At 9:00 we stopped in front of the little Catholic Church which became the killing ground for about 5000 people in the early days of the genocide. I’ve written about this place several times before. The authorities always seem to be changing things around and also the site rules. First it was free, then you had to pay to visit, now it’s free again. A guide took us around the grounds, into the Church and around the grounds.
We toured the church which is now full of coffins, which are full of bones, according to the guide, awaiting burial in soon-to-be-constructed underground vaults on the grounds. The guide showed us an ID card from a murdered victim. The Belgian issued ID cards stated ethnic identities - Tutsi, Hutu or Twa. These cards were used to identify and kill Tutsis. Checkpoints were put up all over the country, and everyone passing had to show ID. Anyone identified as a Tutsi was immediately taken aside and killed, sometimes after being gratuitously tortured.
We saw sacristy rooms where priests would vest before their services, places where more people hid and then were killed. Now tattered school books are on display, brought by Tutsi students hopeful they would soon be able to continue their studies. I find it is often simple items like these books that truly witness to the horrible human toll of calamitous events. These books survive children who wanted to finish their studies, and achieve something with their lives which were snuffed out before they ever had a chance in life, by the most callous of cruelty.
We walked up to the kitchen where victims had been burned to death when mattresses and other combustible items were thrust burning inside and also used to block the doors. Next door was the room for Sunday school. The guide showed a large dark stain on the wall where, she said, children were killed by being swung by the feet to smash their skulls on the wall. In the displays of skulls one can see in the genocide memorials there are often the small skull caps of young children whose craniums are still so soft only a few part survive a crushing blow. When I see such things I always think of a passage in the biblical book of Nahum that recounts how Assyrian troops did such things to Israelite children nearly 3000 years ago: “Yet she was carried away, She went into captivity; Her young children also were dashed to pieces At the head of every street; They cast lots for her honorable men, And all her great men were bound in chains” (3:10).
We like to think we’re more advanced now and that the horrible atrocities of the past could never happen again. Every generation thinks it’s smarter and more morally advanced than the previous. But history tells a different story. Our nature hasn’t changed; the bestial violence of the past is never far submerged in the human heart.
We drove on to Nyamata just a few miles further to visit the larger church cum
genocide site. 10,000 people are said to have been murdered in this church. The tin roof is pierced with bullet and grenade shrapnel holes. Blood stains can be seen even up on the underside of the tin roof. There are also walls stains where children’s brains were dashed out.
The cloth over the altar is stained with blood, and on it are displayed various weapons found on the site, used to torture or kill the victims here. When I toured this church 10 years ago with my parents, the Adkins and the Swartzs there were newly disinterred bodies being placed in coffins for a proper burial. The smell of decomposition was strong enough to make me gag; I doubt I’ll ever forget it.
We walked down into the crypt where skulls, tibias and the simple necklaces of the slain are on display. There is also the coffin of a woman said to have been impaled on a metal pole. I’ve read and heard from guides a number of different versions of that story, so I’m not sure it’s entirely true, but it’s not beyond belief that it was. We walked around behind the church to the burial vaults. The first in now full of coffins stacked floor to ceiling. The second has both coffins and pallets upon pallets of human bones. The remains of many more than 10000 people are interred here.
It is very sobering, even after seeing it several times. For Matthias it was his first and he was moved by what he saw. He said he understood more deeply why the genocide shouldn’t be taken lightly or forgotten.
We drove back to Kigali and went to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. The remains of a quarter of a million people, a quarter to a third of everyone killed in the genocide, are buried here. We were wanded and patted down before being allowed to enter. Daniel had walked through it before as had I, but Matthias had never done so, so we walked through again and read the timeline, the shocking statistics, and tragic, numbing personal stories.
After thinking on these things soberly, we went on our way. Still living, we felt the need to eat and to seek cheerier places. We drove up to New Cactus where we had the pleasure of introducing Matthias to pizza. He had never tasted it before. We all decided on a feta cheese pizza, which was quite good. Matthias declared that pizza was “very delicious.” He couldn’t eat the last slice, so I suggested he take it home. Daniel kept me honest by reminding us that it wouldn’t be good to take pizza crust home for the evening on this day! How quickly we can forget, before we even start!
After lunch, Matthias left us to head to his university lodgings just a few streets over. I asked Ndeo to drive us to Camp Kigali which was nearby – the place where 10 Belgian soldiers wearing UN peacekeeper colors were killed in the opening days of the genocide after holding out for several hours against overwhelming odds. This is also a sobering place to consider and reflect on courage and honor in the face of mindless violence.
After this visit we drove back to Chez Lando where we had several hours to work before sunset and the start of a most meaningful day, especially in the light of what we had visited in the morning.
We had hoped to eat at the panoramic restaurant at the Hotel des Milles Collines, the hotel depicted in the film Hotel Rwanda, but it was closed on Mondays, so we went to the nearby Serena, the nicest hotel in Kigali, for a nice dinner. Daniel has steak and I had lamb; we also enjoyed some South African merlot. The restaurant overlooks the pool area which is in the middle of lush gardens. We watched the full moon rise over the tropical trees as we ate. It was a delightful meal and a lovely start to this special week.
Just as we finished desert a heavy rain began and followed back to our hotel. It’s the rainy season, but hopefully we’ll have a clear day tomorrow.
Today was a day for preparation for the days to come, but also includes some free time. Daniel and I had breakfast at 7:30, changed some money, and met Matthias Sobobugingo (I'll call him that for convenience sake – in Rwanda last names aren’t really passed on from fathers to children, each person gets his own second – main name) at 08:00 as Ndeo arrived. Matthias, who is 26 and about to finish his university degree in physical therapy, was going to accompany us and act as translator as needed. It turned out to be a day of firsts for him. We started out on the road to Ntarama, a small village about 30 km south of Kigali. The road is excellent now, the first times I drove out to the village the road was so bad, the 20 miles took two hours both ways.