Rwanda Reborn

More than two decades on from the Rwandan genocide, explores the legacy of the disaster and the country’s growing tourist industry

When my parents told me that we would be having a ‘different’ Christmas this year, a Christmas that would mean no presents, no roast dinner, no champagne or family gatherings – a Christmas without cosy tradition – nothing would have made me think it would entail staring into the eyes of, and standing three metres away from, one of mankind’s closest living relatives, a 400 pound Rwandan silverback mountain gorilla. And indeed nothing could prepare me for such a moving and profound moment.

Rwanda is a lush, green, mountainous paradisiacal reality, located just below the equator, landlocked by Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Tanzania. It is the fourth smallest African country, but feels vast in its varying landscapes and sweeping scenes of natural majesty of rivers, huge hills, forests and lakes, and thriving wildlife.

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All images: Philip Thomas

This wonderland of exoticism relies mainly upon tourism, but also on its successful tea and coffee exportation, as well as banana, maize and potato plantations spanning a huge portion of the country’s land. The constant battle between preservation of the country’s precious forests (and therefore tourism), and the desperate need for land for food farming (mainly due to the fact that Rwanda is one of Africa’s most densely populated countries per square kilometer) is obvious throughout the country, with farm boundaries reaching right up into the mountains before abruptly turning into untouched forest.

Through exports, the Rwandan economy is slowly building itself back up after the brutal genocide suffered and endured by hundreds of thousands of civilians, from April to July of 1994. Up to 1,000,000 were killed in a mass murdering of predominantly Tutsi (killing almost 70 per cent of the tribe’s population) by the turbulent Hutu government which was in power at the time.

The Kigali Memorial Centre, which opened in 2004 and serves as a shocking but important reminder of the genocide, outlines how trouble between the two groups in Rwanda had stemmed from colonial times, with physical and cultural differences being pointed out between the then-peaceful coinciding tribes by Belgian, German and other European influences.

the Rwandan economy is slowly building itself back up

These physical differences tended to be that of Tutsis being lighter-skinned, typically ‘Ethiopian’ in stature as that was where the tribe was thought to have originated, slimmer and with larger, more ‘European’ noses. Hutus, on the other hand, were identified as shorter, with darker skin and different shaped skulls. These physical differences would become vital in the ‘classifying’ of who was Hutu and who was Tutsi during the rampaging violence of the genocide many years later, drawing some comparisons to that of Hitler’s differentiation between Jewish attributes and that of the typical ‘Aryan’ German.

Identity cards were issued by the colonialists, class distinctions emphasised, and segregation began. Europeans promoted Tutsi over Hutu and resentment slowly developed among the latter group. Nevertheless, marriages between the two groups still continued and peace was somewhat upheld. However, following the civil war between rebel groups and the governmental forces in the 1980s, there was a surge in Hutu power, with a dominant Hutu government taking charge and supporting the segregation of Tutsi and Hutu, in order to promote Hutu once again.

The genocide was triggered when the President of Rwanda’s plane was shot down in early April 1994; there is speculation that it was carried out by those fighting against the President’s pro-Hutu regime. Over the next 100 days, machetes were distributed and Hutu were encouraged to slaughter any Tutsi in sight and reach: neighbours, family, friends, and especially, their Tutsi husband or wife. If a Hutu was found to not have killed their Tutsi partner or friend, they themselves would be killed. Babies’ eyes were gouged out, their heads smashed against walls, with children as young as two or three being brutally raped and left for dead.

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Hundreds of people were forced one on top of the other into huge pits, with boulders and rocks being thrown in after them, with perpetrators only stopping when the screaming had ceased. Horrifically, there was the rape of women and pregnant women by Hutu men who were known to be HIV positive; many continue to suffer with the disease today. These crimes against humanity were supported by the government through propaganda commanding all Hutu to lash out at anyone and everyone they assumed of Tutsi origins. One million people were slaughtered in 100 days, meaning that seven people were brutally killed every minute.

Eventually the genocide ran out of steam; the government collapsed and hundreds of Hutu fled to surrounding countries, leaving a destitute and wounded Rwanda in pieces. Although the country itself is currently civilly stable, tribal, rebel and governmental fighting has continued in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi where war and corruption is rampant.

the country is brimming with smiling children, colourful outfits and positive prospects

Today, the atrocities that occurred in Rwanda seem distantly in the past; the country is brimming with smiling children, colourful outfits and positive prospects. However, there are reminders everywhere of the horror which appear sporadically and without warning – someone missing a limb or with amputated feet struggling to make do with large bits of wood as walking sticks is a startling visual indication of the atrocities that occurred.

Similarly, nestled between a village and some stunning hillside landscape lies the site of the harrowing Ntarama church massacre. Hundreds of Tutsi and vulnerable members of society attempted to find refuge in Catholic churches across the country, hoping that they would be protected in a sacred space. However, on 7 April as thousands crowded into the building, they were discovered and, with the help of the Pastor of the church who had led militia to the site, shot or hacked to death by machetes.

Yet public attention has not been drawn to the Rwanda atrocities in the way that other genocides have been. Although not on the same scale as the Holocaust, for example, tragedies such as the Rwandan genocide, the Armenian genocide and even the mass killings in Cambodia (although the debate of whether this was technically a genocide, as it did not target a racial group, continues today), are not acknowledged in the way they should be. We do not learn about these horrific crimes against humanity and what these countries have endured in history lessons, yet to help prevent these atrocities occurring again it is vital that we recognise their devastating impact.

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In many Rwandan villages and towns, however, there are memorial sites dedicated to the genocide in hope of preventing such an event from happening in the future. And indeed there is undeniably a sense of hope and steadily growing development in the country to keep peace, and to build economically and politically. One of the ways the country is achieving this is through tourism, especially gorilla trekking.

Supporting the gorilla trekking companies is extremely important for Rwanda’s economy and ultimately its infrastructure, as well as conservation of the exceptionally rare and spectacular wildlife. There are two species of Eastern gorillas, Lowland and Mountain, found at varying altitudes. A male silverback mountain gorilla typically weighs 430lb (195kg) and stands up to 6ft tall. They are descended from the species that have been in Africa for approximately 24 million years, but are now officially critically endangered with just 880 individuals in East Africa.

Most trekking guides are ex-poachers who are now working with the conservation teams

Dian Fossey, an extremely important figurehead in the conservation of the gorillas, set up a research centre in the Congo in 1967, before moving to Rwanda to continue her work. She promoted the safety and preservation of the gorillas and actively punished poachers who were caught, making her highly unpopular in the local community and ultimately resulting in her murder in 1985, as many relied upon the capital produced by selling bushmeat and gorilla hands and heads as souvenirs. During her time in Congo and Rwanda there were only 260 gorillas left in the wild, but as a result of her work this number has steadily increased to a much less critical, though still endangered, state today.

Since then, tourism to provide preservation of the gorillas has been vital: when hiking to see the gorillas, tourists are encouraged to hire a porter to assist with their treacherous climb. Most of these guides are ex-poachers who are now working with the conservation team to help the gorillas and provide a steady income for themselves. Poaching is still a risk but has rapidly decreased over the last 10 years, meaning that habitation loss, warfare and unrest are the biggest causes of concern for the mountain gorillas, as they border both the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda and move freely between these countries, in and out of violence and peace frequently.

It was remarkable to be in the heart of a vibrant, bustling town, full of children playing, women selling vegetables on the market floors and chickens pecking at scraps, and then half an hour of hiking in the jungle later to be standing directly in front of one of the most profoundly human and highly endangered creatures in the world. Humans and gorillas live in such close proximity in Rwanda which can be difficult to comprehend, but this short distance highlights the battle between farmland and a home for these extremely important animals, particularly in an economic sense for the Rwandan population.

Seeing gorillas in the wild is unlike any other experience. It means a very early start and a somewhat clichéd all-khaki explorer outfit, and an hour and a half trek spent ducking under bamboo, avoiding stampeding water buffalo and a guide armed with a machine gun in case of any unforeseen dangers. Yet the difficult hike, complete with trip hazards, falling into muddy cavities in the ground and the furry poisonous caterpillars, is worth it when the gorillas are in sight.

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The family consisted of a huge male silverback, mother, young adult, adolescent and very young baby, all sat in a pastoral, untouched scene of serenity. Their eyes, their slow munching of bamboo and gentle grunts as they went about their daily business, as if they had no idea we were watching them less than three metres away, are entirely captivating. They are playful animals; the cocky adolescent male got up, banged on his chest in the most typically ‘ape’ way possible, then proceeded to run, bumping into trees and then cartwheeling back to his mother’s side. Their humanity, too, is astonishing; the tiny baby, only four months old, carefully began to creep away from the matriarch, stumbling and attempting to find his feet just as a human toddler does, wide-eyed and inquisitive. He then tripped over, tried to bang on his chest like his elder male family members, and finally landed on the ground a metre from the onlookers, much to the distress of the mother who grabbed his arm and pulled him away.

gorillas are definitely aware of how closely related we are to them

The little ones are just as curious about visitors as tourists are about them; guides explain that they are definitely aware of how closely related we are to them and therefore do not feel highly threatened by the presence of visitors. Yet this doesn’t make the experience entirely safe; one bamboo tree slightly obscured our view, and as a guide began hacking it down a huge silverback, his lunchtime disturbed, rose up on his hind legs, furiously banging on his chest and bearing his enormous teeth, and came charging head-on.

Gorilla trekking is a complicated industry. It is hard not to be aware of how close these precious beings are to the unrest occurring in DRC and Burundi, and how oblivious they were to the danger which surrounded them. Knowing this can be distressing to tourists.  Yet for the guides, the fight for conservation and for a future of peace and liberty to sustain among the Rwandan people and in the country did seem at the forefront of their agenda.

Tourism and conservation is thriving while unity, peace and recognition of the genocide are still prevalent today, in even the younger members of society. The positivity of this wonderful, beautiful country promises its great efforts of improvement and stability will continue for many years to come.


  1. What an experience Emily. You are very obviously much taken with your experience and I should imagine your unusual Christmas will stay with you forever.
    I remember reading in the newspapers about the genocide in Rwanda. A terrible time in its history.
    Thanks for sharing your experiences. X

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  2. Joy

    A wonderful piece of journalism Emily and what an amazing, chance of a lifetime experience. I knew of the genocide but didn’t know how and why it had come about, now I do. Your article changed the way I thought about Rwanda. Many congratulations.

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  3. 12 Mar ’16 at 8:25 am

    Rwanda Tourism Info

    This is a great read! I will be happy to share it!

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