Kigali was founded in 1907 by German colonists, but did not become the capital until Rwandan independence in 1962. Although Rwandan power was traditionally centred on Huye (Butare), Kigali was chosen because of its central location. Walking Kigali’s streets today, it is hard to imagine the horrors that unfolded here during those 100 days of madness in 1994, when an estimated one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were systematically killed by the extremist Hutu militia, the Interahamwe. Roadblocks, manned by the militia, were set up at strategic points throughout the city and tens of thousands of Rwandans were bludgeoned or hacked to death. People swarmed to the churches in search of sanctuary, but the killers followed them there and showed a complete lack of mercy or compassion.
While all of this horror took place for days and nights on end, the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) stood by and watched, held back by the bureaucrats and politicians who failed to grasp the magnitude of what was unfolding and dithered over whether to get involved or not. In its defence, UNAMIR was bound by a restrictive mandate that prevented it from taking preliminary action, though it has been argued that more deliberate action could have saved untold lives.
After 10 Belgian peacekeepers were murdered at the start of the genocide, the Belgian government withdrew its contingent, leaving UNAMIR to fend for itself with a minimal mandate and no muscle. There was little the 250 troops that remained could do but watch, and rescue or protect the few that they could.
Even more unbelievable is the fact that a contingent of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) was holed up in the parliamentary compound throughout this period, a legacy of the Arusha ‘peace’ process. Like the UNAMIR troops, there was little they could do to stop such widespread killing, though they did mount some spectacular rescue missions from churches and civic buildings around the city.
When the RPF finally swept the génocidaires from power in early July 1994, Kigali was wrecked, much of the city’s buildings were destroyed, and what little of the population remained alive were traumatised. As the Kigali Genocide Memorial so aptly puts it, Rwanda was dead.
Remarkably there are few visible signs of this carnage today. Kigali is now a dynamic and forward-looking city, the local economy is booming, investment is a buzzword, and buildings are springing up like mushrooms. In fact, so complete is the rebirth of the city that it's hard to imagine the events of the early 1990s happening here at all, which makes the various monuments and memorials to the genocide even more important.