Travel broadens the mind because it surprises, and sometimes quite profoundly. Rwanda, in central Africa, has been on my bucket-list since Sigourney Weaver’s bewitching performance as the late biologist Dian Fossey in the 1988 film, Gorillas In The Mist. By Geraldine Doogue

This past summer I finally acted on my dreams to visit the mountain gorillas in their own environment. Sure, the famous huge male silverbacks are as majestic as Fossey promised. Her desperate campaign, immortalised by the film, has helped rescue the animals from near-extinction to their current growth in numbers.

But it’s the country’s other story that captivates me and my son, and that’s the surprise package. Alongside the gorilla encounters within the forests of the Virunga Mountains, three hours from the capital Kigali, Rwanda is being remade after a journey to depravity, just under 25 years ago. And it is genuinely starting to thrive.

                                            A baby belonging to a group of the rare mountain gorillas in Rwanda
This rebuild is the epic story of redeeming a culture, nothing less. Rwanda glimpsed an earthly version of hell during a calamitous, blood-soaked 100-day genocide in April, 1994. One million people, mostly from the Tutsi tribe but also moderate Hutus who tried to support their neighbours, were slaughtered in a savagery that is truly hard to imagine. Neighbour turned on neighbour, children against adults and vice versa, people were given explicit choices about the relative merits of which way to die — badly or excruciatingly.
I remember from the time, trying to report it adequately from peaceful Australia. I recall the anguish, both then and years later, of the burly Canadian officer-in-charge of the UN peacekeeping force, Major-General Romeo Dallaire. He tried so hard to alert the world to the looming descent into infamy but he failed, and then had to watch, helplessly, the monstrous violence.
I remember Australian peacekeeping teams of doctors, engineers and soldiers being sent by the UN immediately after the genocide to restore order and themselves being caught up in other revenge massacres, affecting our citizens deeply. Bill Clinton said that more than anything else in his two-term presidency, he regretted he hadn’t acted early enough on Rwanda.
Efforts to contextualise the events of 1994 plus, fascinatingly, the typical years of lead-up, can be seen at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre in the city’s north. This facility offers several sections.

                                  A display at the Kigali Genocide Memorial of loved ones killed in the Rwandan genocide.

The history of community relations and politics in Rwanda in the years immediately preceding the end of Belgian colonialism in 1962 is particularly helpful because it points so prophetically to the hell that would unfold, as in other slaughters.
Despite the photos, it pulls back from specifics of the wholesale slaughter, for which I feel grateful. But we find the assembly of written history and personal accounts to be immensely affecting. The survivors’ insights, especially, are memorable — young people who had seen the worst of their fellow men and women, witnessing wholesale hacking-to-death of their parents and relatives by machete. They saw and experienced raping and disfiguring, watched as their confreres were piled in wells sometimes 10-deep in order to perish horribly, and couldn’t “un-see” or “un-hear” the unimaginable fear once it had passed.
As one young woman said, “It was like emerging from a forest where all the trees and bushes had just … gone.” Rwanda was dead, according to another description, which was no hyperbole.
What strikes me profoundly is the wisdom of the young people, orphaned completely, who had to form artificial families in order to make their way through life. And so they did, reaching out wherever possible to anyone who’d support them. One particularly impressive man found love with a young fellow-student at Kigali University, herself an orphan. He said he’d learned to smile again at the prospect of new hope after years of bewilderment, of half-life. The video at Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre introduces us to their new little family, with two daughters, demonstrating, as he said, his “ultimate victory over the killers, by being alive”. But he added sadly: “At our daughters’ birthday parties, it’s only our young friends who come. There are no old people.”
Indeed there are not too many to be seen, although quite a few people appear with lost limbs. Seventy per cent of Rwanda is under 25 because so many adults died. A similar predicament can be seen in Cambodia, which also experienced the worst of humankind in the 1970s. One section at the Memorial Centre examines genocide as a concept, heavily drawing on the one we know best — the Holocaust — but on others such as the 1904 Namibia genocides, considered the earliest known examples, and on Cambodia.
The whole place is the gift of two British brothers who have set up the Aegis Trust, designed to counter genocide and genocidal tendencies in societies around the world. In fact, the Rwandan re-education project is deemed so successful, it is being exported to other places at risk.

                                                 Rwandan youth: 70 per cent of the population is younger than 25.

Two insights strike me forcefully. This slaughter didn’t “erupt” out of nowhere but was the result of a build-up of hostilities and murderous intentions between the two tribal groups going back to the initial “pogrom” in 1959; and the explicitly egregious role played by the press, especially radio stations. Some, run by Hutus, encouraged the swapping of on-air information as we do with bushfires, except this sooled people onto the streets and the fields to ferret out those in hiding, who were then butchered.
Such was the carnage, replete with thousands of dead bodies littering streets, that dogs, for instance, were apparently shot on sight because they’d started to eat human flesh. An unavoidable spectacle at the centre leaves a big impression — the big concrete “tombs”, mass graves, that contain more than 250,000 people here alone. These are the biggest of others dotted across Rwanda. One of the real efforts now is to name everyone who died, so they are honoured and regarded as more than a mere statistic.
The point is, the nightmare is over. Hope has returned, amid great pride among the people for the distance they’ve travelled, really pretty quickly, since the inferno. Their system of local courts, the gacaca, has enabled both forgiveness and punishment, it would seem.
Our DFAT advice to travellers officially warns against travelling within 10km of the Rwandan-Congo border due to ongoing hostilities within the chronically-troubled DRC. I realised, retrospectively, that by visiting Virungas Park, I inadvertently breached that advice, because it’s about away. But it seems an enviably tranquil part of the world, just the way big anti-social animals like it. Of course I worry, quietly, whether this peace can hold. But Rwandans do too, and that might well be their best defence.
Their president, Paul Kagame, was at the helm of the Rwandan Patriotic Front that liberated the capital in 1994 and he’s still the country’s leader, “authentically admired” according to The Guardian newspaper after the elections in August. However his 97 per cent approval rating from voters causes some consternation and criticism from overseas agencies. Even though 40 per cent of its people still live below the poverty line, Rwanda is considered one of the growing stars of Africa, alongside Botswana. It attracts some of the biggest names. Bill Gates is rumoured to have recently influenced the President to double the (already) steep fees levied for a visitor’s allocated hour with the gorillas, as a means of buying back more land from surrounding villagers and devoting it to conservation.

                                                                A gorilla and her three-day-old son in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda.

Former British PM Gordon Brown is visiting just before we arrive, for the second time apparently. Don Cheadle, the US actor who took the feature role in the related film Hotel Rwanda, has returned more than once. Serious gatherings of clearly moneyed Europeans are obvious at the lovely Hotel des Mille Collines (the real Hotel Rwanda), believed to be philanthropists intent on helping the government extend the whole gorilla conservation effort and the country’s growth.
I have Swedish friends who worked here with the UN to re-establish the free press post-genocide. Their exuberance about the place always puzzled me. It doesn’t now. The sheer guts of the rebuild gets you in. There is a lot underway in this incredibly beautiful, topographically complex country, boasting some of the most fertile soil I have seen. You almost “watch seeds growing”, as they say. The loam produced by the volcanic conditions combined with predictable rainfall and sub-equatorial temperatures are wonders to behold, especially for a Sandgroper like me, accustomed to very different conditions. These conditions also support the most lush stands of that good old Australian eucalyptus with contrasting leaves, the Tassie Blue Gum, the introduction of which remains a mystery to me.
It is not a cheap experience, this is true, and likely to become more expensive. The gorillas are every bit as wondrous as you’d imagine, including a day-old baby in the family group to which we are allocated. But in some ways, they are not the stars of the Rwandan show. And that is the delightful surprise.
In the know
Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre is in the northern Kisozi district of the capital; Remembrance and Learning Tours across Rwanda can also be arranged through the centre. Open daily 8am-5pm (last entry 4pm) except the last Saturday of each month (1pm-5pm). Many of the guides are survivors of the 1994 genocide.