The Land of a Thousand Hills

Of course Rwanda is not only full of reminders of the genocide. It is also "the land of a thousand hills" - and of chimpanzees and mountain gorillas. I was lucky to be able to take a few days off after my work to explore the country.

Nyungwe Forest is the largest surviving patch of montane forest in Africa, home to 14 species of primate and 283 species of birds. I took three guided walks (the only way to visit) and saw several of each. It did feel a little surreal creeping through primary rainforest, dripping with mosses and giant tree ferns, in search of the Ruwenzori turaco (like some kind of intrepid naturalist), but the forest was beautiful, and we did indeed see the turaco plus several other beautiful and/or rare species of bird.

I suppose to a real twitcher the Grauer's rush warbler was the most thrilling sighting, found only in that region and amongst the rarest birds in Africa, but in fact it was a rather boring little brown thing, and I was much more excited by the commoner but beautiful bar-tailed trogon, with its blue chest, red belly, green back and wings and long black and white barred tail.

Also beautiful (I'm using that word too much, but it does apply rather a lot in Rwanda) was a troop of Angolan colobus monkeys - and I also saw blue monkeys and mountain monkeys during my searches for birds. I decided not to spend $50 on a chimp-tracking walk, as this could be up to eight hours of difficult walking/climbing/scrambling up and down steep and slippery mountainsides as the troop moves around so much. After all, I had the gorillas to look forward to in the Volcanoes National Park!

This park is a chain of five or six volcanoes, on the border with DR Congo and Uganda. Some 320 of the world's remaining 700 mountain gorillas live on the Rwandan side, and for $500 you can climb up with a guide and a couple of armed guards (protecting against poachers who kill the females and steal their babies for private zoos) to track one of the family groups and spend an hour with them.

I chose to track the Susa group - the biggest with 39 members but also usually the hardest to reach. Being low season, I did not have to fight for the privilege of tracking this group, which is often the most sought after, in fact there were only three of us doing the trek which was good news.

After an hour's drive we started our walk, which began with an hour or so up a steep-sided hill through farmers' fields. We were already at 2,600m (more than 3,000m by the time we reached the forest), and soon my heart was thudding and my leg muscles were screaming for oxygen. Thankfully there was no pressure to go quickly. When we got to the bamboo forest the slope lessened, but then we were faced with a new obstacle - stinging nettles! Vicious stinging nettles, powerful enough to sting through trekking trousers, and so many of them that they could not be avoided. However, we soon forgot about our stings as we heard crashing sounds nearby - the gorillas!!

My heart was thudding again, but this time with excitement. A lifelong ambition about to be realised. It's hard to convey the feelings I had when we actually saw the gorillas. They are ENORMOUS, and powerful, yet so gentle (and covered with the longest, softest-looking fur) and clearly no danger to us whatsoever.

Our briefing had told us that we had to maintain a seven metre distance between us and them, but this rule does not seem to be strictly observed, at least not by the gorillas. The youngsters played around us, climbing trees and crashing down amongst the group, whilst the indulgent parents looked on, not interrupting their long meal (they eat some 30kg of vegetation each day) or their grooming. It looked like an easy, lazy existence, though I was surprised to see a couple of the young males beating their chests, King Kong style - yes, they really do that!

There were four enormous silverbacks, a number of younger males, many females and quite a few youngsters. The guide later told us that we had seen 37 of the 39 gorillas in the Susa group - 5% of the total population of this endangered species!

Our hour in their presence passed far too quickly.

In Memoriam

The legacy of the 1994 genocide still hangs heavy over Rwanda. 800,000 people killed in a 100 day frenzy of slaughter - I suppose you can't forget that overnight.

I was warned when I arrived not to ask people whether they are Hutu or Tutsi - they are all Rwandans now, with ethnic differences supposedly in the past. Indeed the Rwandans generally only talk about "one side" and "the other side", avoiding the use of those tribal names, but nevertheless they talk about the genocide a lot more than I expected.

Wouldn't you want to move on, and bury something like that in your history? But you turn on the radio or pick up a newspaper in Rwanda and it is all about the trials (escaped killers gradually being extradited back to Rwanda as they are discovered) and the process of reconciliation. Drive through the countryside and you see the prisoners (mostly the genocidaires, who were given up to 25 years in jail depending on the the level of their involvement) doing community work in their pink uniforms. Even when I went to a small village as part of my work, one of the villagers pointed out the church, to tell me how many people were killed in there during the genocide (including his sister).

Indeed most towns seem to have genocide memorials - no-one is allowed to forget, even if it were possible to forget such horror.

I visited the National Memorial in Kigali. An incredibly well-presented display - narrative, photos, video testimony - takes you through the really quite unbelievable story, and small pictures on the walls of the central gallery commemorate some of the victims. At the end is the section which my guidebook warned would really hit home. It sounds overly sentimental, manipulative even, but yes, it did hit home. Several interconnected rooms display life-size photos of cute little Rwandan children - the last photos taken of them alive. Beneath are a few simple biographical details, for example:

Favourite food: chocolate and chips
Best friend: his big sister
Died: smashed against a tree

I left in tears.

Murambi, on the other hand, is a very different kind of memorial. A former technical college on a hill near Gikongoro, it became a place of refuge for Tutsis in the early days of the genocide, some 50,000 gathering there from the region. Once there, however, the supplies of electricity, water and food were cut, and one night in April the Interahamwe came. Within two days most were dead, apart from those who escaped to a nearby church - and they were followed and killed the next day.

Four people survived, one of whom, Emmanuel, now works at the memorial showing round visitors, repeating that he lost his wife, children, everyone. "All finished" he kept saying, mournfully.

I knew what was on display, but nevertheless I gasped when he unlocked the first of many classrooms and I saw the dried, mummified remains of some of the men, women and children killed there. They put lime powder on the bodies which has preserved them (although also bleached them white), and bodies lie there in the positions in which they died.

You can see the machete cuts in the heads, broken legs and ankles, but worst is the physical positions of some of them - cowering with arms trying to protect their heads, with screams frozen on their faces... It really is quite horrific.

Then when I thought I'd seen the worst, they led me outside to show where the French military had planted their flag during Operation Turquoise. This was the episode when France decided "something had to be done". By this time the genocide was almost over, as most Tutsis still in Rwanda were already dead, and those who had been living outside Rwanda (exiled to Uganda during previous ethnic violence), together with a few moderate Hutus, had returned in the form of an invading army (the RPF) which had already reached the capital and was looking close to taking the whole country. The French had already funded, armed and helped train the extremist Hutu Interahamwe militias, but now seeing the advance of the English-speaking Tutsis they decided to intervene, to protect their interests (the French language) in the region.

Operation Turquoise established a French-controlled buffer zone between the RPF and the retreating Hutus, supposedly to protect the latter from revenge. The effect was that the genocidaires escaped to DR Congo, from where they continued to launch attacks into Rwanda for some years after the war.

Emmanuel showed me where the Turquoise soldiers used to play volleyball - next to what had been an open mass grave full of victims of the massacre. He was not a fan of the French. Indeed few in Rwanda are (the irony being that English is now taking over from French as the country's main foreign language), and last year the president (who was head of the RPF when it invaded and ended the genocide) told the French to close their embassy and leave after they accused him of bearing responsibility for the genocide.