The land of eternal spring
“A militiaman came up to kill me. I was astonished because he was a friend. He used to come to our house every day. He farmed my father’s fields…We used to play with him and he was like a brother to us, even though we were not from the same family.
I asked him why he wanted to kill me when I had done nothing to hurt him. I begged him to take pity on me. He said nothing but just hit me on the head with a machete…when he thought I was dead, he left”.
Uwayisenga, 7, from the Genocide museum, Kigali.
“The international community which passed laws fifty years ago with the specific mandate of ensuring that genocide was never again perpetrated, not only failed to prevent it happening in Rwanda but…actually helped create the conditions that made it posssible. The whole of the international community was involved while genocide was being planned: the United Nations…independent aid groups, and two of the most powerful international institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
…Arms, from machetes to rocket launchers, were supplied by France, South Africa, Egypt and China. The governments of both France and Egypt were intimately involved in arms deals with the extremists in Rwanda. In order to pay for them, money was taken from funds supplied by the international financial institutions…
There is evidence that points not just to negligence, but to complicity”.
A people betrayed by Linda Melvern, published by Zed Books.
Someone once eulogized Rwanda as the ‘Land of Eternal Spring’. It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. But, it felt strange to me. The people were friendly, and yet only a decade ago the country went to hell and back. Yet, it’s now surprisingly stable, despite it’s recent bloody history.
At the end of the last blog I had just arrived in Kigali from Tanzania. Kigali is a low rise city, built across many hills. It’s a beautiful location, but much of the city was trashed in the civil war. Most of the city centre still looks run down and seedy, with grubby concrete block buildings and unpaved footpaths. Amidst the squalid buildings are a number of building sites and even a few new buildings scattered around. So, it looks as if Kigali is on the up, it may look very different in a few years time. When I was there, the only way to get money in Kigali was to get a credit card advance at the Bank of Kigali or have money wired by Western Union. But, there are ATM’s all around the city, which don’t accept non-Rwandan plastic. There’s a notice though, in the Bank of Kigali that the ATM’s will be connected to Visa International soon. What the city centre of Kigali doesn’t lack though, is beggars: shabby beggars; child beggars; women beggars carrying their children on their backs; and beggers with missing arms and legs.
SATURDAY 5th – TUESDAY 15th NOVEMBER
When I arrived on the 4th I put down the fact that I didn’t feel hungry and was very tired to the long journey from Mwanza in Tanzania. But, I woke up on Saturday with a sore throat and pains across my chest. It became worse over the weekend, so I went to the doctor on Monday morning. He prescribed a course of antibiotics. He spoke English, because he had lived in London in the 1980’s.
I spent the next few days not doing much, trying to get better. By Friday 10th of November I felt better. So, I booked myself a permit to see the Mountain Gorillas for Tuesday.
On Saturday I was intending to leave the Opaki Hotel, but I first needed to go to the bank and get some money. Only to find it closed. It had been open the previous Saturday. It turned out that it was a Bank Holiday, not only on Saturday but also the banks would be closed on Monday 14th. That gave me a serious problem. My gorilla tracking permit was for Tuesday 15th. There was no way I could get hold of any money till Tuesday 15th – making it imposible to get to the Parc des Volcans. I wouldn’t have any money to pay my hotel bill till Tuesday, so I couldn’t move hotel. So, I decided I would have to stay in the Opaki Hotel. Fortunately the ORTPN office where I had bought my permit was sympathetic. They changed the date on my permit to Weds 16th November. I was very glad of that, as the thing had cost me $US375. It would have been a lot of money to throw away!
So, I was stuck in the Okapi Hotel until Tuesday morning. Kigali was very quiet over the long bank holiday weekend. I spent the time reading several books.
Finally on Tuesday morning I was able to get a cash advance on my credit card. So, I booked out of the Okapi Hotel at 10am and walked to the bus depot where I bought a ticket for 11am, costing 1000 Rwandan Francs to Ruhengeri, which is the nearest large town to the Parc des Volcans.
It was a 2 hour journey through stunningly beautiful countryside, along winding mountain passes. The sides of the green mountains are terraced by farmers all the way to the top. It reminded me of some landscapes in S.E. Asia.
When I arrived in Ruhengeri I booked into the Hotel Muhabura which cost 15,000 FRW. Ruhengeri is a small dusty town, but it has a dramatic backdrop. A backdrop of huge looming Volcanoes. The hotel arranged transport for me to the Park for the morning. I had to be up and about early on Wednesday, as the pick up would leave the hotel at 6am. They told me that it would cost $US50 to get to the park. Although, that’s the price for hiring the whole pick-up – the price comes down if you can find someone to share the transport with. The guy on reception promised to try to find other passengers to share with me. Later in the evening he told me that there would be 5 of us on the pick-up. So, it would only cost me $US10. During the afternoon there was a very heavy thunderstorm.
WEDS 16th NOVEMBER
I was awake at 5am, and went for breakfast at 5.40am It turned out that I was sharing the pick-up with two couples: one American, the other German. The American couple weren’t visiting the Gorillas. Their gorilla permit was for Friday. Instead they had a permit to visit the grave of Diane Fossey. I’m assuming most people know that Diane Fossey was a very famous primateologist. If not, I’ll just say Gorillas in the mist – look it up!
Anyway she was murdered in the park by poachers, and is buried next to many of the gorillas that have also been victims of poachers. The Germans though, like me were visiting the Mountain Gorillas.
On the trip to the park office I was on the back of the pick-up. It was a bumpy ride. We got to the office before 7am and waited whilst the guides organized the groups that would be visiting. They decided that myself and the German couple would visit the Amahoro family group. There are 5 groups of mountain gorillas that are habituated to human visitors in the park. The maximum number of visitors allowed per group is 8. Which means that in the high season up to 40 people a day can visit the gorillas. But, it wasn’t high season. In fact, it’s the low season because it’s the rainy season. So, there were only the 3 of us visiting the Amahoro group.
The park guides chose the Amahoro group for us because it meant that we were going in the same direction as the American couple that were visiting Diane Fossey’s grave.
So, we could all set off in the same direction in the same pick-up. Fortunately, this time I got a seat in the cabin, as the road was even worse. In fact we struggled to get to the car park at the start of the trail despite having 4 wheel drive. The roads were not only bumpy but also very muddy from the heavy rains.
Finally we got to the starting point, the Americans left for Diane Fossey’s grave, and myself and the Germans for the gorillas.
We didn’t have that long a walk to find the gorillas – maybe an hour or so, but the ground was very wet and slippy. I nearly fell several times. Adding to the discomfort were stinging nettles and ants. I still felt the nettles through my trousers. They were very nasty.
For the whole of our trip we were followed by 3 armed guards. When we got near the gorillas there was another group of armed men. Our guide told us that the armed trackers stay near the gorillas all day. The trackers act as an armed guard, protecting the gorillas from poachers. The poachers sell baby gorillas to private zoos. But, the gorillas will charge the poachers when they try to steal their babies. Which means that a lot of adult gorillas can die trying to protect their babies. It’s not a fair fight – the poachers have guns.
Eventually we were led to the gorillas. The first one we saw is the number 2 in the pecking order. He was not disturbed by our presence. He looked at us, and laid down to sleep. Although I don’t know what he had been eating, but he had wind.
For our $US375 we got just one hour watching the gorillas, but it was worth every penny. They were actually very funny. They ate, slept, groomed, played and fell out of the trees, and the dominant male decided to mate with one of the females.
But, before long our visit was over. We had to make our way back to the pick-up. When we got to the pick-up we found that the American couple were not back. We didn’t fancy sitting on the back of the pick up for the first part of the journey. So, we persuaded the guide to walk. He kept in contact with the driver of the pick-up. We met up with the truck after a 30 minute walk. We had avoided the worst part of the journey. It was lunch time by the time we got back to the hotel. I had something to eat and rested till the evening. At 6pm we all met up for a drink and supper.
THURSDAY 17th NOVEMBER
I didn’t need to get up early. So, I went for breakfast at 9am, packed and booked out of the hotel. It was a twenty minute walk to the bus stops in the centre of town. The first minibus driver tried to overcharge me, so I told him I would go elsewhere. I walked across the road and got another minibus. This one charged the correct fare. It was about 10am when I left Ruhengeri. The journey back to Kigali was slightly faster than the journey a couple of days before. I got into Kigali at about 1.30pm, and walked to the Hotel des Mille Collines. I had decided to go upmarket. The place cost me Euros 80 a night. It’s the real ‘Hotel Rwanda’ that the film is about. If you haven’t seen the film Hotel Rwanda, I would recommend that you do. During the 100 days of the genocide when up to 1 million people were murdered, the hotel manager sheltered thousands of refugees from the government organized death squads. The manager of the Hotel des Mille Collines bribed an army commander to protect the hotel and its refugees. The army commander knew perfectly well that the hotel was full of Tutsi’s and political opponents of the fascistic government. But, he was prepared to protect them from the Intrahamwe death squads for money. The room I stayed in would have held up to 40 people during the 100 days of the genocide back in 1994. The hotel manager was himself an ethnic Hutu – so he was putting himself in danger by defying the Hutu Power fascists.
I took it easy for the rest of the day, although I visited the tourist office
in order to find out how to get to various places.
FRIDAY 18th NOVEMBER
I got up late, having breakfast on the 4th floor restaurant of the Hotel des Mille Collines. It has a stunning view of the city.
After breakfast I got a motorbike taxi to the bus station, from where I bought a coach ticket for Saturday morning to Kampala, Uganda.
The motorbike taxi’s in Kigali are cheap, even if they do drive too fast and weave in and out of the traffic. They do carry a spare crash helmet with them – I used it.
After buying my ticket I hopped onto another motorbike taxi. I went to the Gisenyi genocide memorial museum.
It took me several hours to get around the genocide museum. There were a number of sections, but as time went on I found that the effect became cumulative. I got to the pictures of murdered children. The family shots gave personal details of their ambitions, likes and dislikes.
I cracked up. I wept.
I know, boys don’t cry
If they’re British
At least, not in public
But, I cried
It was lucky for me, that there was no one around.
Postscript: I got an email in January 2006 about a new film that has been produced about the Rwandan genocide. Its due for release in March 2006 in the UK. I don´t know of any release dates for anywhere else in the world. The film is called Shooting Dogs. There is an official blog. Click on the word blog if you want to be directed to the site.