One of the surprises for this trip was presented to me by Evgeny just before we left Moscow: We would visit four instead of two countries in East Africa. So I came pretty unprepared to Rwanda. Evgeny’s Lonely Planet guidebook served me to have a quick glimpse at visa procedures which seemed to be no problem at all. Like most other African countries, Rwanda also grants the so-called “visa on arrival” at the airport. What the book left out though, was the fact that these procedures had changed since it went to print.
Rwanda has become a very modern country and the immigration procedure has to be done through the Internet – in the form of an electronic visa application. Since we missed this news and our flight arrived just before midnight, the customs officer was quite annoyed by yet another group of stupid tourists having omitted to apply online beforehand. He finally granted us a four day visa for 60 US dollars. Which was sufficient in terms of time we had planned for Rwanda, as we wanted to visit only Kigali – the capital town – and then leave by bus for Uganda.
Despite the hefty price tag, we only got a tiny little stamp by the size of a 25 US cent coin. A bit disappointed by this poor return of investment to keep in our passports, we headed to the baggage belts to collect our rucksacks. As we were ready to leave the customs area, Tatjana got stopped by another quite angry customs officer. He was not interested in her backpack, but wanted to confiscate her duty free bag.
Since she was carrying our duty free items as well, we were sure that the customs agent suspected her to have exceeded her duty free allowance. Therefore, Evgeny and I quickly gathered around her and pointed out that the three bottles of Vodka and the cigarettes were for all the three of us. But the agent wasn’t interested in this unimportant fact either.
As he spoke only French, I was the only one of us understanding what he said – but I first could not believe what he was asking for: “Il est interdit d’importer des sacs en plastique au Ruanda” (It is forbidden to import plastic bags into Rwanda). Consequently, I tried to explain to him, that our one and only plastic bag could hardly be considered as an import business of plastic bags. Since it was late, we finally decided to let go and let the officials confiscate our duty free bag, after having stowed its contents into our various backpacks.
Once we left the airport and arrived downtown Kigali, we learned from the locals that plastic bags are banned in Rwanda – for environmental reasons. Although I was introduced to this odd law a bit brisk, I found it to be very good and I wonder why no-one ever tries to introduce such a ban in the “industrialized world”.
Coming from Ethiopia, it was absolutely amazing to see clean and modern roads with sidewalks. There was a total absence of live stock wandering on the streets and people were using proper sidewalks. It all looked almost like in Europe – but it was midnight and we were being driven to a neighborhood known for having the cheapest crash pads for backpackers. Actually, Evgeny’s guidebook suggested to “look elsewhere” instead, since our intended hostel was a bit “too basic”. The term “dodgy” is quite an understatement to describe the road where our hostel was located. Just in front of the heavily locked entrance gate were gangs of glue sniffers and other people probably also high on various drugs. Obviously, as European tourists, we drew all attention while banging on the gate and then entering. Once inside in our rooms, I was telling myself that everything would look normal in daylight next morning.
However, none of us had anything to drink (except for the Vodka), due to the customer-unfriendly airtravel security rules, which disallow liquids in the baggage. Therefore, Evgeny and I decided to walk three blocks to buy some water in the 24 hour store. On the way there, we were escorted by half of the glue sniffing gang. They were insisting that we needed body-guards. Yeah, actually the only reason, we needed protection was to be protected from them, I thought. Eventually, we made it to the “Nakumatt” (the 24h store) and back without trouble and without having to pay any bribe.
After our return, we were asked to pay the rooms in advance by one of the hostel staff. He was searching for a receipt pad which hadn’t been used for months. A member of the gang who accompanied us joined in and he explained to me that I had to fill out the receipt myself. Slowly more people came to look and see what happened. Finally, four guys were gathering as I filled out the form and handed over the money to the clerk. Everyone made sure that I would not omit a single detail, although I seemed to be the only one being able to read and write. They also helped the clerk to count the money I just handed in. This is when I figured out, that – at least – part of the glue sniffing gang was sleeping in the same guesthouse. And that they were probably genuinely eager in wanting to help and protect us.
Next morning, Evgeny, Tatjana and me did set off to explore the city of Kigali which is located in a hilly environment with lots of lookouts, trees and parks. Being very small and on the cute side, it is almost unbelievable that we were on the very spot that has seen one of the worst genocides in the last century. One million Tutsi and Hutu (names of two local tribes) were slaughtered here in the mid-1990’s. Comparing this figure to the 1991 census which only shows a population of 250’000 people living in Kigali (today 850’000), it is almost unimaginable how horrible the Rwandan war must have been. One of the respective sites we visited, is the hotel “Mille Collines”. It became a refugee center during the genocide and is depicted in the famous movie “Hotel Rwanda”.
“I lay down again among the dead bodies. It was three days after the killings, so the bodies stank. The Interahamwe would pass by without entering the room, and dogs would come to eat the bodies. I lived there for 43 days…“
Another major stop was the visit of the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center, located a bit outside of town. I have seen quite some memorials, such as Auschwitz in Poland or the Khmer Rouge prison S21 in Cambodia. No, I am not going to go into any superlatives about the Kigali memorial being even more horrible. This would not be appropriate in respect to what all these places are about. The displays in the center are very well documented, outlining the reasons that led to the genocide, the war and the effects of post-war traumas. Countless screens feature real-life stories from survivors. According to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center’s website, the reason of the memorial’s existence is to provide educational facilities for the young generation of Rwandan. Some of whom may not remember the genocide, but whose lives are profoundly affected by it.
Needless to portray how different we looked at the city after our return from the memorial. Despite on what I wrote about our first night, Kigali today is very peaceful during daytime. People are very friendly and helpful. Numerous times, when we were on the streets looking into our map, we were proposed help by locals. The “Country of a Thousand Hills” – as Rwanda is being dubbed in French – has left an impact on me. We left on the third day, early in the morning, on a bus to Kampala (Uganda). As the superb green and hilly country side flew by, looking through the bus window, I knew that Evgeny and Tatjana were thinking about the same thing as I did. Haunting stories of genocide survivors.