Friday, May 25, 2012

Remembering Rwanda

"If you must remember, remember this...the Nazis did not kill 6 million Jews...nor the Interahamwe kill a million Tutsis,  they killed one and then another, then another...genocide is not a single act of murder, it's millions of acts of murder."

-Stephen Smith, Executive Director of Aegis Trust, 2004

During the days preceding April 10, 1994, women and children crowded into the Nyamata Catholic Church, 35km south of Kigali. Since April 6, when Rwandan President Habyarimana's airplane went crashing down, hateful messages filled the radio waves encouraging Hutus to find and kill their Tutsi and moderate Hutu neighbors.  Rwandans listened carefully as lists of names were read, knowing that minutes after hearing their own, roves of armed militias would come hunting for them.

Families of Tutsis crammed inside Nyamata Church just as they had before during periods of ethnic violence. So many arrived this time, however, that the small church's capacity was overloaded. Two thousand women and children hid within the sanctuary, while several thousand more gathered on the grounds surrounding.

On April 8, the Italian priests at Nyamata were evacuated along with thousands of other foreign diplomats and expatriates throughout the country. Those within the church knew this made them more vulnerable to the chaos, but they imagined that as in years past, the angry mobs would fear committing acts of violence under the gaze of the crucifix.

As the days passed, Hutu militias became emboldened and hate overcame fear of God.

On Sunday, April 10, gunfire was heard in the streets surrounding the church. Mothers clung to their babies and tried to calm their young children. The armed men of the Interahamwe militia approached, carrying guns, machetes, and clubs, sending those gathered outside the church’s main sanctuary running in all directions. Within the church, women attempted to stay the iron doors as rapid gunfire surrounded them, but their efforts were useless against the grenades and jackhammers of the genocidaires.

Within hours, over 10,000 women, children, and civilian men lay dead within the sanctuary and on the grounds surrounding. The church is particularly noted for the extent of torture and sexual violence that accompanied many of the killings. Men who were known to have HIV were chosen to rape women, and others experienced long and torturous deaths chosen specifically for the protracted pain they would cause their victims.

I visited Nyamata on a quiet Sunday morning. As I toured the grounds of the memorial site, church bells rang nearby.

The church has remained largely untouched since the massacre 18 years ago. Inside the main sanctuary, the Virgin Mary looks down from her perch above the altar. Below her gaze, the bloodstained clothes of thousands of the massacre’s victims rest in heaps upon the sanctuary's floor. Bullet holes riddle the tin roof, and only shards remain of the church's stained glass windows.

A massacre of the most appalling kind occurred here, and was replicated in churches, homes, streets and hillsides around the country during the 100 days of Rwandan genocide.

At the Kigali Memorial Center, built on the grounds of a mass grave housing the remains of an astonishing 250,000 individuals, the Aegis Trust has done an impressive job of remembering the lives of the genocide's 800,000-1.1 million victims. In the children's exhibit, large photographs of children murdered during the genocide--some smashed against walls, others hacked by machetes in their mothers' arms--are accompanied by placards telling each child's favorite game, food, and personality characteristics. In the main exhibit, video testimonies of survivors accompany the historical information, giving disturbing and often harrowing accounts from some of the few Tutsis who escaped the unprecedented violence.

Genocide is a type of murder which does not discriminate between innocents and combatants, making equal victims of babies and adults. It’s an act of incredible violence and inhumanity which makes people, even years later, uncomfortable to imagine. We shudder at hearing how ruthlessly an infant—unaware of ethnic distinctions, religion, or politics--can lose its life, yet few times in history have international leaders shown the bravery necessary to save the lives of those caught in the middle of genocidal plots.Visiting the sites of massacre and mass violence in Rwanda made clear the true definition of genocide as the act of thousands upon thousands of individual murders. No matter how much study I could have done before, no one is prepared to witness some of the worst acts committed by humanity.

The mass grave on the grounds of the Kigali Memorial Center.

The Nyamata Church which now serves as a memorial place for the 10,000 victims murdered within the sanctuary and on the grounds surrounding.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Danielle. Thanks for the text. Not a warning, just a humble voice from a close friend: "Please be careful with the danger of a single story, as used to say the nigerian writer. Or the single side of 'the narrative'. When the poetic truth intertwines with the historical event, the political ideology, the exercise of memory (natural, blocked, manipulated, controlled etc), the uncanniness of History (cfr Ricoeur) etc... it is become easier to loose the road to peace. For good reasons. My deepest wish is to see one day 'Kids for Peace' gathering Hutu, Tutsi, Twa children. They don't know these deadly differences, they can learn to build the 'church' in the middle of the village, mourning the same loss and pledging to build a better future together. I am glad you are in Palestine, you may read 'history' from the margins, from the absent (Certeau). There are other narratives for truth, peace, and life. When are you coming back? We misssss you !!!!