  3. Blog Surfer

  4. I am sorry to have offended you. Apparently my communication was not clear. Let me try to explain. Blame and guilt are two sides of the same coin. They both result from monotheist religious belief systems, in which there are “good” and “evil”, thus right and wrong. This is different from simple “suffering” or “love”.
    I do not mention that anyone is to blame for what happened, if you read closely. Blame is not the same thing as responsibility, though the words are definitely linked in your mind if you always anticipate punishment for taking responsibility for a mistake. But God does not punish (except in monotheistic religions belief systems). God loves. No big hand came down to punish the Nazis. Try to look at the events NOT through the eyes of a monotheist religion. The Jews and the Nazis will never heal unless they will be able to forgive. It is with forgiveness that the cycle will end. Not with blame. The Jews, and every other victim of atrocity on the planet, will always have the right to point a finger at their oppressors, and they will always be right that they were abused abominably. They are right. What was done to them was atrocious and in no way “love”. It was “suffering”. But it happened. And the victims are not free, when they do not forgive. In order to forgive, they have to take their share of responsibility and get out of the “helpless victim” mentality.

    Yes, it is a huge leap, both intellectually and emtionally, to remove any concept of blame and guilt from this type of situation, and instead introduce simple shared responsibility. A victim is responsible for attracting a perpetrator. The perpetrator is responsible for abusing. Forgiveness is the only way out. Forgiveness. Forgiveness of oneself for suffering, and forgiveness of others for abusing. And forgiveness by the abuser of themselves for having abused. There is no “settling of accounts”. There is only blame and guilt, or responisbility and forgiving, “suffering” or “love”. I hope this makes my point more clear.

    “A victim is responsible for attracting a perpetrator”.

    You are responsible for your ignorant comment, and I am responsible for being subject to your ignorant comment. You’re right… the cycle works!

  5. Blog Surfer

  6. Wow was that a waste of time and effort! You might as well erase my comments. Good luck on your journeys.

    On the contrary, Blog Surfer — I appreciate you taking time to comment. It is always interesting and challenging when we are presented with points of view that differ from our own. In this case, I think the difference is slighter perhaps than might be appreciated on a first reading of our comments. Thanks for your explanation of your original comment. I think any discussion that invites commentary from various belief systems — be they monotheistic, atheistic, or otherwise — often elicits strong reactions from those involved. At the risk of sounding contradictory, I can understand your statement “A victim is responsible for attracting a perpetrator” in a certain context: a victim (be they an individual or a group) must of course be proactive in their own interest, when able.

    The people of Rwanda (if the message of the Kigali Centre is any indication) have taken what we (probably) both agree is an admirable course: the Centre lays bare the causes of the genocide, along with those groups and individuals who carried it out. But the focus is on healing as a united country, and moving forward together. Forgiveness can be difficult and slow sometimes; understandable, perhaps, in a country where such a tragedy is so recent, and where the effects are still visible in individuals and families. But there is no easy answer. I was saddened by my visit, as I said, but also inspired by the willingness of the Rwandan people to share their grief with me. I know that I’ve grown individually as a result.

    As a side note ‚Äî we appreciate all input on our blog. It makes things so much more interesting for everyone! :) But let’s keep it civil all ’round…I’ve seen too many comment boards descend into frustrating collections of personal attacks. We’re all friends here after all, right?

  7. a Survivo

  8. it is had when had different views about what you know and happen to you, i was so suprise to seen one of our friend that we should blame ourself, i am survivo of the Rwanda Genocide, i lose 87 people of famille including my parents,my brother,sisters,uncles,antels,grandmother and grandfather. I lose them in in 1 day and i survivo only me the have been killed in from my eyes and the did chose to be tutsi whe God was creating them.My frend surfe it is your rigth to say what you think but remember i didnt chose to be a orphans to day,my familly didnt chose to be tutsi so some time you need to try to look otherside of the thing.I hope one day you will understand that.May God be with all of you

    Blog Surfer has formulated a way to explain suffering in the world. It is an ideology, which we can clearly see from the conversation, has a tendency to produce immediate objections in many audiences. Once the victim/the sufferer is made (by force of language) to be “responsible” (Blog Surfer’s term) for attracting his/her own suffering, we have made the victim the cause of his/her own suffering. (And not only that; according to Blog Surfer, the sufferer must also ask forgiveness of him/herself for suffering!) That we can and do create conditions for ourselves that result in our suffering is, of course, true in some cases, perhaps many. It’s just that this attraction principle is not sufficient to explain all or even most cases. One clear example will demonstrate: children too young to create the attraction mechanism of which Blog Surfer speaks. Babies were killed in the Nazi Holocaust and in the Rwandan Genocide. To claim that they attracted their deaths requires the ideology suggested by Blog Surfer’s reasoning to possess a mystical dimension similar in effect to that of theistic religion. This is precisely what gives rise to some bizarre explanations of murder as “sending someone to a happier place.”

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