Tuesday, March 25, 2008


(march 23, 2008)

i have been captivated by the rwandan genocide since reading romeo dallaire’s book Shake Hands With the Devil years ago. since then i’ve tracked down other authors and movies about the events of the 1994 genocide that attempt to provide information on the actions taken by government and social leaders with the goal of eradicating an entire ethnic group of people while at the same time laying bare the facts and details of an apathetic and inactive international community and united nations and the calamitous effects of that inaction.

i’ve visited 3 memorial sites in rwanda, the first being the Kigali Memorial Center, which is a fine example of a museum and is alone worth the trip to kigali. set in memorial gardens that have been planted around mass graves and with a view of the city where the genocide began, it is a testament to those who were murdered, to those who survived, and to those who carried out acts to be considered no less than heroic. the country’s colonial and post-independence history, the genocide, and the effects are explained simply without losing the details in kinyarwanda and french and english.

i was struck how the memorial seemed to be designed to appeal to rwandan and foreign visitors alike and it was extremely tasteful without diminishing the atrocities nor reducing the realities to something to be absorbed in an afternoon. it does an excellent job at allowing those who were not there to have a better understanding of what those 3 months were like and it honours those who were there while being unapologetic on the known causes and contributing factors that led to nearly 1 million people dead at their hands of their fellow countrymen, women, and children.
but if i thought the room containing the bones and clothing was disturbing, i was unprepared for what i would see and feel at the Nyamata and Ntarama memorial sites.

both were catholic churches and both served as sites of mass murder when tutsis sought refuge in the only place they thought would be safe, which was utilised by the interahamwe to kill almost all of them inside the church walls. the skulls and larger bones like femurs have been collected and piled up as a memorial and reminder of what happened. some bones have visible hack marks from machetes and some have obvious holes in them. one still has a spear sticking out the top of it. some are small enough to be babies, who were apparently thrown against walls until they died.

more upsetting than the bones are the clothes hanging from the rafters of the church. they are filthy and still hold smells that bones cannot. the items people carried with them into the churches have also been kept – jerry cans, beans, school notebooks, mattresses... – and those things more than the bone make it real for me. that they came to escape the violence with the hope they’d survive. a children’s notebook carries with the belief that preceded the reality.
the man showing me around was there the day the interahamwe came into the church and began killing until there was no one left alive, but managed to escape. i felt in one moment an opportunistic tourist and the next, a member of a civilisation who should carry the weight of the consequences of doing nothing in the face of hatred. those working in the memorials are intimately and forever connected to their reason for existing and have lost more than i can begin to imagine and yet they continue telling their stories and the stories of the thousands who were killed so we can know what happened. they walk in every day and see the skulls of their family and community members who did not survive and talk about the horrors they witnessed.

bricks stained with blood, bullet holes in an altar, a machete left behind by a killer, thousands upon thousands of skulls, hair and bones scattered amidst the rubble of a sunday school, rosary beads, smoke stains from fires that burned people alive, holes in brick walls from grenades, coffins of newly found bodies to be buried this year during the upcoming national week of memorial.

i’ll keep reading about the genocide and i will still be utterly confused when attempting to understand not only why but how. just that now it will be so frighteningly real.

1 comment:

Sara said...

i had to take a few deep breaths just reading that, i can't imagine what it was like to be there.
the way you write will make people pay more attention to these things, i just know it.