Monday, February 13, 2006

Bring a strong stomach.


I traveled to Kigali this weekend to get some things for my apartment and for the kids at the transit center. I stayed in the Hotel Okapi ($70/night, hot water not guaranteed, I would recommend against staying there at that price), splitting a room with my Canadian friend. Her Canadian friends had organized a car to take us to the genocide memorial in Kigali. I had wanted to visit, so I joined up. The thought of what I was going to see was enough to petrify me, but I found it more important to overcome my fears and confront the horror that enveloped the country for several months, and which has lasting repercussions.

It turned out that we weren't going to the memorial in Kigali, but rather, the two memorials outside of Kigali. (There are about 50, if not more, genocide memorials here.) They're about 30 km away from the city, set in a rural landscape that closely resembles the plains of the Serengeti. We took a roundabout way, so we ended up traveling about 70 km on roads that cannot properly be called roads--more walking paths than anything else. Thank goodness we were in a Land Rover! But I was sitting on a bench in the back, and every time we hit a bump, my head would bang against the ceiling. It felt like a bad action ride. Looking out the back window didn't help the dizziness, and after getting completely lost in the bush for 3 hours, passing through tens of ghost villages, we arrived at a larger town, called Nyamata.

Nyamata is the site of one of the most powerful genocide memorials. The difference between memorials here and in DC is that those in DC have inscribed names, or a commemorative statue. Here, memorials aren't cleansed. They're not for the weak of constitution. They are designed to tell the whole truth, and to remind people about the full extent of the horror.

The memorial was a church. A church on whose grounds 10,000 people were slaughtered. Not just a shot to the head, or a beheading. The government forces and the interahamwe wanted to torture the Tutsis. A quick death was too easy.

The church sits on an acre of land. Tutsis from the area flocked there, believing that no one would kill in God's house. The women and children took shelter inside the church, while the men feebly tried to protect the grounds. Those in the church were luckier. The interahamwe threw grenades through the windows, killing many. They later broke in and chopped the survivors with machetes, hoes, and any other tools they could find.

The men had it worse. The interahamwe chopped off one limb per day, forcing extreme suffering. If someone was killed on the spot, it took several men--one slash of a machete was not enough to kill.

An entire class of first-graders was slaughtered, as was their teacher. They are buried together. A pregnant woman was impaled, through the birth canal, up through her skull. To kill babies, they would hold them by the feet and swing them against a wall until their skulls shattered.

Before coming here, I had never seen a skull before, let alone a full skeleton. I guess in some ways, I've lived a sheltered life. So to see the piles and rows of skulls, the other bones piled on tarps, the bloodstained clothes piled in another room, was so difficult that my heart jumped into my throat.

In the back of the church are two long, underground tombs. Every April, to commemorate the genocide, they bury some of the bones in this final resting place. I descended into one. The smell was musty, earthy, dusty, like human remains. It was dark and claustrophobic. Inside they had begun to pile the remains of women and children from a nearby maternity ward. A shiver went up and down my skin, and I began to hyperventilate. It was too much for me. I jumped out of there as fast as I could.

The enormity of the massacre is almost too much for the brain to process. It was too much for me. Only now am I really beginning to think about what I saw. I have studied the genocide for years--I've read widely, have attended lectures and conferences. But to be confronted by thousands of skulls is entirely different from reading about it in a book.

Among the piles of bones, you can see the rosaries of people who believed that God would save them. No one came.

We went on to another genocide memorial (I will confirm the name) about 2 km away from Nyamata. It was the site of 5,000 deaths. Among the pews, the debris, bones, and clothes are still strewn. Some of the skulls are lined up on shelves; most of the bones have been tossed into oversized plastic rice bags. In the back is a house where many took refuge--the militiamen doused the house with kerosene and lit it on fire. I will post a picture when I get a chance.

The banners in front of the genocide memorials across the country read (in Kinyarwanda): "If you knew me, and if you knew yourself, then you wouldn't have killed me."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an experience, there are no words for this....thank you for sharing.

2/14/2006 9:34 AM  
Blogger Heidi Watzak said...

Thank you for sharing this amazing story. This weekend I had the opportunity to watch Sometime in April on HBO and what a story.
Thanks again for bringing this to our attention.

2/21/2006 3:00 PM  
Blogger Pamela Morris said...

Thanks for letting me know. I sponsor a child in Rwanda through Compassion International. I nope to visit the country and see my child at his school that I sponsor.
I am speechless

7/29/2009 7:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said... family and I sponsor a child at a school in Rwanda as well, but I never imagined the intensity of the genocide that occurred. I never imagined...

2/26/2010 4:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there. I am loving your blog! I spent a couple months in Rwanda this past Spring/Summer and I believe I went to the same site as the second one you described. If it's the same one, it is located in Ntarama, about 30 minutes outside of Kigali. Very sad stuff, and very hard to comprehend as an outsider.

12/18/2011 7:14 PM  
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