DAY 7: Nyamata, Ntarama, Gisozi


Purple bunting waves in the wind as I walk through the grounds of the Nyamata genocide memorial. As I look into the church, I can hear children playing nearby. I see piles of clothes along the church pews, taking the place of the thousands of people who once wore these shirts, socks and trousers. On 15 April, 1994, almost every one of the 11000 people seeking refuge in the Nyamata church were massacred after the interahamwe militia used grenades to blast their way through the heavy metal doors. Bullet holes send light through the corrugated tin roof and punctuate the red-brick walls. The floor is damaged from the grenade explosions. This is the Nymata genocide memorial, and inside are more clothes that I could ever have imagined. Light filters through the doors and windows but the room is dim. The clothes, once worn by the men, women, and children who hoped to find safety in the church, have taken on the rich ochre tones of Rwanda’s soil. Watching over the endless rows of clothing is a statue of the Virgin Mary, praying. I walk slowly down the stairs into a bright, white room and find myself face-to-face with the grim reality of genocide. The skulls and bones of Nyamata’s victims sit high above a white, silk covered coffin. This is the final resting place of a woman who was brutally raped and who now represents the many thousand women and children who suffered a similar fate. As I walk away from the church I glance back through the broken doors. There is a silence and emptiness here, the life still present in each piece of cloth providing a physical reminder of the void left by genocide, urging you to remember those who never left Nyamata.

Bunting waves in the wind at Ntarama. It is grey, the new colour of mourning, and the colour of the ash that Rwandan’s traditionally smeared on themselves in remembrance of their loved ones. The yellow and white wings of small butterflies flutter through the trees between the old church and the outer buildings. I like the way they float through the air, light and free. If only the clothes in the church could hang that way. Instead, they are caked with dust and dirt, hanging literally from floor to ceiling. I breathe in the scent of musty fabric and damp wood. I try, but I cannot imagine the stench that must have filled the small chapel only 19 years ago. It is dark, and I walk slowly along the pews. I take in the colour and texture of the fabric, dulled by dirt and heavy with history. I turn to the remains on display. The skulls of the children who had their lives taken so early remind me that every Tutsi was to be killed, without mercy and without exception. The bodies of more than 6000 men, woman, children and infants remain here, interned in silk covered coffins or arranged in neat rows in the church. Looking out over the memorial garden, past the bright purple flowers, I see Rwanda’s famous hills and am reminded that every field, every river, and every hill have their own stories to tell, stories of violence, but also of survival. 


Driving from Kigali to the 1994 Genocide Memorial Site in Bugesera, one could not help but marvel on the beauty of Rwanda. The wonderful valley, fresh green fields and friendly people wandering through the streets were, in my opinion, a representation of a new Rwanda, a country that had risen from the dead in just two decades. During the 1990s, Rwanda had been characterised by a mass of decomposing bodies of thousands of victims. Some of those victims had suffered extreme violence at the hands of the perpetrators at a church which we were visiting in Bugesera. As we approached the church, I was suddenly engulfed by sorrow as I remembered the victims, both young and old who had died there. The church, which had been built in 1980, had served as sanctuary for Tutsi’s during previous persecutions that had occurred prior to 1994. When the genocide began in 1994, Tutsi’s had fled to this church, hoping that since they had been saved before, the same would be done again.

To my dismay, I learnt that all Europeans in the area were evacuated and 2 days after the evacuations the killing of the Tutsis began. Many men, women and children were slaughtered indiscriminately inside the church. Of the 11,000 people who were hiding in the church, very few survived to re-tell the story. What made me sad the most was the fact that the international community did nothing to save these people. One survivor argued that the same number of soldiers sent to evacuate the Europeans could have been enough to help stop the genocide. Instead of deploying more troops as requested, the number of troops in the country was reduced. By the time a decision was made to take some form of action, it was way too late as close to a million people had died all over the country. The international community was accused by former General Secretary Kofi Anna of the United Nations as ‘guilty of sins of omission.’ They had ignored the genocide in the country, labelling it as another barbaric ethnic related war in Africa.

Nineteen years ago, Rwanda could have been described as a dead, failed state but today, the country and its people still thrive. The country has developed its infrastructure, has welcomed plenty of investments, maintained peace and today is considered one of the safest countries in the continent. President Kagame surely has worked out a miracle in this country because it all somehow seems too good to be true. To say Rwandan’s have healed from the trauma of the genocide would be an overstatement. As one survivor stated, ‘It is impossible to forget the past, it is also extremely painful to remember’. It is sad that some families were totally wiped out, others the only survivors and for most; they do not know the fate of the loved ones and never got the chance to bury them. Through Gacaca courts, the government is helping its people put the past behind and to achieve some form of reconciliation between the victims and the perpetrators. The success of these efforts is subject to debate but it is my hope that in time, the wounds will heal and the country will be reconciled completely. 


Sombreness filled the air as I stood in front of the uneven brickwork.  I peered into the cracks to find the clothing of thousands. The feeling of ambivalence took over as reality peered back.  My imagination distracted me for just a moment until I stepped inside the spiritual sanctuary. Ironically this was everything but a sanctuary. I asked myself what religion means to me. Is it an opportunity to stand up? Does it force me to stay seated? As of this moment I was caught between a rock and a hard place. I listened carefully for any opportunity to be distracted but I couldn’t help but become frustrated at the overt sense of memory politicisation. From the exhibition of skulls, the obvious clash of cultures came to the forefront. Nameless skeletons cluttered the crypt as the ability to escape history disappeared completely. What is Kagame thinking? The use of memory as a political platform boggles the mind but in this context makes too much sense. The overbearing pressure to remember by the government draws a correlation between Kagame and the Churches’ unwillingness to acknowledge their involvement. I looked around to find others processing the distinct exhibition.

Before long I was on the bus again: this time with more questions than answers. As the roads weaved around the ‘land of a thousand hills’ I used this time to reflect.

The time came to view the next site: yet another demonstration of humanity’s inability to triumph over evil? Where was God’s hand in this? Is it even there at all? I guess these questions would have been in the minds of those that were taken too soon, as well as those that were left to pick up the pieces. What Rwanda has become is hard to describe. A country that has moved forward? Or a country not allowed to forget? The sites themselves did not differ greatly. Similar to that of a broken record, the political rhetoric oozed out of everything. The complex nature of post-genocide Rwanda often reveals more questions than answers. However, blurred lines tarnish the ability to acknowledge much else aside from the utilisation of memory as a political platform. However what is known is that this opinion will stand-alone until the ‘iron fist’ removes its destructive imprint. 


The old adage of ‘history is written by the victor’ holds fast here in Rwanda. At the Nyamata and Ntarama memorial sites – both of which were functioning churches before being turned into a holding pen for Tutsis to be killed by Hutus – a single unified narrative is presented by the guides. The Tutsi were relocated there over a period of many years in an intentional act by the Hutu government as a prelude to their ultimate destruction in 1994. The locations were selected because of the chance that natural elements, namely disease or wild animals, might thin out the group, and according to the guides, this did indeed happen. But in the early 1990’s, things took a turn for the worst. Violence in 1992 served as an overture for what was to occur in ’94, with the consequent violence resulting in the death of up to a million Tutsis.

Both memorial sites, as well as the Kigali Memorial Centre, clearly define the events of 1994 into a clear and unambiguous narrative in which the Tutsis were the victim of a cruel and inhumane genocide. An overt expression of unparalleled brutality that was the rupture point of a building pattern of tension and animosity dating back to German and Dutch colonisation in the region. There are numerous sign posts along the way that point towards what will inevitably come to pass: the codification and racialisation of a primarily socially based class structure; the introduction by the Dutch of identity cards as a way of easily telling Hutu from Tutsi; the switching of allegiance by the Dutch from Tutsi to Hutu as political rulers; the ending of Dutch colonialism and the ensuing violence and the ever growing Hutu Power propaganda machine, which initiated, spread and reinforced the ethos of violence and dehumanization.

The history that is being written by President Kagame however, like all victors histories, is incomplete. It neglects almost entirely the dark side of his Rwandan Patriotic Front rebels victory. Thousands of Hutu were slain by the RPF as it advanced southward through the country, including in massacres and summary executions of non-combatants. According to Human Rights Watch, little is documented about these acts because as the RPF consolidated power it was ‘remarkably successful in restricting access to foreigners to certain parts of the country.’ TheRPFs cross border killings in camps in the DRC also see little acknowledgement, though it has resulted in a United Nations document heavily critical of the actions of the now-government.

Kagame appears intent on transcending simply a victors history in his monopolisation of post-genocide history. Prior to elections in 2010, opposition leaders and critical journalists were targeted. Rwandan Greens party vice-president Andre Rwisereka was beheaded near Butare and journalist Jean Rugambage was assassinated in Kigali. Leading opposition figures were also jailed, including Bernard Ntaganda, founder of Social Party Inberakuri who was jailed for four years for participating in demonstations against Kagame and United Demoratic Forces leader Victoire Ingabire who was sentenced to eight years in prison for ‘genocide denial’ for pressing for investigations into the deaths of Hutus during the events of 1994. These events and others similar resulted in Kagame running unopposed in the 2010 election, and maintained his ability to dictate and control the telling of history in Rwanda.


Once we arrived at Ntarama in Bugesera the group was in a sombre mood for our entry to our second memorial site after already confronting the horror of Nyamata. The demure structure of this unimposing church made it hard to believe that these grounds had once been the refuge of 5000 people that were violently killed by their neighbours and friends. From the narrative told to us this place had been a bastion of faith for the Tutsi community in times of crisis leading up to the genocide in 1959, 1990 and finally in 1994.

 The church itself was rectangular and seemed like it could hold little over 100 people even for a regular mass. It still bore the scars of the interahamwe who used hammers and grenades to blast holes in windows and doors. The massacre must have been horrific in such claustrophobic conditions as people piled on top of one another in fear. Later at the Kigali Memorial Museum I found a photo taken in the aftermath of the Ntarama massacre, showing the sadistic nature of the killings juxtaposed to the sacrosanct space within the house of God. The entrance of the memorial has signs only in shades of white and grey to represent death in the colour of ash and hope, symbolised in the white writing. Yet the area around the church seemed to apprehend hope when entering, what had once been a place of worship was now a tomb dedicated to the memory of death.

 The support beams were burdened with the clothes of the victims hanging like willows, while the skulls of the victims were displayed at the entrance relentlessly gazing across the coffins on the floor to the opposite end of the church which held the words “Iyo umenya naweukimenya ntuba waranyishe” on a purple banner. Our guide Stanley translated this to “If you knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me”, a quote that truly captured the loss of morality during the genocide and which also resonated with my own beliefs. Empathy, I believe, is the greatest of human emotions. At a basic level it is understanding that our actions have consequences on others and we can try to understand how those actions would affect ourselves if we were put in the same position. At a higher level empathy is knowing our own individuality while celebrating the unique qualities of others, including their dreams, aspirations and emotions as human beings of the same world. These words created a deep sorrow in me, to think that during the massacre at Ntarama the Hutu had seen these differences as something vile, something to be eradicated rather than celebrated. The distinctions they created with propaganda and defamation through the government made the Hutu community forget that the Tutsi were people like themselves of the same land who breathed the same air and shared the same dream to prosper and live in peace in the same country.  The personal tone of the message speaks out to the frenzied mob outside the church in its clear and calm words, who lost sight of their own humanity through their actions.