Friday I visited the genocide memorial sites of Nyamata and Ntarama, two of the more horrifying massacres in Rwanda.
The district of Nyamata is located about 30km south of Kigali. It’s an easy bus ride to Nyamata centre, which feels a little like the “wild west” of Rwanda with its dusty roads and single main-street, lacking only a single tumbleweed rolling across the road.
Before the genocide, Tutsis were relocated to Nyamata by the Hutu government in an effort to concentrate the population. In 1994, before the massacre began, it is estimated that more than 70,000 of Nyamata’s 120,000 residents were Tutsi. In April of 1994, 15,000 Tutsis were murdered in and around the Nyamata church, and between April and July, all but 2,000 Tutsi community members were killed.
The church has become one of Rwanda’s most moving memorial sites. The interior of the church holds the clothes of the victims, spread out over benches and the ground, from corner to corner of the building. Many of the bones are kept in an underground chamber in the sanctuary. The altar cloth is still bloodstained, brown now with age, and the walls and offering table are riddled with bullet holes. When I walked into the church I was most struck by the roof, which is full of little holes made by bullets and the explosions from grenades thrown into the church by the interahamwe. The effect, however, is disarmingly beautiful—the little holes look like stars, as if the thousands of bodies represented by their clothing are lying peacefully beneath a starry sky.
Outside of the church are mass graves holding an estimated 25,000 individuals. Two underground chambers have been built there, into which visitors can descend and stand 10 feet underground between dozens of coffins and bones. Standing underground next to hundreds of victims, one is not only surrounded by the enormity of the crime committed there, but the heaviness and stillness of death.
We then took motos about 10km down the road to the Ntarama church, in which 5,000 Tutsis took cover for three days before the interahamwe arrived. Only 10 people survived the slaughter at Ntarama. The Tutsis who took refuge in the church did not know how long they would need to hide there, and thus some brought mattresses, food, books, cooking supplies, and other personal items. On the third day, the interahamwe knocked a hole in the corner of the church and began throwing grenades into the sanctuary. Those that fled were killed outside, those that remained were slowly murdered inside—the genocidaires came back every day until the “work” was done. The church today has been cleared, but the clothes of the victims hang on the walls and from the rafters, and their personal items are kept at the altar. There are piles of shoes, a bag of beans, plates and cups, childrens’ school books, jewelry, identity cards, bloodstained mattresses and other little things making the victims of Ntarama entirely real, still, fourteen years later. Ntarama is surrounded by trees and is an impressively silent place.
I was struck by my own feelings about the day’s visits. Both sites, but especially Nyamata, felt disturbingly ‘normal.’ When you walk to the Nyamata church, you pass through and neighborhood and into a still functioning church compound. The only building in which daily life is not taking place is the memorial church. When I stood outside next to the mass graves, there were people walking down the road to work, children coming home from school, people laughing, and life going on as usual. To stand at the place where 15,000 people died and watch women carry their bananas to market felt surreal—a startling combination of irreverent and appropriate at the same moment.
I wondered if studying Rwanda’s history academically for so long made me feel less overwhelmed or shocked. As we talk so often of its scale and unimaginable horror, does it become a little more imaginable however superficial that imagining may be?
In spite of all that, by the end of the day, the weight of the visits was quite heavy. Meeting Rwanda where the genocide and life today come together is an eye-opening but difficult experience.