by Ellie Murphy, IB2
I wonder what comes to mind when you hear the word Rwanda? To most people, it’ll be the genocide. But for me, it now has an entirely new meaning. Of course the terrible genocide that stormed through Rwanda in 1994 should never be forgotten, just like the Holocaust from the Second World War should never be forgotten. But now that I have actually been to the Land of a Thousand Hills, and studied it as part of my IB history course, there are a lot of other, far more positive associations that come to mind.
Rwanda is an amazingly beautiful country. It has sometimes been called the ‘Switzerland of Africa’, and I can see why. As soon as my family and I stepped off the plane at Kigali airport just over three weeks ago, we were mesmerised. The horizon of steep hills covered in lush greenery against the modern city skyline immediately stunned us. But those were just our first impressions. During the rest of our stay we were also amazed by the cleanliness, the feeling of safety, and the people - so warm and welcoming, with children that waved at us as we walked past, and adults who were eager to help us if we stopped to ask them a question. So was this the land where it had all happened, all those terrible machete killings, twenty-two years ago? How could such beauty co-exist with such tragic memories?
This was a question that I continually found myself asking during our ten-day visit. Everywhere we went there were hills, mountains, even volcanoes … and in the north-west, lakes so big you couldn’t see the far side of them. But at the same time there were countless genocide memorial sites mixed in among the tin-roofed peasant houses of the terraced hills, and the 21st-century concrete buildings of the city centre. The government has made sure that the 1994 genocide will never be forgotten - that the memory of those one million people who were slaughtered within a hundred days (mostly Tutsis but also moderate Hutus), will not be allowed to fade into oblivion. Two memorial sites in particular will forever remain with me: the churches of Nyamata and Ntarama, where the bones and skulls of the thousands who were massacred there have been preserved for all to see, and all to remember.
President Paul Kagame, the man who won the war and stopped the genocide, is a big presence in Rwanda. You often see his face on posters, and many people talked with pride about how he has brought the country forward and enabled the inhabitants to live together in peace, unlike in the days where neighbours and friends were killing each other because of their ethnic origins. And yet we couldn’t understand how this same man, who has managed to rebuild a country out of ruins, has at the same time accumulated so many fierce critics.
‘Dictator’ and ‘authoritarian’ are words frequently associated with Paul Kagame, yet we never once felt that we were in a country shadowed by fear.
As a result of this confusion, we decided to send President Kagame a tweet: We are very impressed with your country. What do you say to those who think your methods dictatorial? Imagine our shock when a few hours later he responded: Feel free to go all around the country asking ... and decide what to believe! What do you think of those who believe the opp?
Within hours of the President’s reply, we were bombarded with tweets, retweets, likes, and also some critics, and the next day we were invited to meet two government officials. They came to our hilltop motel in Kigali, the meeting was very positive, and we were warmly invited back to their country. When we returned to Poland the following week, my mother wrote to the Independent newspaper in England and they published a story about our ‘tweet to a president’. Other newspapers soon got hold of it, and my mother also gave two interviews for the BBC World Service and the BBC Radio News in America. We had become minor celebrities!
However, it’s back to normal life now, the celebrity-status has calmed down, and I’ve got to concentrate on my IB studies. But I dream of the day we can return to Rwanda, the most beautiful country I have ever been to, with the most remarkable people.