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Rwanda: A Complex, Emotional Journey

February 10, 2015
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Photos By Ryan Walsh

My journey into Rwanda literally started at the border. I’ve never crossed a border on foot, and it was quite the experience. There was lots of anxiety (on my part—Ryan was fine), documents to review, and new friends to meet.

Danny would drive us the two to three hours to Kigali, where we’d stay at the Hotel Des Mille Collines (aka Hotel Rwanda). Rwanda is a stunningly beautiful place. From lush fields full of coffee to bustling streets, the visuals are breathtaking.

But there is an indescribable feeling there too. It’s not anxiety or repression, but could easily be compared to both. There’s a feeling of being present while honoring the past.

In a population of 7.3 million people, the victims of the Rwandan genocide were estimated to be an astounding 1,174,000. Shockingly, this was just in one hundred days. In Rwanda the population is estimated to be 84 percent Hutu, 15 percent Tutsi, and 1 percent Twa, and about three hundred thousand Tutsi survived the genocide. It is considered to be one of the most horrifying genocides in history, because four hundred people were killed every hour, seven every minute. More than twenty years later, the terrible killings still affect the people of Rwanda, as many of the widows were raped and are now HIV positive. Four hundred thousand children were left without parents, and a little more than  one-fifth of those children became the heads of their families.

We had only three short days in Rwanda and a lot to see. Our first stop was Heaven, a restaurant and passion project owned by Alissa and Josh Ruxin. The food is divine, and their gift shop is full of treasures. You should also read Josh’s book, A Thousand Hills to Heaven.

You must try Rwandan coffee. It is the best on earth—hands down (sorry, my dear Italy). Brochettes is another must-have. It’s basically grilled meat on a stick, cooked to perfection. The bar at Hotel Des Mille Collines has the best in town.

Settling in to the Hotel Des Mille Collines was, well, unsettling. I’d seen the film Hotel Rwanda and read quite a bit about the genocide. To think that this hotel had been a refuge for more than one thousand Rwandans was a lot to take in.

Nothing could have prepared me for touring the genocide memorials. There are about eight genocide memorial sites in Rwanda, and we visited three: Kigali Genocide Memorial Center, Nyamata Memorial Site, and the Ntarama Memorial Site.

As it turned out, our only day to tour these sites was Valentine’s Day. The sites are tough to visit, but they were something I had to see. I still can’t comprehend what happened there or why. But it’s an important moment in modern history that seems to have been ignored until it was just too late.

While every site visit was meaningful, ending at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center was important. Not only does it provide a concise and revealing account of the events leading up to the genocide, it also beautifully tells the stories of those who were massacred and those who survived. It also recounts the story of several other genocides that had taken place around the world.

At some point, the entire experience was almost too much to bear. Then I remembered I’m still here, living my life. More than a million people lost their lives too soon, and they lost them to hate. There are moments during that day when I felt all hope was lost. But then I would be greeted by a kind person, see children playing, see people living life. Somehow, Rwanda has figured out how to move on, and that was what inspired me the most.

Everywhere around me in Kigali, I saw growth and change. There is a new Rwanda emerging, and I’m so grateful for my time there. I can’t wait to go back.

dine
EAT: Heaven, Republika Lounge

shop
SHOP: Union Trade Center, markets

stay
STAY: Hotel Des Mille Collines

do
DO: Kigali Genocide Memorial Center, Ntarama Memorial Site, Nyamata Memorial Site

READ: A Thousand Hills to Heaven: Love, Hope, And a Restaurant In Rwanda;  We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda

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