October 10, 2019

Northern Rwanda Attack: Tourists Thought It Was Fire Crackers, Later Told By Government It Was Armed Attackers

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The mood at an RDB tourism office in Kinigi where tourists start gorilla trekking. The RDB CEO Clare Akamanzi (2nd Left) and Northern Province Governor Jean Marie Vianney Gatabazi (male in light blue shirt) were there this Wednesday to reassure tourists of the area’s security

Around 8pm Michel Hugues, Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge Manager was at the hotel, in Kinigi sector, Musanze district. Then, unusual sounds erupted but coming from a distance away. As is the routine, Hugues was preparing for early morning departures and arrivals of guests.

“We were in the lodge at the time. We had guests departing on the morning [and], we had [other] guests coming to visit us,” he told The Chronicles this Wednesday.

The sounds went on, stopping and then restarting. Within a short period, Hugues was already getting calls from tourism officials informing him that the incident that has just happened shouldn’t be cause for any worry and that security forces were in control of the situation.

At first, Hugues and other tourists who spoke to us said they thought the rapid rumbling sounds were “fire crackers”.

It is after the calls of assurances from RDB officials that they were told it was actually gunfire, and that there had been a suspected attack by yet-unknown assailants who were being pursued by the military.

“…the information we got was very good so we were able to make decisions to delay the departure until we know everything is clear and we are safe to travel. We took action of our own just to send the cars in convoy just to ensure the safety,” added the executive, who is managing one of the many high-end hotels in the region.

Hugues, and hundreds of tourists were located within the area attacked, specifically Kinigi, Nyange, Shingiro and Musanze sectors – all in Musanze district Northern Province.

The Chronicles and other media outlets were this Wednesday hosted at the Kinigi Headquarters of the Rwanda Development Board (RBD). Its located at the Bisate foothills, near the world-famous Bisate Lodge.

Just close by is a military post with visibly battle-ready soldiers. The Chronicles established that the post has always been there, even before the attack. It’s one of many in the region since its a tourists’ area and close to DR Congo. The rare mountain gorillas are in the Volcanoes National Park nearby, which is in full view from all directions. The park has other animal species and birds.

Attackers targeted Government installations not tourists

There was exchange of fire between the soldiers manning this particular military post and attackers. The rebels fled south to the Bisate village, and that is where some of the 14 civilian victims were killed and 20 individuals left with injuries. As of Wednesday, 6 locals were still hospitalised.

RDB CEO, Clare Akamanzi, together with regional military and provincial officials yesterday arrived in Kinigi at 7am to ‘meet and greet’ tourists. On the night of the attack, Akamanzi was in Bonn, Germany, for Rwanda Day that took place last Saturday. However, she personally phoned the hotels.

“I came with my colleague this morning to the Volcanoes Park to interact with tourists….. We wanted to re-assure them that Rwanda remains the safest country in the world,” Akamanzi said yesterday. She was accompanied by the Northern Province Governor Jean Marie Viannney Gatabazi.

Brig Gen Vincent Gatama from the RDF 2nd Division was also present. He told journalists: “What happened is unfortunate, and there are no remnants remaining in this area. We have cleared everything……..From what we gathered on these terrorists, they did not intend to attack businesses or the properties around, their intention was to target government installations…We got to know where they intended to attack, and before they could get there we dealt with them.”

From 8pm, the sporadic fighting ended around 11pm that same Friday night, according to various accounts.

And so we ask, what has been the reaction from tourists who had already booked and are preparing to come to Rwanda?

Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge Manager, Hugues told our reporter: “We have not [experienced] any effect from [the attack]. We have had queries and questions but the truth is we have not [seen] any effect. RDB was very quick to put out a very reassuring press release. People who’ve asked us we’ve sent them that release. Reality is we’ve not experienced any effect in booking and [nor has there been any] cancellation.”

Keith Vincent is the CEO of Wilderness Safaris , and owner of Bisate Lodge. On the night of the attack, he was not at the lodge but his staff got in touch immediately. They stayed in contact all night.

“Let’s be real, of course it’s very scary,” he told The Chronicles. “I think by government being open and honest with us, allowed us to want to make sure that the effects are dealt with very quickly and any response that was required is enabled because the facts are on the table. In that sense we are very satisfied that it went very well.”

He added: “It matters, of course. If this kind of incident happened, you wouldn’t be human if you weren’t scared. It was in different places in the district. You are trying to find out what’s happening. People thought it [was] fire crackers.”

Tourist preparing to visit the Volcanoes National Park in Kinigi, Musanze district where they were seen-off by government officials on Wednesday morning

Like those at other facilities, even guests at Bisate Lodge first thought it was fire crackers. Later, they realized it was not, after tourism officials contacted the hotels and informed them of what was going on.

A total of 627 tourists have visited the Volcanoes National Park between the day after the attack, Saturday last week and this Tuesday. It means, within a spate of four days, more than 100 tourists arrived daily.

We also met Graham Morcom and Marie Morcom, who are in Rwanda to celebrate 54 years of their marriage. The Chronicles found the couple at the tourism office preparing to go gorilla trekking.

Graham and Marie arrived in Rwanda on Tuesday, originally from Sydney, Australia. Their journey started in Kenya but wanted to celebrate their marriage anniversary with the gorillas.

“We have been attracted by the Gorillas. Very excited to see them and we hope it’s a life time experience,” said Marie.

For her husband, so far, everything is “excellent. Good food, good people, accommodation and we gonna see the silverbacks. I’m gonna say when I go back [home] that everybody should come and see the silverbacks”.

“Musanze is safe”

In 2017 , Rwanda increased its price on gorilla trekking from $750 to $1500. It was explained at the time that the decision was aimed at “ensuring sustainability and conservation initiatives and enhancing visitors’ experience.”

Only in 2018, 15,132 gorilla permits were sold bringing $19,2M, an increment of 25% compared to the previous year. This year, hotels in the regions are confident they will get 100% occupancy.

Sitting in Kigali and other places you would think life has come to a halt in the Northern Province, especially that it is the first armed attack in Musanze district for over 15 years. Th Northern insurgency ended in 1999.

During the 3 hour drive from Kigali on the 5am bus, you start to see the usual columns of villagers on the highway. Students in uniforms headed to school. Some adults carrying farming tools headed to their farmlands. Others are carrying their produce to markets on their heads as others cycle their way to work.

In the towns, businesses are opening. But at the famous Nyirangarama town, a small kind of rural metropolis, built by one of Rwanda’s most illustrious businessmen Sina Gerard with locals, the shops work 24 hours. It was bustling when we passed by on our way to study the effect of the attack on the region.

For anyone who has traveled to northern Rwanda early morning, the road, villages and hills are covered in heavy fog every day, all year round. It goes all the way through Rulindo, Buranga, Nyirangarama and other small towns. The fog starts to disappear as the sun rises.

When we arrived in Musanze town around 7:7am, more than 20min drive from Kinigi, life was already in full mode: shops were open, government offices already busy, schools quiet as class are beginning to settle.

“Musanze and the country are safe, everything is fixed [secure]” says Northern Province Governor Gatabazi.

Tourism is a key player to Rwanda’s economic growth. For example, in 2018, travel and Tourism contributed 14.9% to GDP.

Actually, the volcanoes National Park and the rare mountain Gorillas have been the key to the robust tourism development in the country in recent years. Gorillas have have prayed a key role in marketing Rwanda as a tourism destination of choice.

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