It’s hard to imagine the gruesome violence that once unfolded across the steep lush hills creating Rwanda’s picturesque landscape. But when I crossed the border into the country from Uganda, the genocide that occurred 20 years ago weighed heavily on my mind.
I felt sadness as I pictured a chaotic scene of thousands of people scrambling to cross the border with a few meager belongings, not knowing if they would ever see their loved ones again.
Many had already witnessed the machete-wielding “genocidaires” chopping their family members like animals. Tens of thousands more were tortured, mutilated and raped, their family often forced to watch the horror.
In 1994, Hutu militias tried to wipe out Tutsis with unthinkable violence following years of ethnic tensions between the two groups. The streets were lined with corpses, leaving the country smelling like death. Almost every corner of Rwanda was touched by the genocide in some way, including Issa Mugabo.
Now 25, Mugabo was only five years old during the mass slaughter that left nearly one million Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers dead in a span of 100 days.
Mugabo’s father died in the violence, but his mother survived. The attack has left her traumatized.
“It was scary. I used to see people on the road that had been killed,” said Mugabo, who also witnessed a killing. “I still think about it because I lost my dad. He was everything to me.”
I was 12 years old during the genocide and followed the story in my social studies class. The images I saw in magazines were shocking and disturbing. It left me questioning how humans could be so cruel to one another.
Rwanda today is not what I was expecting. Much progress has been made in 20 years. The country is now one of the cleanest in Africa with good infrastructure, shiny new buildings and a government the locals say isn’t corrupt.
There is optimism, peace and hope among the people who smile and sometimes hold hands in public to show unity, no matter their gender. Thousands of genocidaires are still in custody across the country.
Many streets in Kigali’s city centre are paved, complete with boulevards lined with grass and palm trees. Rwanda looks prosperous compared to neighbouring countries. After a visit to the genocide memorial, however, I couldn’t help but think about what happened in order for it to become this way.
At the memorial are the remains of more than 250,000 people buried in mass graves that have nothing written on them. More people are brought here every year. Many of them have lost identities.
The memorial reveals more chilling details about the genocide, but the most haunting is a room dedicated to the children, detailing how they died, their age, their dreams and who was their best friend. The stories are even tough for a crime reporter to read and leave me with tears in my eyes.
Although many wounds will never heal, I’m repeatedly told Rwandans have moved on, deciding never to forget but to forgive. They’re proud of how far they’ve come and focus on the future with one common goal.
“Just peace,” said Mugabo. “It can’t happen again.”