Writers’ places: Rwanda

Posted on 28 April 2020

Words by Jacques Pauw

and the worst that humankind has on offer. Rwanda has in many ways transformed me from a naïve and gullible journalist into a cynical and distrustful hack. My mother always said that I was never the same after returning from the killing fields of Rwanda in 1994. I refused to talk about it, but she had seen the pictures I brought back.

Image supplied

It wasn’t just one body, but 3  500 mangled and rotting corpses lying in and around the Roman Catholic parish of Nyarubuye in the southeastern corner of the country. Men, women, children and babies who died pleading and screaming.

Neighbour killed neighbour, parishioner massacred parishioner and believer butchered believer. The killers were mostly Hutu; the victims mostly Tutsi. But they were all Rwandan, had lived together for centuries and shared the same religion, culture and language.

In a country smaller than Lesotho, an average of 10,000 people were killed every day for a hundred days. And when Paul Kagame’s rebels drove the genocidaires into neighbouring Congo, he inherited a country from hell where survivors and killers lived side by side. 

I returned to Rwanda more than 10 times to produce television documentaries about how Rwandans were coming to terms with the horror and attempting to rebuild their country. Kagame is credited with stopping the genocide and has ruled Rwanda with an iron fist ever since. He’s Africa’s strongman and the world’s darling dictator and has outlawed much of his political opposition and banned beggars from the capital’s streets.

In April this year, I went back for the 25th anniversary of the mass killings. I flew RwandAir, a rejuvenated airline that boasts brand new planes that fly to India, China, Europe and all over Africa. Kigali has risen from the ashes of genocide to blossom into a modern, well-organised metropolis that has been named one of the five cleanest cities in the world and Africa’s most comfortable capital to live in.

Rwanda is so much more than Paul Kagame. Its beauty lies not only in the seven volcanoes on the borders with Uganda and the DRC, its green valleys and its volcanic lakes, but in the inextinguishable mettle of its people.

I rented a 4×4 and criss-crossed the country for 10 days, from the gorilla sanctuary in Virunga National Park and the crystal-clear waters of Lake Kivu to the game-filled savannas of Akagera. It is one of the most picturesque places on the planet. The hills were cultivated to their peaks, covered with a quilt in shades of green, brown, yellow, copper and saffron. Rwanda is easy to traverse independently. It’s safe, with brilliant facilities, and everything works. Officials are courteous, efficient and incorruptible.

I also visited 11 genocide memorials across the country and went back to Nyarubuye, where the remains of 58,000 victims are kept. Their clothes, much of them caked in black blood, are displayed on benches. Some of the machetes, clubs and sticks that delivered the death blows form part of the exhibition.

The historian at Nyarubuye, Antoine Kagabo, led me through the site, pointing at the rows of skulls, many of them with holes where the machetes landed. Some were hardly the size of a human fist. ‘You mourn your dead,’ he said, ‘but in Rwanda we prefer to celebrate their lives. We don’t cry for them any longer.’

When we got back to Antoine’s office there was an elderly woman waiting for him. After their conversation in Kinyarwanda, he told me he’d seen her several times before and she’d finally decided to tell him what happened to her during the genocide. Rwandans refer to victims like her as the living dead. It is for the mentally mutilated like her that we still cry.

• Jacques’ latest book is The President’s Keepers.

Stay here

Go big and book into the new Wilderness Safaris luxury camp, Magashi, in Akagera National Park. From R6 ,930 pp fully inclusive. wilderness-safaris.com

Learn more about Rwanda’s culture and history with Go Kigali Tours from R890 pp. gokigalitours.com


This article was first published in the January 2020 issue of Getaway magazine.
Get this issue →
All prices correct at publication, but are subject to change at each establishment’s discretion. Please check with them before booking or buying.


yoast-primary - 1012443
tcat - Accommodation
tcat_slug - accommodation
tcat2 - Accommodation
tcat2_slug - accommodation
tcat_final -