My Day at the Pool in Kigali

Wednesday, July 7, 2004 | Kigali, Rwanda (map)

The swimming pool at the Mille Collines served as a reservoir of drinking water during Rwanda's darkest days.
On my first day in Kigali, I walked along the city's lazy, dusty streets and snapped a few pictures, trying to master my first digital camera (and failing at it, if the resulting photographs are any indication).

The most striking thing about Kigali is its normalcy; it is shocking that a country so thoroughly devastated by genocide was rebuilt so quickly. Today, almost ten years to the date after the carnage peaked, office buildings, bustling grocers, bars, telecom shops, and tidy churches line the neat, well-paved roads. Guards leaned idly against the faces of banks and internet cafes, rifles slung over their shoulders. Women in brightly colored skirts zigzag gracefully in every direction, their heads topped by baskets brimming with bananas, peanuts, and other snacks.

The city is by no means paradise, however, as I am frequently reminded. This morning, Edouard's
nephew Loic and I were walking through the city when a small boy, about three-years-old ran to us and stuck out his hand. Loic pointed out the boy's mother, several yards away, squatting on the sidewalk in a dusty heap of cloth, an infant clutched to her breast. "They teach their children to beg," Loic explained, "because they get more money that way."

* * *

Ringed with palms and neat flower gardens, the pool at the Hotel Mille Collines was a lush oasis in Kigali's dry July heat that afternoon.

After a dip, I reclined in a lawn chair to read We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, Philip Gourevitch's horrifying/enthralling account of the genocide and its aftermath. In the accounts of Gourevitch, Samantha Power, and others (including Gil Courtemanche's fictional A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali), the hotel was a hub around which events swung, the eye of a violent storm. The Mille Collines pool had served as the primary source of drinking water as first hundreds and then thousands of Rwandans took shelter in the hotel. Ethnic Tutsis and sympathetic Hutus, these refugees were branded for death by the Hutu militias that stalked the country's many hills and valleys.

Lying awake in bed the night before, I had contemplated two things: out of curiosity, the odds that I could reach the hotel pool with a flying leap from my third floor window, and out of morbid fascination, the dozens of traumatized people who, a decade ago, had spent weeks in this very room, praying that the rising seas of violence all around would not overwhelm their precious island.

When faced with such an incomprehensible event as the 1994 Rwandan genocide, it was useless for me to try to make sense of the tragedy as a whole. Naturally, my brain personalized it, trying to find any connection to what it knew. I thought back to where I had been ten years earlier when the ethnic powder keg (of colonial construction) was finally ignited in this previously unremarkable African backwater.

I discovered that I had no memory of the conflict. I had been nine and a half years old, just finishing third grade, and the only international news that ever reached me was an occasional Baltimore Sun headline as I quickly flipped to the sports section in the mornings. Even when Rwanda's genocide spilled into eastern Congo and the international community finally took steps to stabilize Rwanda, nothing registered with me.

A few lucky residents of Kigali had survived off the dank water of the Mille Collines' swimming pool, but between 500,000 and one million others had been killed, and millions more displaced. I had spent July 1994 at my neighborhood pool, splashing around with my friends on the other side of a very large planet.

Update: Since my trip, Hollywood has picked up the story of the Hotel des Milles Collines and its manager during the 1994 genocide, Paul Rusesabagina, through the film Hotel Rwanda. Worth a look.

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