This sweet young Rwandan boy pictured above with the expressive eyes and shy glance is David Mugiraneza.
David used to love football, enjoyed making people laugh and hoped one day to become a doctor. At the age of ten, he had his whole life before him and was no doubt the apple of his mother’s eye – from all accounts a caring and sweet son.
In 1994 before he’d even had the chance to see the world, experience his first love, marriage, have a family of his own, or even pursue his dreams of becoming a doctor, David’s short sweet life came to a horrific and brutal end.
He was one of thousands of children tortured to death in Rwanda during the genocide, probably in front of his family who would have no doubt suffered the same fate. His last words to his mother were ‘Mama, UNAMIR will come for us.’ But UNAMIR (the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda) didn’t come in time and thousands of little children like David were stabbed and hacked to death, their little tiny lives smashed to pieces in a wave of brutality. David was just a small innocent child. What did he know about ethnicity, war and politics?
The Rwanda Genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994 claimed nearly a million lives. Neighbours turned on neighbours, friends on friends, even godparents pointed the finger at their own godchildren and sent them to their deaths. Bodies lay in the streets, in churches, buildings, stadiums and the rivers were choked with death.
Today (April 7) Rwanda will mourn its dead just as it has done every year during this important Day of Remembrance. Many people around the world will hold memorial ceremonies that include candle-lighting and a minute of silence to honour the victims of the Rwanda genocide. This UN day is also a time for diplomats and key community figures to talk with communities about the atrocities of genocide and the importance of working towards a peaceful way of life. Student conferences, exhibitions, and other commemorative activities are also held.
During my recent trip to Rwanda, also known as the country of a thousand hills, I visited the Kigali Genocide memorial at the foot of the city. It was an emotional, disturbing and distressing experience but also an important one to have witnessed. The memorial is a white concrete building that looks unassuming on the outside but contains a must-see, heart-wrenching, unbelievable and shocking exhibition inside. Outside there is a concrete burial ground containing hundreds of bodies and a memorable rose garden.
Inside the memorial I managed to hold my emotions intact while viewing the clothes of the victims hung behind glass like a macabre fashion display, watching filmed interviews with tearful survivors, seeing the skulls and bones of victims and even the photographs of mutilated bodies. But it was the children’s room – a small chamber filled with enormous photos of massacred children – that finished me off and left me shaking with grief.
Here were rows of little sweet innocent cherubic faces staring back at me …. the two year old girl with pigtails who loved chocolate yet was brutally stabbed in the eyes before being murdered; the eight month baby – all big brown eyes and rolls of puppy fat – who was ripped from his mother’s arms and dashed to death against a brick wall; other babies who were murdered with machetes and clubs while lying in their mother’s arms and of course David. Poor sweet David with his love of footie and his desire to help others. His life snuffed out by hatred and a barbaric class system.
It was all too much and I couldn’t contain my emotions anymore. As the tears spilled over I left the memorial disgusted at humanity and sat in the rose garden as thunder clouds rolled in above me. How could Human Beings do this to each other especially to innocent children? It rocked me to my core. Witnessing the evil of man made me fearful of what I might find and whom I might encounter while travelling through Rwanda and I felt angry and confused. Would I be safe? Would I find an angry, resentful and fearful nation who didn’t want muzungu in their midst?
I remembered seeing the pictures of the genocide when I worked as a journalist in New Zealand, never imagining I would ever want to visit a county that had committed such atrocities. However here I was 24 years later – now a photojournalist and wildlife photographer – being offered the opportunity to photograph the gorillas in the mountains made famous by Dian Fossey and her book Gorillas in the Mist’ for a story and I couldn’t turn it down. I would have to brush my preconceptions about the genocide and 90s Rwanda from my thoughts and take the plunge. My family and friends were supportive but obviously worried for my safety.
But they needn’t have worried. After spending two weeks in this beautiful country travelling from the capital of Kigali, through the mountains of Virunga to see the gorillas and to the shores of Gisenyi on the border with Congo, I found it hard to reconcile the brutality of 1994 with the peace and beauty of the country and its people today.
I met warm-hearted smiling people who hugged each other constantly, old men dressed impeccably who shared jokes with each other and walked hand in hand through the village, neighbours chatting to neighbours, music pouring out of churches and on the streets and groups of children laughing, playing games and called out to us addressing as ‘muzungus’ while collapsing in laughter. We were invited into people’s homes for banana beer, snuck into a lock-in at a bar where we treated to impressive elasticised dancing by local young villagers, given tours of Gisenyi by excited kids who merely asked for a coca cola in return and when my friend’s passport was stolen, a former homeless Rwandan searched the town high and low until he found it, crying with relief when the passport was returned.
Was this really the Rwanda I’d read about in the 90s and which I’d witnessed at the Genocide memorial in Kigali? A country soaked in the blood of its inhabitants who had systematically killed each other? It was hard to join the past with the present. Of course there were reminders everywhere – the memorials dotted around the country, the absence of dogs (killed at the height of the genocide) and many many people with horrific scars and missing limbs – but I saw no evidence of the hateful mentality that had resulted in six men, women and children being murdered every minute over a period of 100 days from April 6-July 16 1994.
Instead I found an African country that seemed soft and gentle in its approach, as though still quietly recovering from its past, a beautiful green, extremely clean, lush and peaceful country and a nation of wonderful, warm-hearted and genuinely kind people that I would be proud to have as neighbours.
Everywhere I went, I was greeted with wide open grins, hands reaching out to shake mine and people who were genuinely proud of their own country. I also never felt as safe in an African country as I did in Rwanda and the country and its people instantly captured my heart.
I had an incredible, unforgettable two weeks in this tiny country and I can’t wait to return. However I shall never forget the images of those innocent little children at the Kigali memorial and so this Remembrance day, I too will burn a candle for the victims, especially for little David Mugiraneza.