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Kwibuka 25. Visiting genocide memorial sites in Rwanda

With the start of Kwibuka 25, the 100-day period of mourning in remembrance of the Genocide against the Tutsi from 1994, we pay tribute to the many personal stories of victims and survivors. One way of doing this, is by visiting one of the many genocide memorial sites in the country. Anyone who wants to understand more about Rwanda, will find that these sites provide valuable historical, social and cultural context.  

The best known and largest memorial site in Rwanda is the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Gisozi.The Memorial was set-up at the request of the Rwandan authorities by the Aegis Trust, a non-governmental organization that advocates prevention of genocide worldwide. On these grounds, more than 250,000 genocide victims have found their final resting place. It is important to realize that this is not first and foremost a “tourist attraction” but a burial site where Rwandans come to remember and grieve the loss of their loved ones.  

The Kigali Memorial site consists of exhibitions, memorial gardens, an auditorium, educational facilities and the Genocide Archive of Rwanda, which serve as an education center for the younger generation of Rwandans and others. The exhibition is gripping, emotional and well documented with photo and video material. The self-guided audio tour comes in six foreign languages.

Outside of Kigali, other memorial sites can be found, sometimes tucked away deep in the countryside. All these sites have their own sorrowful story, and a visit will help to understand the scale of the terror. Be warned that some of the exhibitions, due to their raw and unpolished presentation, can be rather shocking. 

An example of this is the Murambi Memorial, which is a three-and-a-half-hour drive southwest of Kigali. When the genocide began, tens of thousands of Tutsis fled to a half-finished school on a quiet hilltop, in the beautiful green surroundings of Gikongoro. They were told they would be safe there. Once inside the school, people realized that they were trapped, stuck on a hill without food or cover, surrounded by enemies.

In the early dark hours of April 21, the Hutu Interahamwe militia attacked. Estimates of the number of victims range from 45,000 to 60,000. Only a few survived but were left in a state of permanent psychological hell that lasts until today. Nowadays, the classrooms of the school have turned into exhibition spaces. Hundreds of mummified corpses, preserved in lime, are left frozen in the last position before their death, some with their hands protective over their face. The last classroom is reserved for children and infants, their skulls mutilated by machetes. It is a disturbing sight and not suitable for delicate souls, but this is where the extent of the violence hits home.

Another remote memorial and burial site are located in Nyarubuye, about a three hours’ drive east of Kigali, close to the border with Tanzania. Tutsi refugees gathered here in the church and its adjacent monastery. They were misled in thinking they would be safe and on 14 and 15 April 1994 they were brutally killed by 7000 attackers, mostly local residents under the leadership of the town’s mayor. There is no exhibition, but a local guide will recall the dramatic events that took place here: brutal rape, mutilation with machetes, axes and hoes and even accounts of cannibalism. Again, the number of victims is not clear. Some mention 20,000 but the guide estimated 58,000 victims. The monument consists of the monastery and two newly-built mausolea. The garden of the monastery is a peaceful courtyard, but inside the clothes, bones and skulls of the victims are displayed together with a selection of the gruesome murder weapons used. In the mausolea coffins are placed in long rows, three stories high.  The church itself is in use again, which proves that Rwandans are also practical people.

In the early hours of the start of the genocide on April 7th, thousands of Tutsis fled to a technical school on the outskirts of Kigali, where the United Nations Peace Keeping Forces were stationed. The 90 Belgian peacekeepers allowed them stay on the premises. A few days later, on April 11th,  the UN troops were ordered to leave. The refugees, among them 400 children, begged the soldiers to stay and protect them, but they were abandoned.  That same day, they were taken by the Interahamwe militia and made to walk as a group to Nyanza Hill.  There, on a place that was known as a garbage dump, all 2000 were slaughtered in cold blood.

This is a solemn memorial site, consisting of mass graves and simple crosses. Today the burial site contains the bodies of 12,000 genocide victims, including those that were killed on Nyanza Hill. The other remains were gathered from other areas in Kigali after the genocide and buried here. Earlier this week, as part of the 25th commemoration, the first phase of the Memorial Garden was launched, symbolizing life and rebirth and the protection of nature. This final phase will include a stone monument, a forest of memory, a landscape garden, a meditation corner and an amphitheater. 

5. Ntarama Genocide Memorial

Located in eastern province, Bugasera District, Ntarama Memorial Site is a former Catholic Church that was converted into a memorial site on April 14th1995. It is dedicated to the 5,000 people  who were killed on these premises exactly one year earlier. On that terrible day, Interahamwe militia attacked the church and killed all the people who had taken refuge here after fleeing their homes. The only people to survive were those who managed to flee into the swamps and hide there until the end of the genocide.

The killings took place in all the areas of the church. In the main hall, the classrooms where children studied for their catechism, the kitchen, the garden and even in the changing room of the priest. The killers used guns and machete, threw people, even small babies and children, with their heads against the walls or set them on fire. The stories are chilling to the bone.

The current memorial display contains human remains, clothing and personal items belonging to the victims.

This article was published in The Weekender on April 11th, 2019

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