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Rwanda: Nyamata Genocide Memorial

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Nyamata Genocide Memorial | Rwanda | Africa

[Visited: February 2013]

After having learnt a little about the genocide in the Kigali Memorial Centre in the morning, I decided to take a minivan to Nyamata. A 45 minute drive later, I walked the main street where people were living their daily lives, passed a soccer field where two teams were doing a warm-up for a match, greeted some old ladies under a tree, and laughed at a young man with a large woman on the back of his bike, cycling like crazy. All seemed well, yet, I was about to reach the former church of Nyamata, where a massacre took place in 1994. The gate was locked, but a Rwandan youngster silently came to open it, and I had to leave my bag outside. There was no guide, but my silent friend, who could only speak Kinyarwanda, accompanied me. Inside the church, there were wooden benches, just like they must have been when the church was still functional. However, the benches were all covered by piles of old, slowly decaying, clothes. The enormous amount of them, and the knowledge that they had all been worn by people who sought refuge in this place of worship, suddenly made the amount of people very palpable. It is thought that some ten thousand people flocked here before being murdered in cold blood. The church had been locked, and the attackers didn't even bother to open the door; they blasted a hole in the gate, threw in grenades, and once inside, committed their heinous crimes. There are many bullet holes in the wall, shrapnel of the grenades has blown small holes in the roof.

Picture of Nyamata Genocide Memorial (Rwanda): These are some of the skulls in the mass graves of the Genocide Memorial of Nyamata

My guide leads me down into a hole in the ground. White tiles give this new room a clinical appearance compared to the bullet and shrapnel ridden walls above. Inside, a triangular showcase in which I see bones and skulls - my guide points out how some skulls were sliced by a machete, while others were shot with a gun. Below, a coffin wrapped in a purple and white cloth. I later learnt that inside, there is a woman and her baby. The woman was raped repeatedly, and had a branch inserted into her genital area until it came out through her head - all the while, the baby was still clinging to her breasts. It is just one horror story of the many from that brutal period. Upstairs, I am again impressed by the amount of clothes, but also by the density of the air, as if the atrocious acts committed here still haunt the place. At the same time, I hear birds outside, unaware of the gravity of this place. I follow my guide, who takes me outside, to the grave of Tonia Locatelli. An Italian nun who foresaw the genocide, warned the international press, prevented an early massacre in 1992, and was subsequently killed because she was an obstacle to the outrageous plans of some leaders. She turned into a heroine, also because other clerics throughout the country actually often helped the Interahanwe death squads to carry out their mass killings.

Picture of Nyamata Genocide Memorial (Rwanda): A former house of worship: the clothes of those slaughtered inside this church are piled up on the benches

Behind the small church, is a covered area with mass graves. Going down the steps, we arrived in damp underground cellars, with racks filled with coffins behind purple and white curtains with crosses on them. My guide opens some of them: they turn out to be filled with bones, often of one family. Then, we come to racks where upper parts of skulls lie neatly organized. It is a gruesome sight, especially the ones higher up: in the semi-darkness, you can see teeth sticking out. Rack upon rack of skulls, and in some, there are just piles of bones. I felt a certain tranquillity in this place, as if those unfortunate people have found peace after the brutal end of their lives. We slowly walk back to the entrance, and after adding comments to the visitor book, I leaf through the pages, curious about the comments others left. While doing so, the guide shows up, a bright lady in a colourful dress. She finally tells me the stories my guide already told me in his own language, giving me details of the stench inside the church after the massacre, the blood that covered the walls and floor, the way the church was attacked, and how it was decided to turn it into a memorial for the genocide. So far, I have been listening and looking, appalled by what I see, but now, I feel a deep sadness coming up inside of me. I ask her if she is from this town, and after her confirmation, ask her if her family had also been hiding in this church. It turns out she lost part of her family here. While listening to her calm voice, explaining me about the events of 1994, telling me how her relatives perished in this hell-inside-the-church, I feel tears running down my face. Now, suddenly, because of her friendly appearance, her soft voice, her patience with my ignorant questions, the story of the Nyamata church starts to live, and I am overwhelmed by emotions. She opens a drawer and puts toilet paper on her desk; I am surely not the first one to cry here, and I won't be the last. When I don't know what to say or where to look anymore, I thank her, and leave, with a heavy heart. I walk back to the bus station, the football match is underway, and life goes on in Rwanda. But how, I wonder, must the genocide still affect the lives of people here?

Picture of Nyamata Genocide Memorial (Rwanda): Pyramidical glass showcase with skulls and bones of those murdered inside the church
Picture of Nyamata Genocide Memorial (Rwanda): Cellar holding the remains of thousands of people in the Genocide Memorial in Nyamata
Picture of Nyamata Genocide Memorial (Rwanda): Cellar with coffins and bones behind white and purple curtains
Picture of Nyamata Genocide Memorial (Rwanda): Tonia Locatelli, a local heroine, is buried in this grave beside the church wall
Picture of Nyamata Genocide Memorial (Rwanda): Covered mass graves are part of the Genocide Memorial of Nyamata
Picture of Nyamata Genocide Memorial (Rwanda): Rear view of the former church of Nyamata where around ten thousand people were murdered
Picture of Nyamata Genocide Memorial (Rwanda): Slogans against genocide on the fence around the Genocide Memorial in Nyamata

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