The Rwandan Genocide, Nyamata and Ntarama Memorial Sites

‘Genocide Tourism’ wasn’t a term I’d heard before visiting Rwanda. The very idea is enough to send a shiver down the spine but, after visiting the Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali, I felt it was important to visit the memorials to the genocide outside Kigali and try to understand better what happened and why.

“Genocide is not really a matter of poverty or lack of education… In 1959 the Hutus relentlessly robbed, killed, and drove away Tutsis, but they never for a single day imagined exterminating them. It is the intellectuals who emancipated them, by planting the idea of genocide in their heads and sweeping away their hesitations.” – Innocent, a survivor of the genocide (From A time for machetes. The killers speak by Jean Hatzfeld)

The origins of the Rwandan Genocide are many and complex, pitting the majority ethnic Hutu against the minority Tutsi. There are many excellent accounts of the genocide and how it was carried out, but perhaps the overriding theme is of ethnic divisions, created by the German and Belgian colonial administrations, giving rise to a vicious and one-sided ethnic struggle post-independence. These ethnic tensions were fed a diet of hatred for more than three decades after independence, finally they were exploited to brutal effect by the Hutu elite on 7th April 1994.

Ntarama church, Rwanda, Africa

Ntarama church, Rwanda, Africa

Interior of Ntarama church, Rwanda, Africa

Interior of Ntarama church, Rwanda, Africa

The genocide was no spontaneous uprising of one ethnic group against another; it was a meticulously planned and executed attempt by the Hutu leadership to exterminate all the ethnic Tutsi in Rwanda. As the notorious Hutu extremist radio station, Radio Libre des Mille Collines, repeatedly broadcast, Tutsis were ‘cockroaches’ who must be exterminated, including women and children.

Without external intervention, the result was never in doubt. Nearly one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu were murdered in a one hundred day period of collective savagery. The two villages, Nyamata and Ntarama, which I visited, tell the story of the genocide. The unthinkable atrocities and the thousands of people killed in these two villages was something replicated across the whole of Rwanda.

Nyamata church, Rwanda, Africa

Nyamata church, Rwanda, Africa

Interior of Nyamata church with clothes of the victims of genocide, Rwanda, Africa

Interior of Nyamata church with clothes of the victims of genocide, Rwanda, Africa

Interior of Nyamata church with clothes of the victims of genocide, Rwanda, Africa

Interior of Nyamata church with clothes of the victims of genocide, Rwanda, Africa

What I still struggle to understand is how, in small rural communities, where everyone knew everyone else, neighbour so readily turned on neighbour. In close knit villages people who had lived side-by-side for years, who worked together, attended church together and who’s children played together, woke up one morning and slaughtered each other.

Of course it wasn’t as spontaneous as this. Much preparation was involved, including a grotesque propaganda campaign demonising and dehumanising the Tutsi (think 1930s Germany). The campaign of hate went on for years, effectively creating an environment where the persecution of the Tutsi was normalised, and reducing the common ground between the two communities to a point where friends and neighbours were seen as natural enemies. In Kigali lists of Tutsi and moderate Hutu were prepared in advance of the genocide; in small villages lists weren’t necessary…everyone knew everyone else.

Interior of Ntarama church with possessions of genocide victims, Rwanda, Africa

Interior of Ntarama church with possessions of genocide victims, Rwanda, Africa

It seems too extraordinary to imagine, yet it happened in community after community, day after day. The shock and trauma these communities suffered was profound, and attempts to heal the psychological wounds of survivors have been hampered and overwhelmed by the size of the task. So many people were involved in killing that the justice system was similarly overwhelmed, and Rwanda introduced a traditional form of community justice to deal with the backlog of trials.

Interior of Ntarama church with clothes of genocide victims, Rwanda, Africa

Interior of Ntarama church with clothes of genocide victims, Rwanda, Africa

Human remains of those murdered in Ntarama church, Rwanda, Africa

Human remains of those murdered in Ntarama church, Rwanda, Africa

What happened in Nyamata and Ntarama is the genocide in microcosm. As the preplanned killing erupted across the country, desperate and terrified people fled to the local church in both communities, seeking shelter and protection from machete wielding death squads supported by the army. In both places the sanctity of the church proved illusory – and there are many documented cases of priests and church officials assisting with the genocide.

Gathering thousands of people in one place served only to make the genocidaire’s gruesome work easier. Over several days, those who had taken refuge at the churches were murdered, the vast majority hacked to death with machetes. Women and girls were brutally tortured and raped before being murdered. Throughout the bloodshed survivors and killers alike describe an almost carnival atmosphere amongst those doing the killing.

Human remains of those murdered in Ntarama church, Rwanda, Africa

Human remains of those murdered in Ntarama church, Rwanda, Africa

More than 5,000 people were murdered at the Ntarama church, over 10,000 people at Nyamata church. The scene that awaits visitors today is highly emotional. The churches have been preserved more-or-less as they were left at the end of the genocide: bloodstained clothes, walls and floors, and the few pathetic possessions people carried with them are piled inside both churches. The skeletons of the dead remain there as well, shocking reminders of the sheer number of people who were killed.

Today, many of those who took part in the killings have been released from prison and have returned to their communities. At the church in Nyamata I spoke to a guide who’d been a child at the time of the genocide. His entire family had been murdered. The man responsible for the murder of his mother had recently returned to the village, he hadn’t spoken to him but he’d seen him in the street several times. He said he’d forgiven the people responsible for the deaths of his family, but living in such close proximity to the killers must take enormous courage.

Interior of Ntarama church with possessions of genocide victims, Rwanda, Africa

Interior of Ntarama church with possessions of genocide victims, Rwanda, Africa

Exterior of Ntarama church, Rwanda, Africa

Exterior of Ntarama church, Rwanda, Africa

In a flat and emotion free monotone, another guide told me about some of the appalling crimes committed inside the church. They are too distressing to repeat. It left me feeling physically repulsed, but the extreme brutality was just a fact, nothing exceptional during those murderous days. The tranquil and peaceful surroundings of the churches today stands in stark relief to the terrible events witnessed in 1994.

As a side note to the killing in Nyamata, a UN military column appeared in the village bringing hope to the terrified Tutsi. They stopped only to evacuate eight white people, five priests and three nuns. When they departed, they did so to the sound of the jubilant Hutu militia, who were seen celebrating in the streets. The last barrier to the slaughter, and the last hope for Nyamata’s Tutsi population, left with them.

8 thoughts on “The Rwandan Genocide, Nyamata and Ntarama Memorial Sites

  1. I personally feel incredibly uncomfortable with ‘tourism’ around places and events where such terrible things happened – but I understand their importance and certainly the importance to learn and remember.

    I felt the same about visiting Dachau.

    Sad and terrifying to be confronted with the worst people are capable of. I would agree that the people who can live on have more strength than I’ll ever imagine.

    Thanks for posting

    • Thank you. I’ve never been to any of the Holocaust death camps, but it would be terrible if people stopped going and learning what happened in places like Dachau. The same applies to Rwanda, I suppose it just feels a little more voyeuristic because it is so much closer in time.

  2. We shouldn’t ever be shocked at human’s brutality to each other – cynical me thinks it simply a wonder it doesn’t occur more frequently.

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