July 20th 2013
Today we visited the Nyamata and Ntarama genocide memorials. These memorials are distinctly different from the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum. Both buildings lay off of dirt roads and are sites of massacres that have been kept intact since 1994. Both of these memorials are former Catholic churches where people flocked for refuge during the genocide.
The church at Nyamata has clothes of the 10,000 victims, killed on that site alone, laid out on the pews, the ledges, and all around the alter. The rear wall of the church is dedicated to the children who were killed there with particular cruelty, being smashed against the wall. As you enter the church, you step over a large break in the foundation from grenades that were thrown to break into the church. The ceiling is still riddled with bullet holes. On the alter lies a machete and a small collection of rosary beads. Underneath the church there is a crypt where skulls and bones of some of the victims are arranged, and there is a coffin encased in glass. This coffin is dedicated to the women who were tortured before being killed and contains the remains of one woman who was repeatedly raped before being murdered. In the churchyard there are now two other underground crypts where skulls and bones of the victims are held on wooden shelves. There are 41,000 people buried at the church in Nyamata.
The church at Ntarama is smaller than Nyamata. The clothes of the victims are hung on the walls and rafters of the church. The bones of many of the victims are laid on wooden shelves as you enter the church. Collected personal affects that the victims brought with them are held on shelves on the other side of the church. There is a banner draped over the alter with a Kinyarwandan phrase that translates to English, “If you knew me and knew yourself, you couldn’t kill me.” There is a Sunday school building behind the main churched dedicated to the children murdered there, like the wall at Nyamata. At Ntarama 5,000 people seeking refuge in the church were killed. The holes that the grenades put in the building have been left open.
The reality of the horror of the genocide struck me in a completely new way visiting these memorials. It is mind boggling to imagine 10,000 people trying to fit into the church at Nyamata. It is not a large building: it would probably only comfortably hold a congregation of a few hundred. Yet in terror, thousands of people flooded the church grounds looking for safety. There are not enough tears in the world to wash away the horror of what happened at these places.
Yet, even as we left the memorials we entered streets that were teaming with life. We passed two weddings on our way back to Kigali. I have always wondered at how in places where there has been so much death, life can still remain. The grass continues to grow, the flowers bloom, the rain falls and the world keeps turning. It seems to me that after a tragedy of such magnitude the whole world should stop and cry out in mourning. But the world does not stop, and people keep moving. It may become a drop in the bucket if we let it. Rwanda is committed to not letting this atrocity go unseen or unconsidered. It begs the world to look and remember what happened here, and not let it happen again.
In his book, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families, Philip Gourevitch considers that Rwanda seems an impossible country; one where neighbor turned on neighbor, and now killer lives beside survivor. However, I am coming to believe that Rwanda is no more impossible than our very humanity. Memorials to the genocide are scattered throughout the country as reminders, and on the drive to see them you may see small children trying to race the van with eager excitement. In Rwanda I have seen the present-ness and immediacy of both life and death made plain for all to see. The possibility of violence lurks on the doorstep while families rejoice over a new marriage. Though it is sometimes easy to ignore, we all live in this tension everyday, capable of both immense love and violent hate.
About three weeks ago, when Barrack Obama visited the University of Cape Town in South Africa, he gave a speech about Nelson Mandela’s legacy. In this speech he talked about how he wants to foster the talents and ability’s of Africa’s youth, because the world will be in their hands. If you could have been at KIE these past two weeks and met the students we have been working with, you could see how, even after visiting sites commemorated to atrocity, I am filled with hope for Rwanda. These young people are bright, motivated, passionate and eager to build a brighter future.
As we have said farewell to the students and the faculty at KIE there have been tears and hugs of parting. In a great many of the goodbyes the students have begged that we remember them and tell our friends back home about them and their country. As Rwanda asks the world to look and remember the genocide here, the young people beg us to look and see that they are so much more. The future is indeed in their hands, and these students are the future of their country. So please, look at Rwanda and remember what happened here; but look also at the young people and the future being built.