Genocide Tourism - The Memorials

Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Rwanda  ,
Monday, May 28, 2007

While in Rwanda, a macabre, but necessary tourist attraction are the genocide memorials. There are many of these scattered all over the country, noticeable by the purple ribbons or paint, the colour of mourning and remembrance.

The first, and essential, site you should go to is the Kigali Memorial Centre. This site houses mass graves, but also an incredible museum and research centre. Inside the history of the Rwandan genocide is laid out in clear, multi-lingual displays. The stories are hard to accept, but are devastatingly effective in their presentation. After the displays telling the story of the genocide, there are a series of rooms branching off a central common space. One of the rooms is filled with thousands of photos of people. These are all victims of the genocide. In many cases, families gave up their only surviving photographs of loved ones, so they could be remembered here. Another room has a collection of bones and skulls taken from victims. The amount of holes and gashes in the skulls is a bleak foreshadow of a pattern seen over and over again at other memorials around the country. A third room has clothing and personal effects taken from victims and massacre sites. Two items truly stood out for me. One was a t-shirt. On it was the following - "Ottawa - Heart (shown by a heart symbol) of Canada." Someone was brutally murdered while wearing a shirt praising the capital of my own country. A country that did as little as the rest of the world, when one of their own, General Romeo Dallaire, pleaded for help and described the horrors happening here. It made me ashamed.

The second was a bed sheet. On it were cartoon drawings of Superman. If ever he was needed to be real. Then again, Superman was always described as an American patriot. He fought for America in World War II against the Nazis. Would he have intervened when there were no American interests at stake? No super villains? Just ordinary, everyday people doing horrible, evil, vile things. I don't know. It's a rhetorical question I guess, like many of the questions asked about the genocide today. If we were really learning something, we (the world) would be doing a lot more in places like Darfur right now.

Upstairs in the centre is another series of rooms, dedicated to other genocides of the 20th century. The Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the Balkans, and more are given an over and explanation. It was interesting for me to hear from my friend Henriette about when she guided the Turkish ambassador and he argued that the Armenian genocide information was completely false. Despite it coming on 100 years, the Turkish government denies this event ever happened. About a year and half ago, after Canada officially recognized the Armenian genocide, Turkey recalled their ambassador from Canada in protest. Interestingly, America and Britain have never officially recognized the genocide (U.S. airbases in southern Turkey anyone?)

The last display is also upstairs. It is about children who died in the genocide; a lost generation. It is where the photos from the last entry came from. Each child had a sign that gave basic information about them - favourite foods, favourite toys - and how they died. At the end were snapshots of dozens of more children, given by families to the centre.

My friend Henriette works at the centre as a guide, and through her, I've already met some very interesting people and had some unique experiences. A couple of weeks ago, there was a special event at the centre, commemorating women and mothers who were lost during the genocide. Survivors spoke about the horrible experiences they went through. A choir of 100 genocide orphans were on hand to sing about the loss of their mothers and to help plant seedlings, the start of what will become know as the Forest of Remembrance. Somehow I ended up representing Canada for this ceremony. I was sitting just behind the South African ambassador, and next to the representative of the British embassy. In the pouring rain, the special guests (somehow including me) were walked down to one of the mass graves where each was handed a rose to lay on the grave site honouring the remains of the victims interred there, and all about Rwanda. From there, the guests climbed up onto a rain soaked hillside in the sticky mud to accept a seedling tree from one of the orphans and plant it in the ground together. My tree (Canada's tree), should you choose to seek it out, is between five to six brick pillars over from the gate leading to the bottom mass graves. It is about 15-20 feet down from the wall. I still feel like I didn't deserve to be there, but was honoured to be included.

Located an hour and half matatu ride away from Kigali are the Ntarama and Nyamata memorials. These are particularly tragic as these memorials are former churches where people flocked to, hoping to find protection within the house of God. There are stories of priests who died next to their flock, offering protection and solace until the end. Devastatingly, there are also the stories of priests who welcomed people into their places or worship and their handed them over to the Interahamwe, civilian militia death squads who were responsible for most of the killings. Many believe the Catholic Church, the most powerful religious institution at the time, could have done much to stop the killing had they spoken out against the Hutu-Tutsi divide and propaganda leading up to the genocide. Unfortunately, most remained quiet. The churches offered no respite. The killers either followed them in, or barricaded them inside, throwing grenades or setting fires to kill all within.

Such was the case at Ntarama. Located about three kilometres from the main road, this was a tiny parish church in the countryside. When the killings began, Tutsi from all around fled to this tiny building, hoping the power of the church would keep them safe. It did not. Over 5000 people were killed here over about three days. The people were barricaded inside, and grenades were thrown inside. The killers then opened the doors, and entered with machetes and clubs to finish any survivors.

When you walk into the church, you are struck by how small it is. The room is filled with benches that served as pews. The walls and ceiling rafters are covered in clothing and material. These are the clothes the victims were wearing when they were killed. Near the front of the church is a trunk full of children's exercise books from school. You can see lessons up to April 1994, then nothing else. As a teacher, I found these to be especially poignant. In the walls are gaping holes smashed in the walls so grenades could be thrown inside. And then there are the skulls. Lined up in the back of the church on racks, are hundreds of skulls. The majority of them show signs of blunt force trauma, a testament to the manner in which they died. Some are tiny, those of children and infants. In has only been in the last few years that the bodies and bones of those who were slaughtered have been organized, cleaned, and interned. Until recently, when one can here, one walked through, around, over, and on the remains of those who perished. Directly across the dirt, country road are a series of small buildings, an orphanage for those children who lost their parents. The children live directly across from where they lost their families.

I went to the church with Adam, another Canadian, who I had met in Uganda. After walking through the church building, we split up, each with his own thoughts. I sat and talked with a young woman, a guide for the site, where I learned of the events of what had happened. Adam met a self possessed young man in his early twenties on the grounds. He started talking with him, and the man's story came out. He had been one of thousands of people who had fled to the church when the killing began. He told Adam he had been in the church when the killings began, but had escaped, running out into the surrounding swamps. The mud sucked at his legs and slowed him, as the howls of the dogs tracking the survivors pierced the night. He escaped. Most did not.

Nyamata is another church, now a memorial. Here, as many as 10,000 people were killed. Survivor's description of what happened was a nightmare. There are open crypts you can enter. Thousands of skulls are lined up on racks staring sightlessly outward. Holes, cracks, and cuts are visible on most. On the bottom racks, thousands of femurs and tibula are piled like firewood. There is a smell, a musty, earthy smell that creeps into your nostrils. It feels like it sticks to your clothes, your skin, and you want to wipe it off. When you walk through the church, you can see bullets holes, and the altar has bloodstains on it, like the memory of a long ago pagan ritual. There was a sacrifice here, of thousands of innocents, their only crime being the wrong word in their identification card - Tutsi.

Murambi is yet another site of horror. Located about 30 kilometres outside Butare in the southern part of the country, it is an achingly beautiful setting. Murambi is the site of what was a well known technical college. It perches on a hilltop in a beautiful valley, just outside of the town of Gikongoro.

When the killing started in April, 1994, Tutsis in the area ran to a local church for protection. The bishop of the region and the mayor of Gikongoro set a trap. They convinced them to flee to the technical college. They were told there were French troops stationed there who would protect them. Over 65,000 Rwandans fled to the school seeking safety. Immediately after their arrival, water and electricity was shut off. The French troops, who had been lounging around, playing volleyball a few short days before, disappeared. The Tutsi sheltering there were left to defend themselves with little more than stones. On April 21, the Interahamwe ("Those who kill together" - the Hutu extremist civilian militia who did most of the killing in the genocide) overran the site. Over 45,000 people were slaughtered. Most of those who managed to escape were killed the next day while seeking safety at a local church.

Today, the school is a memorial to the victims of the massacre. In a number of the old classrooms, the preserved bodies of some of the victims are laid out on tables. The bodies are desiccated because of the line used to preserve them, but their contorted bodies, and mouths open in silent screams are a horrifying testament to the events that happened here. No one was spared. In some rooms, small bodies belonging to children and infants lay on the wooden slats, mouths open in silent screams, their skulls split open from the blow of a machete or club. In some cases, bodies seem to lay in each others arms, as if seeking solace and protection from a loved one in their final moments. Occasional tuffs of hair attached to heads, and articles of clothing still adorn the bodies.

You walk from room to room, a care taker opening each door to let you view the remains inside. You are told it is ok to take photographs. You do, feeling slightly sick and disgusted with yourself. You tell yourself you will use these to teach, to try and do your part in making sure students in the future know about this; that these people will not be forgotten. You tell yourself these things so you can keep pressing the button on your camera, bending down to try and get a clear focus on a twisted mouth, teeth still visible in the desiccated gums. You think you should be crying. You think you should smashing things. You feel you should be feeling something, anything, but instead, feel dazed. A thick numbness fills your skull as room after room is opened, and body after body is seen. Children from some nearby huts caper around outside the classrooms, laughing, yelling "muzungu!" and asking for money. The sun shines, the birds sing, and you walk to the next room to see more of the dead. You climb back onto your moto, catch a matatu, and then take the bus back to Kigali. You live there for another three weeks. You sit down at a computer, you write these words, and finally, you cry.
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