The Rwanda Genocide Memorial in Kasensero sits high atop a limestone bluff that overlooks Lake Victoria, which shimmers gray-blue against the horizon a half-dozen kilometers away. In 1994, the bodies of more than 10,000 genocide victims washed up on Victoria’s shores after floating nearly a hundred kilometers downriver from the killing grounds in Rwanda.
The village of Kasensero itself remains hidden from view, as though villagers intentionally buried the bodies just beyond the crest of the hill, where it begins its downward slope, out of horror or fear or maybe even willful forgetting. Or, as one person has suggested to me, as a way to cut down on the smell.
Kasensaro is no stranger to tragedy, though. It was here where the AIDS virus first appeared in 1982. “Fishermen come in with their catch and get paid. They have a lot of money, and they want to show off for the women,” explains Herman, who has brought us to the village’s fishing center along lakeshore. All that hooking up and sleeping around—and then going home to their wives—meant residents of Kasensaro had an infection rate of ninety percent by the time health officials had any real grip on the situation.
“At first, people thought they were being bewitched, so they went to the witch doctors instead of the real doctors,” Herman says. “Ninety percent. Whole families, wiped out.”
And from there, the disease spread.
Today, seventy percent of the residents of Kasensaro are infected with HIV—compared to a national average of around six-point-five percent—although a look around the lakeshore would suggest nothing’s amiss aside from the weather. Most of the fishermen have grounded their boats for the day because of the severe chop on the water from the wind that has blown in a dark gray cloudbank.
A couple miles outside of town, past the fish factory, past the thatch-roof huts occupied by descendants of Rwandan refugees, the road terminates at the Kagera River. The current runs swift and mocha-colored, and clots of water hyacinths flow past. “This is the river that carried the bodies,” Herman tells us—just before he gets harangued by a police officer who’s lazing about on a motorbike. Ostensibly, the policeman is there to prevent smuggling, but just a few yards away, smugglers are happily packing a boat full of ice to take goods across the river to Tanzania.
That’s when I realize, Hey, I’m looking at Tanzania. It’s less than a hundred feet away and looks just like this side of the river, but it’s a different country, so I still think it’s cool.
Police in Uganda get paid poorly and infrequently, so it’s little wonder they look to make a few extra bucks on the side. What’s a little corruption. After twenty minutes, thirteen-thousand shillings—about five bucks—buys this officer’s silence, and he goes back to watching the smugglers who’ve also bought him off.
In the meantime, I’ve been talking with Elijah, the student from the Bethlehem School I’d worked with earlier in the week in Nakagomo. He’s on the trip because he comes from this area. His mother was Rwandan and had fled here to escape the genocide. Shortly thereafter, Elijah was born. Although his mother later died of AIDS, Elijah’s grandfather told him the history of his family and of the genocide.
The Hutu majority, in political power at the time, conducted an orchestrated campaign to slaughter members of the Tutsi minority. Animosity between the tribes, simmering for ages, erupted into Civil War in 1990, although it settled into a stalemate after three years. However, the assassination of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana of April 9, 1996, sparked renewed violence. In the course of 100 days, some 800,000 Tutsis were murdered, although some estimates place the number as high as a million—twenty percent of Rwanda’s population. Moderate Hutus who called for peace were also killed.
In the fifteen years since, the Rwandan government has aggressively worked to commemorate the genocide. Eight majors memorials, and more than 200 sites, exist in Rwanda, and three memorials exists in Uganda. Terry Tempest Williams’ Finding Beauty in a Broken World chronicles her work helping to build one such memorial in Rwanda. The memorials exist, says author Andrew Rice, “because remembrance serves the political interests of Rwanda’s present rulers, who came to power by defeating the genocide’s perpetrators in a civil war.” Rice’s book, The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget, recounts Uganda’s own history of internal violence under Idi Amin.
When Herman takes us up to the cemetery on the hilltop outside of town, we have to haggle with the caretaker for admittance. Ten thousand shillings buys our way in. “Come in,” the caretaker says. “You are very welcome. Be at home.”
In the cemetery, 2,827 victims of the genocide are buried in eight mass graves. One trench, perhaps sixty feet long, runs parallel to the front wall; three similar trenches run perpendicular to the first. Two other mass graves are located in the front corner of the cemetery, and two more are located in the opposite back corner. On an upper plateau beyond the caretaker’s house, there are yet two more. Workers used a backhoe to dig the pits, which are now entombed under concrete slabs inset with flagstone and adorned wide, light-orange stripes and diamonds. At the center of each, flower arrangements struggle to grow, but I’m not convinced the caretaker has been taking much care of the place.
Small rocks are scattered over the tops of the slabs, too, and at first I wonder if the rocks have some symbolic significance. Then I see a trio of young children outside the caretaker’s house: one of them throws rocks at a chicken in a tree while another throws rocks down the hill.
While the memorial needs care, it’s still a contemplative space, and it’s easy to envision its potential for beauty. I see Elijah, who leans alone against the monument that sits in the front of the cemetery. “How does it feel to be here where your people are buried?” I ask.
I see him grope for words, but all he can do is shake his head. “It is something I cannot describe,” he says. As someone who spends a lot of time on Civil War battlefields and who has lived in a National Cemetery, I know what it’s like to be among the dead of your people and how powerful the experience can be.
I leave Elijah to his contemplations and follow the flagstone steps to the upper plateau. In the distance, Lake Victoria looks calm. The sun has come out.