Bisesero Genocide and Resistance Memorial
- darkometer rating: 7 -
Not only one of Rwanda
's six National Genocide Memorials, also a memorial to resistance against the Rwandan genocide
– even though, in the end, it was largely unsuccessful. Still, the Tutsis who had fled to this hillside location managed to fend off the Hutu killers for almost three months.
The memorial site is still under development, and thus – at least for the time being – one of the "lesser" ones on the dark tourism priority list.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
For general historical background info see Rwandan genocide
in general) – Bisesero is unique amongst the National Genocide Memorial sites in that it is as much a memorial of suffering during the genocide as it is one celebrating resistance.
When the genocide sweeping across the country in April 1994 reached the Bisesero area, Tutsis from the region gathered in an effort to mount resistance against the killers coming after them. They used the steep hills, especially the one where today's memorial is located, as a retreat from where they could fend off their attackers by throwing rocks and sticks (apparently some were also armed with machetes and the like). This organized resistance effort is well known as the strongest stand Tutsis made during the genocide.
After some initial successful battles, fortune turned against the Tutsis. Hutu reinforcements arrived in the form of more heavily armed Interahamwe supported by soldiers equipped with modern firepower and more forceful attacks were launched in mid May. Still the Tutsis heroically fought back, but at the end of a two-day long, fierce battle they were eventually overcome, having sustained heavy losses (about 50%) and had to retreat further into the hills. Attacks and struggles of resistance continued while the RPF was gradually advancing west in their effort to end the genocide and assume control of the whole country.
Operation Turquoise arrived at the end of June and created their "safe zone" in the south-west of Rwanda. It was, however, primarily "safe" for the perpetrators of the genocide. The Tutsis who were making their last stand in the hills of Bisesero did not immediately benefit from the mission. There are even allegations that the French first encouraged the remaining Tutsis to come out of hiding, but then left them alone – fair game for the Interahamwe who raced in to finish them off. The exact circumstances of the role of the French in Bisesero are, unsurprisingly, controversial – as are so many aspects of the French involvement. But I shall refrain from getting any deeper into the post-genocide political debate here …
In any case, less than 1500 of those resisting in the Bisesero hills are said to have survived in the end. But between 30,000 and over 50,000 did not. However, the fact that they had resisted so long makes their story stand out amongst all the countless grim accounts of the mass slaughter in Rwanda
in 1994 …
What there is to see: At the time of my visit, in late December 2010, not all that much. It's mainly a site of pilgrimage, more dominated by local symbolism than much tourist-oriented commodification (in the form of artefacts, informative exhibitions or the like), which is largely absent here.
The main part of the memorial site is comprised of a kind of zigzagging path that meanders up the steep hillside – symbolic of the way victims had to ascend the hill as they fled from the Hutu killers.
The path leads through nine separate small buildings (in clusters of three each) – nine, because of the nine sectors, or communes, of the Kibuye prefecture/region. Symbolism again, though you need to be told about it as it's hardly self-explanatory.
The path starts at the bottom of the hill from a memorial gate, which, for some unknown reason, has been designed to look strangely reminiscent of a stylized Torii gate of Japan
. Beyond the gate there's a symbolic sculpture, which, again, is meant to represent the nine sectors of the Kibuye prefecture/region, this time through nine metal spears poking upwards into the sky in a circle. It's probably also supposed to symbolize standing united in resistance ... or maybe I'm over-interpreting here.
The first building on the walkway through the memorial is also of a very unusual design, looking like a cross between a bunker and a Darth Vader helmet, only in grey concrete. It didn't look in the best of shapes at the time of my visit – the concrete was crumbling in places and plants were beginning to take root in the cracks. The front around the entrance door seemed to be painted in a faded purple, just like the sides of the symbolic gate – purple being the colour of mourning in Rwanda
. Unlike the bright purple banners and bunting at other memorials (esp. Ntarama
), this fading indication of purple at Bisesero looked (literally) pale in comparison. Rather neglected, really.
The same, incidentally, has to be said about the sign by the driveway leading up to the memorial. It's rusty, slightly bent at the edges, and the paint of the trilingual writing on it has peeled away – so much so that the Kinyarwanda version at the top was rendered completely illegible, while the French and English could at least still be deciphered.
It actually only says National Resistance Memorial, i.e. without the word "genocide"!
The site is, however, still under development – so is likely to see improvements over the coming years. But meanwhile it may not be fully accessible all the time, as I found out:
When we arrived my guide tried to fetch the caretaker but couldn't find him anywhere, so we were unable to get inside the actual main part of the memorial. It didn't matter so much, as the buildings along the memorial path are currently still empty – and the views of the outside are more or less the same from the bottom and from the top. The latter can be reached by driving along a dirt track winding up the hill behind the memorial.
The nine memorial buildings are to house some displays of victims' remains – namely, as in other such places, rows of skulls and neatly piled bones. When I was there, though, these were still kept in a corrugated metal shed near the bottom entrance to the memorial, where they were being prepared for display in the memorial's rooms. I didn't see them with my own eyes because the shed, too, was locked. But it doesn't take much imagination to assume that the sight would have to be similar to that at, say, Ntarama
Since we couldn't take the (presumably somewhat strenuous) walkway zigzagging up the hill, we drove straight to the top of the hill. Here, beyond a small forested area, a large complex of tile-covered mass graves was constructed in 2004. Most of the remains of the ca. 50,000 killed in the area, have been gathered here and given a dignified burial. Again, however, the site looked a bit neglected at the time of my visit. Some tiles were cracked or had fallen off altogether.
Overall, Bisesero was the least impressive of the genocide memorials I saw on my Rwanda
trip in 2010/11 – at least out of the six "National" ones. This is a bit sad given the special significance of this particular site – as a site not only of suffering but also of resistance and the fight for survival. It can be expected, though, that Bisesero will eventually see the same sort of refurbishment and improvement that other sites have already enjoyed (e.g. Nyarubuye
). If/when I go back to Rwanda in a few years time, I will try and check this out. Meanwhile I'd be grateful for any info to keep me updated about developments here (please contact me
's Western Province in what was formerly the Kibuye prefecture, some 10 miles (15 km), as the crow flies, from the town of the same name on the shores of Lake Kivu (which can be seen from the hilltop at Bisesero too); and ca. 55 miles (90 km) from the capital Kigali
(again, as the crow flies – not as the winding roads go, which multiply any journey length in Rwanda).
Access and costs: remote and restricted.
as good as impossible to get to independently using only regular public transport. For this site you really need a driver/guide who knows their way, at least from off the main road south of Kibuye leading down to Cynagugu, roughly following the eastern shores of Lake Kivu. See under Rwanda
for some hints.
unclear – at the time I was there, on a workday, when it should have been open it turned out it wasn't. No caretaker let alone a local guide (unlike at the other National Genocide Memorials outside Kigali
) were anywhere to be seen. You could try and find out more from the National Museum of Rwanda (INMR) in Butare, the CNLG in Kigali
, or through your tour operator, before going – or you just have to take your chances. The outside of the memorial can be viewed at any time during daylight hours, and the mass graves at the top of the hill should be accessible at all times too.
Admission: presumably the set-up could be expected to be the same as at the other National Genocide Memorial sites, namely, that it is nominally free, but that a donation is welcomed and encouraged. But when I visited, I couldn't even get into the main part of the site, as it was locked and deserted. However, apart from viewing the outside of the hillside memorial complex from the gate at the bottom, you can also drive up to the top of the hill, where the site's mass graves are freely accessible. You could walk down the hillside's zigzagging pathways, but coming from up here you would most likely eventually come to a locked door in any case.
Time required: depends, when I went and found the main section of the memorial site closed, we spent only a few minutes at the bottom by the gate, while my driver-guide tried in vain to find the caretaker. Then we drove up to the hilltop mass graves, where we spent maybe another 15 minutes or so.
If, however, you are lucky enough to find the place open and embark on the zigzag course up the path and through the buildings along the way, then you would have to add significantly more time – for the steep climb alone. You may also get the chance to look inside the shed where the skulls and bones of victims are currently still being held ... unless they've meanwhile been transferred to the memorial buildings proper.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
When in the area, the memorial at the church in Kibuye town itself is also worth a look – see under Rwanda
In the Gishyita commune, close to Lake Kivu, and about 3 ½ miles (6 km) north-west of Bisesero, and ca. 10 miles (16 km) south of Kibuye (as the crow flies) is another stark genocide memorial, namely at the Mugonero complex a former church, hospital and school compound. The memorial here consists not only of another low building inside which skulls and bones are kept in the way familiar from other Rwandan genocide memorials. Outside is a unique and very powerful sculpture featuring bronze arms sticking out of a pedestal: one wields a machete, another a nail-studded club, both of which were common killing tools during the genocide. More arms struggling with these weapon-wielding ones supposedly stand for the resistance fight put up at places like Bisesero and the surrounding region. The two arms tied together in the middle presumably symbolize the eventual helplessness of the victims.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The detour off the main road to Bisesero could best be done en route between Nyungwe National Park to the south and Kibuye to the north, which is a popular place for overnight stopovers (or longer stays) on the shores of scenic Lake Kivu. Kibuye also has some good tourist facilities. Most visitors to Rwanda will also (or only) head further north still, namely to the Parc National des Volcans, namely to see the famous mountain gorillas – cf. Dian Fossey's grave
- Bisesero 01 - from a distance
- Bisesero 02 - approach
- Bisesero 03 - memorial gate
- Bisesero 04 - nine spears sculpture
- Bisesero 05 - shed with skulls and bones
- Bisesero 06 - unusual design and fading
- Bisesero 07 - very faded sign by the approach road
- Bisesero 08 - zig-zagging memorial path
- Bisesero 09 - forest at the top of the hill
- Bisesero 10 - mass graves at the top
- Bisesero 11 - signs of fading here too
- Bisesero 12 - winding path down to the main memorial site
- Bisesero 13 - Lake Kivu in the distance
- Bisesero 14 - a sad and forlorn place