I have a fondness for puns, which translates into situational irony, especially when I travel. That’s why I had thought it might be a funny idea to watch the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda during my stay in the actual Hotel Rwanda, which, in reality, is called the Hôtel des Mille Collines, and located in Kigali, the central African country’s capital.
Shortly after I pressed play on my laptop, the movie began to depict the violent and tragic events of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Irony or no, it was impossible to even crack a smirk. In fact, I felt weird and almost embarrassed that I had even thought it might be something to take lightly. As I watched scenes of Tutsi refugees hiding from Hutu militia inside rooms of the very hotel where I was staying (one looked just like the room I was in), I realized how depressingly meta my short-sighted stab at a joke had been.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the violent campaign that began in April and lasted about 100 days. The trouble started when the plane of Juvenal Habyarimana, then the Hutu-favored Rwandan president, had been mysteriously shot down; it was a tipping point in the mounting political tension between Rwanda’s two main ethnic groups, Hutu and Tutsi. Though the rift between the tribes went back to the 19th century, when German colonialists categorized people based on physical features and treated them differently, in modern times, heretofore, people had largely lived as neighbors, friends, and spouses. Hutu extremists, however, began a brutal ethnic cleanse of Tutsi people and moderate Hutus. Though it was aware of the violence, the international community underestimated its scale and refused to intervene.
Thankfully, saviors such as Paul Rusesabagina, a moderate Hutu husband of a Tutsi woman and manager of the Hôtel des Milles Collines, used his power to shelter 1,268 refugees from the massacre happening just outside the hotel gates. It was his courageous story that inspired the film starring Don Cheadle; it’s a moving testimony of Rusesabagina’s resilience.
Today, after years of apologies, reparations, contemplation, and healing, Rwanda is a welcoming place for travelers to visit. This is good news, because the landscape — referred to as the “land of a thousand hills,” i.e. mille collines — is ravishingly beautiful.
As I traveled through, I found myself in a country unlike other African nations I’d been to in the region. Not only did I feel incredibly safe, but I was impressed with Rwanda’s shockingly clean, uncluttered, and litter-free countryside, the result of compulsory clean-up days and bans on plastic shopping bags.
Gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park is the main tourism draw to the country, but to be in Rwanda and ignore its violent past would be to ignore the proverbial elephant in the room. The unavoidable interest in Rwanda’s history calls for inevitable “genocide tourism,” and travelers can visit mass burial sites in several parts of the countryside.
The epicenter of remembrance and reflection, however, is at the Kigali Memorial Centre, modeled and inspired by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial musuem in Jerusalem. Like the film “Hotel Rwanda,” the memorial opened on the tenth anniversary of the genocide. Gardens interpret Rwanda’s story through fountains and horticulture; exhibition displays and videos retell the historical, graphic events of the tragedy.
After a solemn visit to the memorial, many people — myself included — follow the Lonely Planet guide book suggestion and attempt to relieve their sorrow with a stiff drink at the so-called Hotel Rwanda itself. It’s a pleasant enough place now — a four-star hotel with nice amenities and a pool — and leaves no visible trace of its tragic, brave past. There’s a reason, though, that the guide books don’t tell you to watch “Hotel Rwanda” while inside the walls of the Hotel des Mille Collines: You may find yourself weirded out that the pool just outside your window is the same one refugees used as a water source when all other options were lost. However, should you find yourself in Rwanda with a penchant for puns that aren’t twisted, I highly suggest watching Gorillas in the Mist in the midst of gorillas. It’s quite a thrill, and not at all depressing.
Photos by Erik Trinidad, except where noted.