We visited Kigali, Rwanda at the beginning of our trip as we give support to the nearby community of Muhanga.
Kigali was the epicentre of the 1994 genocide, which saw the slaughter of up to a million men, women and children over the span of 100 days. Further details can be found at here at the United Human Rights Council website. In short it was the genocidal mass slaughter of the Rwandan Tutsis by the Rwandan Hutus.
Rwanda has over 200 official genocide memorial sites but we were very aware that thousands of bodies would have been laying on and around the paths and roads that we travelled each day. I had read the books and watched the movies and documentaries about the Rwandan genocide, and a group of us were fortunate enough to see Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire speak in Kelowna, B.C. a few years ago, but it is impossible to be fully prepared to see the realities and aftermath of such an event.
Kigali Memorial Centre
There are eleven mass graves in the grounds, eight of which were filled in the months after the genocide before the memorial centre was built. The final three mass graves were built afterwards, and during the 100 days of Remembrance in 2004, many people took the opportunity to bury their loved ones at the site. 250,000, around a quarter of the victims are buried here. The crypts are three meters deep and are filled floor to ceiling with coffins, some of which hold the scant remains of up to 50 people.
As perpetrators confess to their crimes the whereabouts of bodies are still being revealed (swamps, toilet pits) so more graves will be built.
Inside the centre visitors learn about the build up to the genocide, including the multiple 'practise runs' and the shocking failure of the international community to intervene. The killings are also documented with harrowing photographs and descriptions. Survivors tell their stories on video - relating how their brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers or children were killed. Many of the survivors were mutilated or victims of rape.
There is a room with glass cases holding skulls and bones and another displaying the clothes the victims were wearing when they died and the blood stained possessions they were carrying.
The Children's Room was distressing to view, there are treasured family photographs of cute children from 2 months to around ten years old with notices giving their names and the names of their best friends, their favourite foods, toys and activities, what they wanted to be when they grew up - followed by a description of their violent manner of death.
The images and descriptions are graphic and harrowing - and rightly so.
The haunting beauty of the large stained-glass Windows of Hope depicting the genocide and a stairway out of it, the circle of carved wooden figures representing people before, during and after the genocide and the pretty Rose Garden add poignancy and emphasise the overall theme of the centre - hope for the future. And the hope that visitors will bear witness and help to ensure that the world will never again stand by and allow such events to take place.
It was strange to go back outside into the well kept gardens and grounds and look out at the beautiful hills of Rwanda and try and reconcile them with the atrocities that took place here.
Through Brenda's (One Person President and co-founder) numerous visits to Rwanda we have friends in and around Kigali and one of these, Franklin, took us to visit a memorial site in his home town of Nyamata. During the atrocities many people fled to churches for safety but this only made it easier for the perpetrators to slaughter the victims en masse. Inside, you can see the bullet holes and blood stains on the walls and roof and a tide mark of blood on the altar cloth. Over 4 days 10,000 people were killed in and around the church.
Throughout the genocide many women were raped and/or sexually mutilated. Rape is a tool of war. It is designed to terrorise a population, break up families, destroy communities, prevent the births of an ethnic group and to spread HIV/AIDS. Nyamata church has become emblamatic of the use of sexual brutalisation against women in the genocide.
Franklin showed us the church and took us into the basement which is lined with skulls, many bearing the now familiar gash from a machete. Back outside in the grounds we stepped down into a catacomb containing more skulls and bones, including the remains of some of Franklin's family.
As in the Kigali Memorial the graves and building are draped with the mourning colours of purple and white and there is a banner, which translated reads, “If you really knew me, and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.”
Murambi Technical School Memorial Site
We drove for miles along a deeply rutted red earth road to reach the next Memorial site, which sits on the ridge of a high hill. Again the lush banana and eucalyptus trees and the astounding views contrasted starkly with the physical evidence of the atrocities carried out by neighbour against neighbour.
Many thousands of Tutsis were lured to the 'safety' of the Murambi Technical School by the authorities and then slaughtered. After the massacre bulldozers dug out mass graves where the bodies were disposed of without ceremony or prayer. The unfinished school later became barracks for French soldiers.
This memorial also documents the cycle of anti-Tutsi violence and discrimination and gave a frightening account of how the genocide was planned and carried out by the authorities. In counterbalance there are the personal stories of the people who risked death and endured injury to save lives at the Murambi killing site.
The guide (as at the other sites, the guides are genocide survivors) then led us to a barrack that had tables filled, not with bones, but with bodies that had been exhumed and had undergone natural mummification from the heat of decomposition in the soil. The bodies had then been preserved with lime, and on the twisted white coated bodies you could see tufts of hair, fingernails and their facial expressions. The bodies were piled on top of each other, men women and children. The smell of the white lime stays with me still.
And the next room was filled with bodies and the next, block after block of mummified men, women and children. A mother with a child in her arms. A couple embracing. A woman with her arms held up in protection with the lower limb of one arm hacked off.
The people of Rwanda are working on justice and recovery, peace and reconciliation, and reminding the world of the worse-case-scenario so that it will not happen again.
Although it has. The on-going conflict in Darfur, Sudan was declared a genocide by United States Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2004