Rwanda might not be everyone’s idea of a family trip, but it’s one of my favorite places in the world and, after visiting last year to highlight the 1994 genocide and promote anti-genocide legislation during my run for Congress, I wanted my children and some notable Jewish personalities to experience it with me. Much has happened in that year, including Rwanda occupying the Africa seat on the United Nations Security Council and announcing that they will be opening an embassy in Israel imminently. I now try and come every year to Rwanda, especially in the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the genocide, and this year the billionaire Jewish philanthropists, Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, made the trip possible to promote the brotherhood of the Jewish and Rwandan people, both of whom have been subjected to unspeakable horrors but are committed to healing and hope.
The visit was sufficiently important to me that I came with my family despite the State Department shutting down the American Embassy in Kigali – along with 20 others around the world – due to security alerts.
Why am I here? Because no country on earth today reminds us moderns of the responsibility of man to his fellow man and no country has bounced back from a genocide with such determination, forgiveness, and resilience. And I wanted my kids – as I visited more of the atrocity sites and met with government officials – to experience the country with me.
In the Jewish community the word survivor evokes men and women in their eighties whose families were wiped out by the Germans. In Rwanda, those same survivors are in their twenties and thirties, like our guide today, Gaspard, whose ten siblings were macheted to death and his father shot before his very eyes when he was a boy of nine.
The first thing you notice as you drive through the streets of Kigali, the capitol, from the airport, is the cleanliness. It is no exaggeration to say that Rwanda is probably the cleanest country on earth and any visitor would notice the same. At the airport you have to throw away any plastic bags you’ve brought. What’s referred to as the ‘flower of Africa’ are not allowed into the country. I actually took a picture of a cup strewn on the side of a highway because I had rarely seen even one litter Kigali before.
Next, the rolling curves of a landscape known as ‘the land of a thousand hills’ immediately makes its mark. The closest thing we Americans have similar to Rwanda’s topography is West Virginia, and Rwanda has an excellent road system that takes you up and down the hills to where you need to go.
The gentility of the people is evident everywhere. English is abundant and it’s spoken with a softness and delicacy that makes it pleasant to hear.
The country is as green as anything I have ever seen in Africa and agriculture surrounds you from every stop. Women and men are heaving hoes, planting and harvesting wherever you look. It’s an incredible site.
But it’s tragic history is ever-present. Memorials are strewn throughout the country as well as mass graves housing the nearly one million who were hacked to death in a racial genocide of Hutu on Tutsi that was the fastest in the history of the world, claiming the lives of 300 people every hour for the three months of April to June 1994.
The last time I was here I visited a Church outside the capitol where, not being ready for the gruesome skeletal remains of five thousand innocent people who were butchered, I gagged, threw up, and could not breathe.
Today it was much worse. We traveled south for two hours to the Murambe Genocide Memorial where on April 21st, 1994, more than fifty thousand people were shot, bludgeoned, and hacked to death in the middle of the night in just a matter of hours. One thousand of their lime-covered bodies are displayed on wooden tables in a scene so macabre that it constitutes the single most disturbing site I have ever witnessed in my life. Rwanda, like the Jewish people before them, faces a cottage industry of genocide deniers and they are intent on displaying the full gore of the tragedy so that it can never be denied. While we Jews contend with the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who deny the holocaust so as delegitimize Israel and its security needs, the Rwandans face a similar onslaught by those seeking to cripple its government.
There was an incongruence in the air as our older children, who joined us in the memorial, gasped for breath as they saw the bodies while a few hundred yards away our young children played in a park, laughing and frolicking. The surrounding hills were as silent and serene as the dead, and I was reminded of the quiet and stillness of Auschwitz where all is mute as you walk through the gas chamber ruins.
I first became interested in visiting Rwanda through Michael Jackson’s children’s nanny, a woman named Grace, who would return every summer to her native country to see her family. I finally made the decision to visit after my daughter, serving as a foreign military liaison in the Israel Defense Forces, met General Charles Kayonga, Rwanda’s chief of staff, who invited me. I have since become a firm admirer of this stalwart people and especially its president, Paul Kagame, who ended the genocide in 1994. That Kagame could bring the world’s most failed state back to a position of progress and prosperity less than two decades after the fastest genocide in world history is a miracle. That he is a staunch friend and admirer of the Jewish people and the State of Israel is of great consequence, especially on the African continent.
Kagame himself faces significant criticism today over allegations of foreign involvement in Eastern Congo and for not allowing sufficient democratic freedoms in his country. Experts greater than me are currently debating the veracity of such claims. Some believe the allegations have merit while others are more understanding of a leader who has sworn to protect his people from genocidal forces – the children and ideological heirs of the original Hutu butchers – that still amass on his border. But one cannot help but admire a man who witnessed his people being exterminated while the world watched in silence, rustled up his troops to stop the killing, conquered the entire country with great alacrity, and when he took power did not retaliate against the Hutu majority who had turned Rwanda into an ocean of blood.
Others might even argue that Rwanda has been too forgiving of some of the killers. While driving through the countryside I inquired as to the identity of the many middle-aged men in orange jumpsuits who were working the fields. I was told they were inmates in prisons. “What is their crime,” I asked our guide. “Genocide,” he said. “These are the men who did the killing. Their punishment is to work the fields and grow produce.”
Grow produce. A punishment somewhat different to what was meted out at Nuremberg.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is founder of This World: The Jewish Values Network. He has just published “The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” Follow his live Twitter feed of his visit to Rwanda @RabbiShmuley.
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