Visits to genocide memorials

Trip Start Mar 26, 2012
Trip End Apr 29, 2012

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Flag of Rwanda  , Kigali City,
Thursday, April 12, 2012

After a good night for each of us, Jim Franks and I had breakfast at a little after 08:00 (coffee appeared to be the most important element) and at 09:00 got into Samuel's taxi for some visits around Kigali. The church members who might normally have accompanied us, asked to be excused so they could make arrangements for the next two days, which was of course fine. Samuel knew all the places we intended to go and he speaks enough French that we can work things out if anything unexpected happens.

We first drove into town to where some of the best exchange rates can be found, although that seems to be evening out now, and changed some dollars for Rwandan Francs. Then we headed out to two moving genocide memorial about which I have written before. About 35 kilometers outside of Kigali and slightly off the paved road, we came to the village of Ntarama where the Catholic church building became a terrible genocide site about this time in 1994. As we arrived there were signs indicated the commemoration of the 18th anniversary of the massacres.

As the violence began many targeted people, mostly of the Tutsi tribe, took refuge in church buildings. In previous pogroms churches were treated as holy ground not to be violated. But in 1994 soldiers and militia brought the hatred inside and murdered men women and children in the church and other buildings in the complex.

I guide walked around with us and explained what happened in various areas. About 5000 people were murdered here mostly during two days in April 1994. When I first visited this site around 1996 or 1997, the church floor was covered in the bones of those who had been murdered here. To move to the front of the church, one had to walk on the low wobbly pews. After several years the bones were removed and buried. Now there was a rack at the back of the church containing orderly rows and piles of human bones. And there were 15 or 20 simple wooden coffins stacked in the front of the church; recently deterred remains waiting for a proper burial. Photos are no longer allowed inside the buildings, so I can only show photos (from today) taken from outside the buildings. 

The guide showed us the mud-brick kitchen where huddled people were burned alive, burning mattresses and other flammable materials having been thrown on top of them through the windows. Nearby was a room normally used for children’s Sunday school classes. The guide pointed out a dark stain on the wall left by the blood of children who were swung by their feet in order to smash their heads on the bricks to kill them. 5000 people.

We drove a few miles farther to the larger town of Nyamata, where another church was also a memorial, this time to approximately 10,000 people who were murdered. The church is partly filled now with the decomposing clothing of the victims; the roof is perforated with many holes from bullets and grenade fragments. In the crypt are stacks of skulls and other bones and one unmarked coffin.

To the side of the church one finds the marked grave of an Italian aid worker who attempted to alert the world to the organized nature of the anti-Tutsi violence. She was shot at the front door of her home in order to silence her.

Behind the church at Nyamata are two long underground burial chambers, where if one goes down a steep stairway, one can see in the gloom the bones of hundreds perhaps thousands of people stacked in various chambers. It’s rather hard to imagine the level of violence it would have taken to kill so many people in such a short amount of time, often with weapons as primitive as machetes or clubs.

Having seen all this and reflected on it, we drove back to Kigali to see the national genocide memorial which contains a museum explain the origins of the hatred and political manipulations that lead to the genocide. The museum is quite straight forward in naming names and assigning responsibility including to some western powers, and the UN, who were in some cases complicit or who practiced the policy of the ostrich during the crisis – refusing to acknowledge what was truly occurring. Since this is the week of the commemoration there were a number people visiting, more local people than expats. Young people walked through the museum with tissues in their hands wiping their eyes. One young woman was carrying a roll of toilet paper (used in Africa for many things beyond its intended use), sharing it with people who didn’t have tissues of their own.

In large mass burial vaults behind the museum building are interred approximately 250,000 victims, about a quarter of all those that were killed. The number surpasses understanding; a quarter of a million people. As we walked along these vaults, we came to a nicely-dressed group of people participating in a commemoration of some sort, carrying the photo of a young man. They were accompanied by a cameraman and a photographer to document the occasion.

On the way to the next place we would visit, we stopped for bowl of soup and a salad at the hotel that used to be called the Diplomat. It was the Rwandan manager of this hotel, Paul Rusesabagina, who moved to the more upscale Hotel des Mille Collines when the Belgian manager moved out to safety, and who became a hero by hiding and saving over 1200 Tutsis. That story is told in the film Hotel Rwanda. I vaguely remember walking through the empty looted hulk of this hotel in 1996 on my first trip to Rwanda. Now it’s been rebuilt and transformed into the nicest hotel in Kigali, part of the luxury Serena chain.

After a quick bite we drove a few blocks to see Camp Kigali where 10 Belgian peacekeepers were killed after having been disarmed and brought to this former army barracks. This is also a very thought-provoking visit.

It was mid-afternoon by this time so we headed back to Chez Lando to get some office work done. Jim Franks always has work waiting for him, and I had the weekly French update to prepare a day early because of the high day this week.

For dinner went to Indian restaurant I really like for dinner, over which we were able to discuss many things some personal, some concerning our church association as developmental plans are prepared for many activities.

We will turn in early tonight, since tomorrow will require an early start.
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Tess Washington on

My heart is just broken seeing the pictures and reading how this genocide came about and its victims! The inhumanity of man...driven by another spirit apart from God's always leads to something like this Rwandan mass killings! We have a great work to finish...

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