19 May 2010

Rwanda 16 Years Later

Kigali, Rwanda - Crossing from Tanzania at Rusumo Falls, Rwanda announces its arrival with authority. Sharp climbs up impeccably maintained roads play the role of welcome mat in the Land of a Thousand Hills. It is a simply gorgeous landscape, and you understand immediately an old Rwandan saying, “God is everywhere, but Rwanda is God’s home.” But sixteen years ago, Rusumo Falls would have triggered much different sentiments.

The bridge at Rusumo Falls is a haunting place for those that know the history of the 1994 Genocide. It was here that 500,000 Rwandans fled into Tanzania to escape 100 days of unimaginable bloodshed. While thousands crossed the bridge seeking refuge, the bodies of those less fortunate floated by in the rapids below. The bridge would be nondescript if not for its unfortunate status as an iconic symbol of the Rwandan Genocide. Short, yellow, narrow (but a wonderful piece of scenery), it is hard, if not impossible, to imagine one of the greatest travesties in human history occurring at places like Rusumo Falls.

Two days later, we take a walk up to Nyamarambo Stadium in Kigali to see the quarter-finals of the MTN Peace Cup, an annual knock-out cup competition between all the football clubs in Rwanda (like the FA Cup or US Open Cup). Today’s match pits Araco Sport versus Entilles FC; the former club known as the “taxi men” because it is a team of/for the matatus (mini-bus taxis). The small stadium has a ‘FieldTurf’ pitch and is pleasantly framed by the surrounding hills and neighborhoods. The crowd is sparse (we later learn that the match is free after the second half kickoff – so most casual fans just wait) but the small group of supporters are boisterous and loyal to the cause. The quality of football is poor, as it is throughout east Africa unfortunately. Yet, there is a massive spirit about the game; a fact illustrated by the full-blooded tackles by everyone on the pitch and the occasional spat between a few rival fans sitting not too far from us. Rwandan football is alive and kicking.

Watching Entilles put several goals past the hapless Araco goalkeeper; we reflect on our trip to the Genocide Memorial the day before and wonder about how football has (or has not) played a role in Rwanda’s remarkable resurgence.

Sitting on a hillside near downtown, the Kigali Genocide Memorial is a living sanctuary complete with museum exhibits, memorial gardens, mass graves, and an education center. Understated and soft, the grounds are dignified and stoic and force you to take pause before entering the main building. Taking a moment to collect your thoughts is a good idea because the Memorial pulls no punches. Just in case we were not fully prepared, we notice Rwandans and foreigners all exiting the building in tears or shocked silence. The Genocide Memorial is in a word, unforgettable.

Within the winding tour, you learn about the omens leading up to and the lack of response by the international community to the 1994 Genocide. You meet survivors and hear their stories. You see the remains the artifacts of those that perished. Rwanda’s schism and path to destruction is laid before you with simplistic brilliance. On the second floor an exhibit called “Lost Futures” eulogizes the children who “might have been national heroes.” Bernardin Kambanda was a clever 17-year old who loved football. He was killed with a machete in a church in Nyamata. 10-year old David Mugiraneza wanted to be a doctor, loved making people laugh, and played a many game of football. His final words before being tortured to death were, “UNAMIR (United Nations Mission in Rwanda) will come for us.” The list goes on. And on.

The Rwanda Genocide claimed the lives of almost 1,000,000 men, women and children. More than that were raped and tortured. 2,000,000 fled their homes to Tanzania, Burundi, Uganda and Congo. In 1994, Rwanda’s population was 7,000,000. The genocide lasted just 100 days.

The Kickabout team remembers the summer of 1994 because of the first FIFA World Cup to take place in the United States. Sweltering heat at Giants Stadium, the Argentina-Netherlands match in Dallas, the horrific “denim” jerseys worn by the Americans, and the Colombia own goal that lead to murder. It was the summer soccer arrived in the U.S. of A. While the rest of the world played, Rwanda bled.

Sixteen years later, and we are here to celebrate the FIFA World Cup in Africa for the first time. We find ourselves in Rwanda and bear witness to her amazing recovery and reconstruction. You wander the streets of Kigali and it is impossible to imagine the roadblocks, the murdering hordes, the panic of those destined to die. While the scars are still visible, so is Rwanda’s progress. We absolutely love it here.

Perhaps that’s why football being just football feels so right. It’s just a game because that’s what Rwanda needs – to play, to have fun, to win, to lose, to put in strong tackles, to get up and try again. After the match, the winning team’s supporters roll through town in the back of pick-ups singing, honking, blowing horns, waving flags, and chanting songs of victory. This is not an uncommon scene anywhere in the world. But sixteen years ago, such a scene symbolized the brutal violence that engulfed this beautiful land and its beautiful people.

My, how times have changed.


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5 comments: on "Rwanda 16 Years Later"

freeberde said...

A beautifully written post about a beautiful country. Thanks for sharing your experience in Rwanda. Though you forgot to write about your awesome day at Agahozo-Shalom :)

Hope the journey is going well!

-
Mara
Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village

booger said...

What a touching story.... must have been a strange feeling to be in a place so beautiful having known what happened there. Hurry up and get to JoBurg already!

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