Following the trail of genocide, Kigali to Butare

Trip Start Feb 20, 2007
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Trip End Jun 2007


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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

I had deliberately left visits to genocide sites until the end of my stay in Rwanda, so that I might have spoken to people about what happened, have read as much as possible, and have tried to gain the best understanding possible of what happened before seeing it with my own two eyes. I'm not sure how well I achieved these goals; I certainly have read all I could get my hands on, but it is rare that I have spoken to Rwandans about their personal experiences of what happened in 1994. Rwandans, it seems, are not yet ready to talk abut what happened, and whenever the subject is broached they seem to clam up, or talk vaguely or generally about things, and then fall silent. Several times, with Yves and Simba, it seemed as if they almost wanted to talk about it, but just couldn't bring themselves to do it. Anything they did say was usually said when after a beer too many. Yves was in Kigali when it happened, and said to me once that he had seen people killing with machetes. Simba was in Gisenyi just before it started, but said that his parents suspected something was going to happen, so they all crossed to Goma, where they stayed for its duration.
 
It is completely understandable that people don't want to talk about what happened, but I did wonder if this silence is present between Rwandans themselves. I asked Yves about this one afternoon, and he said that they do talk about what happened amongst themselves sometimes, which I was glad to hear. When people have problems they need to talk about them, and in some way Rwanda must have a collective societal psychological problem, which it should at least attempt to resolve internally. This problem, however, brings memories that one could argue are possibly better suppressed. Who wants to remember, or talk of how they saw their mother being raped in front of them, or of how their next door neighbour hacked their father's head open with a machete?
 
I came back to Kigali on Sunday, and spent the afternoon reading and writing, as everything was shut down, due to a combination of it being Easter Sunday and also the second day of the week of mourning for the genocide. I had hoped to buy myself a bar of chocolate somewhere and pretend the Easter bunny had visited, but I had trouble even finding somewhere to buy water, let alone chocolate. To add to my woes, my hotel room was infested with the biggest cockroaches I have ever seen, and many angry mosquitoes.
 
The next day I took a matatu out of town to visit two genocide memorial sites about 30km from Kigali, Ntarama and Nyamata. The first I went to, Ntarama, was a church about two kilometres off the main road. I had to walk along a lovely tree-shaded dirt track to get to it, through scenes of pleasant village life, where children waved and adults smiled. I couldn't help but wonder if some of the men I saw had partook in the massacre of 6,000 Tutsis that happened in this church I was going to. Those men, women and children had gone to this church, a traditional place of refuge, in the belief that the interahamwe wouldn't come in a house of God and kill them. Come they did, however, with machetes and a few guns, and proceeded to kill everyone inside.
 
Upon arrival I was shown inside the church by a pleasant man, and saw the contents of the building, about twenty cases of shelves, each filled with skulls. I walked up and down the aisle, looking at this disturbing sight, seeing many skulls of children among them. About half of the skulls were split open from where a machete had come down on it. I saw one skull with what looked like an arrow, or spear head, sticking out of the top. At the front of the room there was a huge pile of bones, partially covered with plastic sheeting. There were bloodstains on the floor of the church.
 
I was then led outside to an outhouse, where I was shown the rest of the bones, piled about a metre high. In another room I saw there were the clothes of the victims, piled high, and hanging from the ceiling. Up until this point I couldn't feel anything, emotionally, except a sense of shock. I found it difficult to actually take in what had happened here, and to imagine it. But, just as in the Killing Fields, in Cambodia, where you could see pieces of clothing uncovered in the mass graves, here seeing the clothing of these poor people, stained with blood, brought a lump in my throat. I find that seeing a skull, or bones, of someone killed has the effect of putting an emotional screen between me and that person. Every skull is alike, and seeing one saves me from having to confront the face that covered it, or to think of the mind it contained. You can see rows and rows of skulls and feel almost nothing. But seeing those clothes on the floor made these people come alive for me, and it properly hit me that these things were worn by people. The next room was even more difficult to see, it contained the personal effects of the killed: jerry cans, pots, plates, cutlery, shoes, and, most poignantly, rosary beads. In the corner of this room I was shown the remains of a fire where the interahamwe burned the bodies of many of those they killed. In the ashes I could see bones and part of shoes. On the wall near the site of the fire there was a huge bloodstain.
 
I walked out of this scene in shock, not reacting as I thought I would, not feeling how I thought I would, or should. I think there was simply too much to take in, the scale of what happened was too much for me to imagine, or even to begin to process, and I essentially shut down emotionally, and chose to suppress whatever feelings surfaced, rather than deal with them. How apt that I, who only saw skulls of people I didn't know, thirteen years after they were killed, couldn't deal with what I felt, when I had previously paternally mused that it is unhealthy for Rwandans to suppress their memories of what they actually saw, and heard.
 
The next site, Nyamata, was about five kilometres away, which I covered on the back of a bicycle, admiring the hilly scenery, and trying to banish the images I had just seen from my mind. On April 9th, 1994, thirteen years ago to the day, ten thousand people were massacred at this church. Again, believing they would be safe, and protected in this place of worship, they were not. The interahamwe came, first throwing grenades in the windows at the thousands crammed inside, and then came in with their machetes and guns to finish their "work" (as it was called), something that must have taken hours to do. They usually came to carry out killings after heavy drinking, and often left after an hour or two to rest and drink some more before coming back to finish up. The inner walls of the church were chipped from the shrapnel, and the roof was pierced with hundreds of little holes through which light streamed. The alter had a white sheet over it, which was stained with blood, gone almost brown-black with time. I found myself imagining the screams, and panic, as these evil men broke down the doors, swinging machetes, cracking open skulls, raping women and girls, blood spattering everywhere - I had to stop, it was too much. I saw, again, a room filled with the ragged, filthy, bloody clothes that were piled nearly three metres high, taken from the dead. Outside there were two underground chambers, into which I could descend. One contained hundreds of simple wooden coffins, the final resting place for some of these poor souls. Another contained about thirty shelves, each holding about fifty to seventy skulls. Again, the skulls were more often than not cracked somewhere, often almost split in two, or missing a huge piece. There were big piles of bones here too. I felt much the same here as I did at the last sight, not feeling much apart from numb shock.
 
The next day I went to the Kigali Memorial Centre, the national genocide museum. This two story building housed exhibits explaining the history of what happened, with a very personal slant to things. The first corridor downstairs explained Rwanda's colonial history, and how German and then Belgian regimes sowed the seeds of Tutsi-Hutu problems. It then went on to discuss post-independence Rwanda, and the massacres of 1959 and of the seventies. It continued by talking of the politics of the early nineties, and the warning signs of what was to come, with frequent mass killings of Tutsis.
 
The displays on the genocide itself were particularly moving, with photographs accompanied by extremely emotive language describing what happened. There were brief videos, too, giving testimony from survivors as to what happened, how they are still alive, and how they knew the killers before 1994, as neighbours and friends. One video showed a prisoner, dressed in pink, being interviewed and asked who he had killed, and how. The most disturbing video of all showed footage that must have been taken in a hospital, mainly displaying children's head wounds, from machete strikes. The wounds were usually about five inches long, and wide open, with flies covering them. While here in Rwanda I have seen many people with a large dent in their skull, in a straight line.
 
The most difficult thing for me to see here was not, in fact, any image or video, but two Rwandan women who were ahead of me in the museum. They both separately ended up breaking down in tears, falling to the ground, sobbing, before reaching the end of the exhibits. These people must have seen the genocide happen, or had friends and family killed. I couldn't even imagine how difficult it was for them to come here today and relive everything. I almost felt embarrassed when I nearly started to cry myself, after seeing this. What right did I have to shed tears? I was just a tourist here, interested in what happened, taking the typical western view of trying to "understand" what happened. Suddenly all my worries of what I "should" be feeling seemed resolved. To cry, here, would have felt wrong. What happened was one of the most terrible things to have ever happened on earth, and of course it is acceptable to feel shock, anger, or disbelief at what happened. But I feel I had no right to cry, as I had not lived through what happened. Any attempts to try to "understand" what happened are pointless, I never will. I only hope that the Rwandans' mental wounds will heal with time. It is often said by survivors that those who died were the lucky ones, because they don't have to live with the memories, nightmares and depression.
 
Another room contained hundreds of photos of those who were killed, normal people - men, women and children, of all ages. These smiling faces which were everywhere I looked were haunting. The sound of a woman sobbing behind me combined with this made me leave the room before I had finished looking at it all, it just became too much. The next room contained children's skulls, and the next had clothes hanging in a way that suggested a human form, those of women and boys, men and girls. Upstairs there was an exhibit dedicated to the children whose innocent lives were so pointlessly taken. The displays had a picture of a child, and alongside was written something like "Name: Julius Ngeze, Age: 7; Favourite food: Chips; Best friend: His mother; Liked: watching TV, playing with friends; Last thing he saw: His mother being raped and hacked to death by machete; Cause of death: Machete strike to the head". Seeing child after child, each with a normal life, ended so inhumanely, again became too much, and I had to leave the room, skipping the last few. The final room was about world genocide, and had exhibits on those in Nazi Germany, Armenia, the Balkans, Cambodia and Namibia.
 
That afternoon I took a bus to Butare, about two hours north of Kigali, which was on my way to Burundi. Here I stopped for a night so that I could visit the genocide sight near Gikongoro. When I arrived at my hotel and asked for where I could get transport out there, I was told by a lovely old woman that today might be an interesting day to go there, as President Paul Kagame was attending a memorial service there this very minute. To prove this she pointed at the television she was watching, and, sure enough, Kagame was there, addressing a huge crowd at the site. I asked her if it would be appropriate for a mzungu to attend this event, to which she told me there would be no problem whatsoever.
 
So, excited, I ran down to the matatu park and squashed into one for an hour's drive to Gikongoro. Once there I paid a boy to give me a lift on the back of his bicycle down the hill to the memorial site. To my disappointment there were no crowds there; I later learned that the old lady had been mistaken, what was shown on the television was a rerun of last Saturday's ceremony.
 
I was led inside by an elderly man who had a huge dent in his forehead which must have been from a healed machete wound. He told me he was one of only four who survived the massacre of 50,000 people at this site on April 29th, 1994. Fifty thousand. All his children, his family, and his friends had been killed. This site was the most disturbing of all - it consists of four blocks of six rooms, each containing about forty bodies, preserved as they were found in white powdered lime. As I entered the first of these rooms I almost gasped at what lay before me. On tables around the room lay bodies, half decayed, left in their final positions, as they had died. The body language of the people was that of pain, and anguish. Here I could see clearly whose head had been hacked open, or whose feet severed off, so that they could not run away. The bodies were thin, and half wasted away, still with clumps of black hair sticking to the melting skulls. There was a horrible smell of decay, which added to the sickness of what was before me. Room after room was like this, each one showing shocking scenes, where it was all too easy to imagine what had happened. One room contained only infants, little babies, with skulls cracked brutally open and little hands and feet chopped off. After a few rooms I had had enough, thanked the poor man who was showing me around, and left.
 
I have struggled to understand my feelings and reactions to all I saw and experienced in my last few days in Rwanda, visiting these sights. I don't think I do understand them, perhaps because they are feelings I have never encountered before. They are certainly feelings I do not want to have again. I have struggled, and failed, to some extent, to record my feelings here; how am I to accurately express what I felt if I can't even process it myself? It is important, though, to write what I felt alongside what I saw, as it was an equal part of the experiences I have had.
 
Upon leaving the site I noticed that the skies were after blackening, and flashes of bright lightening illuminated the distant hills. Rain was coming, and I had a half-hour walk ahead of me. I decided not to risk ruining my camera in a torrential downpour, and waited around in hope of a boda-boda motorbike taxi coming. After ten minutes or so the rains began, and there was no sign of a lift. I noticed a military jeep that was carrying soldiers approaching, and decided to chance my arm and ask for a lift. The driver, who introduced himself as a general in the Rwandan army, had been to Ireland twice for military training courses (I wasn't aware that we ran such courses back home), and offered to drop me in Gikongoro. So I rode on the back of this jeep, legs dangling over the side, flanked on either side by soldiers with big guns, back along the bumpy dirt track to town. The usual waves and smiles of locals were replaced by looks of puzzlement - what was this mzungu doing riding with military types?
 
The general dropped me at the matatu park, and quizzed me as to what my "mission" was in coming to Rwanda, why the genocide interested me, and what I thought of the memorial I had just seen and what had happened there. He then not only insisted on paying for my matatu fare back to Butare, but also told the driver to leave immediately and drop me to the door of my hotel, without picking up any passangers. I protested, saying this wasn't at all necessary, but he insisted, eager, I think, to show his influence. As soon as the matatu had rounded the corner we stopped, waited for a minute, and drove back to collect passengers, which I was actually happy about. My comfort was gladly sacrificed for the driver's earnings. Once again, however, I was surprised at how far Africans will go to extend hospitality, and to make you feel welcome in their country.
 
 
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