Genocide memorial sites

Trip Start Jun 06, 2006
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Trip End Aug 22, 2006


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Saturday, June 24, 2006

Friday was a very full and very sobering day. At my request Mr. Mundeli had contacted a taxi driver named Samuel that I've used before and arranged for him to take us out to Nyamata and Ntarama, two genocide memorial sites about 30 km outside of Kigali. Samuel was prompt at 9:30, and we loaded into his old Carola to start out. His Toyota like most of the vehicle in Rwanda had the steering wheel on the right, even though they also drive on the right. The reason for this is that most of the vehicles used in Rwanda are imported from either Kenya or Uganda, both former British colonies where people drive in the left. So the vehicles have the steering wheel on the right. Rwanda, as a former Belgium colony, drives on the right. The drivers here are so used to this situation that they assume that's the natural order of things.

The road out to Nyamata had been much improved since I last took it about two years ago. It took only one hour, half the time, to reach Nyamata. We drove through the village and to the old Catholic Church which like so many other church buildings became a genocide site in 1994. Each time prior to 1994, when tribal violence had erupted in Rwanda, the pursued could safely take refuge in any church and find sanctuary. So when the violence began in 1994, many Tutsis took refuge in churches as their parents and grandparents had before them. This time however, the Hutu Power movement allowed no sanctuary. Thousands of helpless people were butchered in churches throughout the country. Some such searches have been left as genocide memorial sites. Nyamata and Ntarama are among them.

We parked in front of the church at Nyamata and walked through the gate. A woman named Séraphine, whose husband was killed in the violence, and who spoke only a few words of French, acted as our guide. The fact that she often communicated through gestures made some of the explanation more graphic. The metal roof of the church is peppered with holes through which the sun shines. These are shrapnel holes from the grenades thrown in among the crowds of men, women and children as the methodical killing began. Séraphine took us down into the crypt, unlit by the broken lights. Under a glass pyramidal structure containing skulls and leg bones, lay the coffin of a pregnant woman who was impaled alive on a post. I remembered the story from my last visit. When her body was disinterred many months later it was found in a remarkable state of preservation, leading some to believe God had marked her with special favor, thus her place in the crypt.

Back up on the floor of the church, Séraphine showed us still-visible blood stains at the base of a wall where children held by their feet had had their skulls bashed in on the wall. There were more brown bloodstains all over the once-white cloth covering the alter. Two years ago when I was here with other visitors the church was being used as a processing center for recently discovered bodies located through the Gacaca (truth and reconciliation) courts. There were desiccated bodies being placed in simple white wooded coffins by people wearing surgical type masks. Tarps on the floor were covered in the various leathery body parts of corpses too dismembered and decomposed to still be identified as one belonging to one person. I still remember the choking odor in the church that day. It seemed to stay incrusted in the back of my throat the rest of the day. Now the church floor was empty and swept, and there was no pronounced odor.

Séraphine took us next to the subterranean ossuaries behind the church. Two white-tile-covered platforms about waist-high identified the ossuaries. By descending some steps we found ourselves among multi-tiered chambers containing various coffins, and bones sorted by type, skulls, femurs, humeri, as well as piles of non-descript bone pieces.  We had some small idea of the scale of the killing when we were surrounded floor to ceiling by human bones. As we exited the ossuaries, Séraphine asked to have her photo taken with Fiona and Tatiana by the stone engraved with the names of villagers not killed on the Church grounds. It is estimated that 10,000 people were killed on and around the grounds of the Catholic Church at Nyamata.

We signed the guest book and left a contribution to the fund that cares for widows and orphans of the genocide, and then regained the taxi for the short drive to Ntarama, an even smaller village than Nyamata.

At Ntarama the sign outside stated that about 5000 people had been killed here. The young woman who acted as our guide spoke fluent French. She showed us inside the church where shelves were again filled with bones. Skulls clearly showed signs of the trauma that killed the victims: here a machete slash clear through the bone, here a bullet hole in the forehead, here a rusty arrowhead still stuck through the top of a skull, here the whole side of a skull crushed in by blunt force. The saddest sight in the middle of all the horror was the small tops of skulls of children. They were apparently often smashed against a brick wall, the thinner side bones disintegrating into small pieces that disappeared. All that was left was the thicker top section including the forehead. These small bones were stacked in little piles on the top of one shelf. We all wondered mute at the stunning cruelty of which we human beings are capable.

The brick walls show several gaping holes. The refugees inside had locked the doors to prevent the militia and soldiers from getting to them. So the Interahamwe used sledge hammers to break open holes through which grenades were thrown to kill and stun. Then the killers entered and finished off the survivors, men, women and children, with machetes and clubs, and whatever was at hand.

The floor of the Church at Ntarama has not been completely cleaned since the massacre. There are more bones, intermingled with bits of clothing, shoes, pots, wallets, ID cards and the kinds of things poor people take with them from their homes when they have to leave in a hurry. The guide led us to the low pew-benches. We were to step from bench to bench to avoid stepping on the bones and detritus. As we moved toward the front of the church, we could identify parts of skeletons: vertebrae, mandibles, fibulas, ribs. Some of the benches were not stable and wobbled when we stepped on them. This created a disconcerting sense of uncertainty, as if with a misstep we might be down among the bones crushing them with our step, inadvertently participating in the destruction. The feeling of uncertainty made the sense of horror more intense.

Once through the Church we were shown a storage area where piles of corpse had been burned after the chaos subsided. Then we were taken to a temporary storage shed of corrugated metal where human bones were piled on tarps. From the roof hung the clothing and wraps of some of the victims. Again for some reason which I couldn't grasp having the colorful but moldy cloth of the victims hang over their bones increased the intensity of the grief and despair we felt for these people we had never met. Perhaps the familiarity of the clothing underlined the humanity of the stark bones below.

We signed the guest book and left a contribution once again, then started the trip back to Kigali. We were all deeply affected by these visits to the darkest side of human nature. Tatiana shed tears for the murdered children and asked us earnestly how people could be so cruel to children....

After bouncing back to the hotel we had a very late lunch and then rested and wrote. I made a quick run into town to the ORTPN (Tourist and National Park Office), to look into going to Nyungwe National Park where chimpanzees have been habituated to human visitors. I also checked on the availability of permits to see the gorillas on Sunday. Rwanda recently raised the price of permits from 250 to 375 dollars per foreigner (they're only $20 for a Rwandan national). Marjolaine and I had discussed the advisability of going as a family. Taking $1500 from our family savings for one hour with the gorillas seemed way too much, yet I knew from having gone by myself when the price was lower, what an amazing experience it is. My stress level rose when it appeared that there would be space for four on Sunday (there are only 40 spaces per day available). As I wrestled with the decision, I noticed that fifteen is the minimum age to go. Tatiana is thirteen. So that settled that.

It turned out Nyungwe is a four and half hour drive from Kigali, and the Chimp visits are at 06:00. Also I was informed that they aren't always seen. An expedition down just looked too complicated for the few days we have in Rwanda. We have other wildlife adventures planned for Kenya and South Africa, so we decided finally to pass on this one.

Back at Chez Lando, I waited for the pastor from Burundi who was to meet with me at 16:00. He finally arrived, and we had the chance to get to know one another, and discuss how we would proceed with our discussions. He seemed quite eager for his association in Bujumbura to become part of UCG. These kinds of requests rarely work out in the end, but have a few times, so we'll move forward with out discussions and see how things develop.

In the evening Marjolaine, Fiona, Tatiana and I went to the Hotel des Mille Collines for dinner. This was the hotel featured in the story told by the recent Hotel Rwanda. It wasn't the actually Mille Collines that was used for the movie, it would have been too traumatic for Rwandans to recreate those terrible scenes, even if just for a film. When I first came to Rwanda in 1996, the Mille Collines was about the only safe Western hotel for visitors, and I stayed there. Since then things have calmed and now I don't have to spend so much for lodging. The dining room on the 5th and top floor of the hotel is open to the air on one side. The climate being what it is here, it never needs to be closed to heat or cold, only to rain - for which they have awnings and plastic sheets that can roll down. The view of Kigali is quite impressive both day and night.

We watched the twinkling lights of the city below as we enjoyed a very pleasant meal. We talked about our visits to the genocide sites, human nature, solutions to the problems of the world, how we should live our lives, as well as our plans for future stops on our trip. It was a very enjoyable family occasion at the end of moving day.
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