On Sunday July 25, we made a trip to Nyarubuye on our way back to Kigali, after enjoying a weekend at the Akagera Game Park.
Nyarubuye is the site of one of the biggest massacres during the genocide, which is a strange thing to say because most of the massacres were huge. It is, in many ways, very difficult to imagine the horror of the killing of twenty five hundred or five thousand individuals who were murdered at Nyamata and Ntarama. At Nyarubuye, about twenty thousand people were murdered in and around the church in this town.
Rwanda is not a large country: it is only about four times larger than Prince Edward Island, but it had about eighty times the population of PEI. Nonetheless, despite Rwanda's small size, the reality of its mountainous terrain means that almost every place in the country seems out-of-the-way. Nyarubuye is only about 100 km from Kigali, but the twisting and turning mountain roads made it seem like an eternity away. Tucked away down bumpy dirt roads, this small town had a huge church that included a convent and a school. It was a church hub of sorts, and people would come from all around for services and for school, and there were always a lot of nuns coming and going.
If I might digress for a moment, I should point out that in a genocide, the genocidaires, or killers, must congregate the victim group in one location, in order to make the killing efficient, if you will forgive the use of that word. This is the reason why Jews were transported by train to the killing centres during the Holocaust, and why Cambodians were sent to the camps in the interior to be killed. The same with the Armenians: the Turks rounded them up in towns and then killed the men and village leaders, and then walked the women, children and elderly to death.
In Rwanda many of the victims flocked to the churches on their own, and many were told to go to the churches (by the local Hutu leaders) for safety. In this way, people were congregated in churches making these enormous massacres possible. This is not to be construed as making the massacres the victims' fault.
Now back to the church. This is a genocide site that has always been of interest to me. I first came across Nyarubuye in the documentaries "Shake Hands with the Devil", "Triage", and "Ghosts of Rwanda". Fergal Keane, an Irish writer who works for the BBC, wrote eloquently of Nyarubuye in his book "Season of Blood" which is an excellent book, if upsetting, and which I urge everyone to read. I was especially interested in this church because of one child survivor, Valentina Iribagiza. Young Valentina was one of only a handful of people who survived the massacre at Nyarubuye. She was only about ten years old, and she was gravely injured in the massacre. She was hit in the head with a machete. When she put her hands up to her head in a defensive posture, she lost the tips of the fingers on her hand when her would-be killer struck her. She fell and then bodies fell on top of her, and the Hutu thought she was dead, and then they left the church. Valentina lived in the church among the dead for about forty days, too terrified to come out of her hiding spot. She ate no food and had very little water, only what she could find in the church. Eventually she was found by aid workers. When she was eventually found, she was little more than skin and bones. You can see pictures of her when she was found on Frontline's Ghosts of Rwanda page. It was the testimony of Valentina and the other few survivors that identified the former bourgmeister of the town, Sylvestre Gacumbitsi, as an instigator and participant in the killing. This man is still alive. He was living for some while in a refugee camp in Tanzania, but he has had his trial for crimes of genocide. He is now serving life in prison.
This may sound strange, but when we drove up the road, when the church finally came into view, I almost felt like I was coming to a place that I already knew. There was the red brick church. There was the statue of a welcoming Christ above the door. But instead of bodies strewn around, the church yard was deserted except for the heavily-armed guards that were present at all of the genocide memorials that we visited. In case you are wondering why an armed guard would be required at an out-of-the-way genocide memorial, it is because it is generally believed that should another genocidal crisis occur in this country, the memorial sites would be one of the first things to be destroyed. They sit as reminders of the horrors that this country witnessed. There are those who wish to deny that history: destroying evidence of genocide would be a good start. There have been at least two grenade attacks on the memorial in Kigali.
The church building itself is quite beautiful, in a simple kind of way. But it is still a church: the local bishop refused to give permission to have the church itself turned into a memorial. Instead the former school and convent areas are the memorial. The church is still used on Sundays. I image that it was too big of a church to give over to a memorial. It was significantly larger than Nyamata and Ntarama. And more people were killed here too.
A guide gave us a tour of the memorial. He explained what happened at this site, and then he took us through the rooms of the memorial, which was housed in the former convent part of the church. We saw mounds of people's belongings, the regular household implements (adzes, hoes, machetes, piping, etc) that were used to kill people and which had been left behind in the church. There was a collection of sticks that had been used to rape and kill women, and which had been removed from the bodies of dead women. We saw banana beer aging vats that had been used as implements of torture. Our guide spoke to us of reported canabalism at this site. Survivors say they saw some of the killers drinking the blood and eating the flesh of the victims.
And we saw skulls. There was a room filled with display cases containing skulls: skulls with machete slices, skulls with holes, skulls with the sides smashed in, skulls of children. It leaves the viewer breathless in an I-can't-believe-I-am-seeing-this sort of way. It is overwhelming, not just mentally, but physically as well. I felt physically exhausted, as though I had run a long distance, and there was nowhere to sit down. I also felt an overwhelming sense of anger.
A statue of Christ, in the same room as the skulls, had been violated in the same way that the people were: its head was cut off, as were the arms and legs. Statues of Christ and Our Lady were frequent casualties in churches during the genocide. It is said that Tutsis had the more slender noses and longer fingers that these statues have, so the faces and the hands of these statues would be hacked off. I should also mention that the statue of Christ above the door to the church had also been shot. It remains in place, missing one hand, which was shot off.
The guide showed us the cloister area of the convent, where many people died. The kitchens are here, and that is where the discussion of canabalism came up. Also the latrines are here, or were here. The former latrines have had their doors removed, and have sturdy covers robustly fixed over the holes so that no-one is able to use them as a toilet (new toilets were built at the back of the church complex after the genocide). It is feared that there are dead in the latrines, as that was a favoured way of disposing of children; throwing them alive down into a sewage pit. Later on, the guide told us, when there is more money to continue exploring this site, the latrines will be dug up.
Finally, the guide took us to the site of the mass memorial graves. They are perched on the side of the mountain, overlooking beautiful valleys filled with banana plantations. The mass memorial graves are divided into two parts: those individuals whose identities are known are on one side, and those who are unknown are on another. The unknown persons' side is larger, given that people came from all around the area to find safety in the church.
A group of curious local children had come out, shyly, to watch us as we walked through the memorial site. Some people on our trip had a few soccer balls so they gave them out. Linda and I brought lollies so we gave them to one of the genocide guides, and she had the children line up in an orderly fashion and she handed them out.
The drive out of Nyarubuye was a little strange: this is a group of teachers. Teachers are highly verbal: they talk a lot. Some would say they talk too much. Usually our bus was very noisy with the sound of twenty teachers talking. The bus was silent as we drove away from the church at Nyarubuye.