In southern Rwanda, about 30 kilometers outside of the bustling town of Butare, is Murambi, a beautiful area with a gruesome past.
I had heard about Murambi, and I saw pictures that made bile rise in my throat. Here, unlike at the other genocide memorials, the victims' bones are not piled or organized into rows; here, they are fully preserved in lime. White and chalky, many frozen with expressions of excruciating pain and overwhelming terror, these people are truly the ghosts of Rwanda.
As violence spread across the country in April 1994, so too did word of a benevolent mayor in the southern province of Butare, an area that traditionally served as the home of the Mwami, the spiritual leader of Rwanda, the Tutsi king. Tutsis flocked, by the thousands, to Butare, and in particular, to a technical school perched on a hill in Murambi.
Word got out among the Interahamwe and the Rwandan Army that Tutsis were being harbored in Murambi in great numbers, and they mobilized their forces. Tutsis huddled in each room of the school, hoping not to be found.
50,000 individuals were massacred, of which there were only three survivors. One of them still works there, leading visitors back to the rows of classrooms. He speaks a little French, but no words are needed to understand what he experienced; he bore a deep, round depression on his head, an indication of a bullet wound.
The killers dug mass graves to dispose of the bodies. Later, when the French set up their Zone Turquoise (a protected area which, controversially, resulted in the protection of Hutus and not Tutsis, allowing many génocidaires to escape to the Democratic Republic of Congo with their heavy artillery), they set up camp at Murambi. They set up a volleyball pitch over a mass grave.
The bodies are now preserved in lime, their mummified expressions both terrifying and haunting. I had heard that the lime was added to keep the smell down; the guide at Murambi said the new authorities wanted to preserve the bodies via this method. "There must be a better way," he sighed, referring to the gruesome way that some human faces had been melted away.
Our driver had never been to Murambi, either, and it was almost harder for me to see his face contort and the tears quietly roll down his cheeks. The silence was punctuated by his occasional cough, somewhere between a throat-clearing and a wail. We walked together, room by room, to see the 1,700-some bodies that had been exhumed and put on display. The rest have been enterred in a tomb in from of the visitor's center, which also serves as a research facility.
It is always eerily quiet at the genocide memorials, but I heard some stirring down the hill. Peering through, I saw that our visit coincided with the village's gacaca hearings, the Rwandan justice and reconciliation process. There, standing before a group of villagers, stood several accused génocidaires who, more than likely, were participants in the massacre. There was something tremendously symbolic about that; villages were trying these killers on the very hill where they committed the atrocities. Justice was being done. Gacaca was bringing closure.