27th November, 2002 // Other
Week 11 - Nyamata church (massacre site)
Picture this: you are the mother of five children, ages two, four, five, seven, and nine. You had to flee your house because you heard that all the Tutsi’s houses were being burnt down, and the Hutus were killing all the Tutsis. Your husband finds out that many people have taken refuge in a church about five miles away from your home. So, you flee with your family in the middle of the night so that you are not seen. You get to the church, and the father welcomes you. He says you are safe there. So, you make your way into the church, except there are already 2,000 people there, from all over your commune. There’s not even room to stand. You have to hold your two year old in your arms for days, and your children are crying because they are hungry and tired and there is no where for them to lie down. The water is shut off, and you have nothing to drink. You have nothing to eat except for some porridge shared with 10 other people in the church and only once every few days. Your children have to defecate in their clothes because there is not enough room for them to move, much less wander to find a restroom. Then, you notice that the father of the church is speaking to some men in military uniforms. The father tells you all to come out of the building. The men come out of the building, but you and the other women and children stay inside. Then, you start hearing shots. The men are being shot. Then, there are explosions around you. You hear wails of pain and of mourning. People are running around frantically outside, some with gun shot wounds. Others have machete wounds that have left them without an arm or a leg. Then, the soldiers start throwing grenades into the church to get the rest of the people out. You stay still because you figure that you are safe in a group. People are dying all around you. The soldiers come in firing guns. Your nine year old gets shot and dies in your arms. After hours of this, nearly everyone in the building is dead or dying. There are piles of bodies everywhere and the blood is like a river on the floor. The soldiers leave, but then the interahamwe (civilian killing squads; literally translated, “those who work together”) come in to finish the rest off. The interahamwe have machetes and clubs with nails on the end. They are hacking people into pieces. You are knocked unconscious with the swipe of a machete to the head. You come through; you are amid a pile of bodies. You are wounded and can’t move. You fall in and out of consciousness until 3 days later when you finally come to and figure out a way to crawl out of the church. Your entire family is dead.
This is the story of many Rwandans who survived the genocide. But, many people did not, and their remains are left to tell the stories that they cannot. I went to several of these places. One of these massacre sites is Nyamata about a half hour to forty-five minutes outside Kigali ville. You walk up to this little brick church in the middle of the woods on the hills of Rwanda, and the first thing you see is a large cross over the opening of the door. The next thing you see is a 3 feet high sack full of skulls. Next to it is a sack of leg bones. You proceed to enter the church. There are about 20 simple wooden bench pews on each side of the church, separated by about 2 feet. At the front of the church is an alter with a skull haphazardly left there. The windows have been blasted through by grenades, and the sun gently streams into the church to show you the remains of about 2,000 people whose bones are strewn across the ground of the church.
What struck me about the remains was that they were not in the least bit in tact. I could not figure out how they had been demolished to this extent. They didn’t even resemble human skeletons. Here was a jawbone, and there was an arm bone. Here was a hipbone, and there was a foot bone. I wandered up closer to the front of the church, watching my step as I timidly tip-toed from the top of one pew to the next. Then, surrounded by bones and human articles, I saw a tiny jawbone, the jawbone of a small child. Under the spread arms of Jesus on a crucifix affixed to the wall, I looked up and just cried, with bitter tears and a vague pleading of “why?” Finding no answer, I turned back, and my journey through the wreckage became more and more difficult to reconcile.
It was not the bones that hit the hardest. It was the other things. It was the woman’s knitting needles in mid-knit, with the faded blue yarn still wrapped around in the hooks; it was the corner of a letter that someone had read and kept near them in their most desperate hour; it was the books of children’s biblical songs; and it was a round pink pocket comb that delicately held a few remnant blackish hairs. It was a tin for porridge, it was a child’s shoe pinned under an adult leg bone. It was all these things that reminded me that the bones I saw here used to be people, and that when they were mercilessly and cruelly killed purely because they existed, they were just being people. They were doing what people do. It was the evidence of their humanity that affected me the most as I groped for the open door and back out into the sunny spring afternoon.
The other thing that hit me so intensely was the circumstances of their refuge and betrayal. These people had fled to the church under the assumption that they would be protected. Yet, many of the “men of God” betrayed them in their direst hour of need. I don’t know the details of this church in particular, but in many of the parishes, the fathers or ministers actually colluded with the militia to trick the people into coming into the church and then turned them over to be killed. In one case, the father carried a gun and even participated in the killings himself. Two nuns were even convicted for murders during the genocide. The extent of the betrayal and acts of despicable cruelty run deep throughout the story of the Rwandan genocide, and I felt the sickness and nausea of this as I left the massacre site.
I must have been green because one of the men I had traveled with came to give me a hand. We went back out to the car, and some local children ran up to us. At first, all I could must was a half-hearted smile, but they wanted to play. Soon I found myself giggling with the children and giving them high-fives. This brought me to a new thinking. About the genocide, it was senseless. It was horrific. It is beyond words. But, children are still playing on the streets of Rwanda, and we must make sense of it for their sakes. And, Rwanda did not die in the genocide. There is a future to guard here. Reflecting on this, I had to smile somberly to myself while driving back to Kigali. There is a reason to be here, there is a reason to look at this: it’s to make sure for the sake of those kids playing near the church that such an unspeakable atrocity does not happen again...
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