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.

Rwanda, Land of a Thousand Hills

Perhaps the most bewildering thing about Rwanda, is just how ordinary and normal it feels when you travel around the country. It’s history, and the genocide which was perpetuated on its people, looms large everywhere you go. There are memorials to the dead in almost every village and hamlet in the country: inescapable reminders that, for Rwandans, there was no corner of their country left untouched by the brutality, no community or family that didn’t suffer death and destruction.

Yet, in this most exceptional of places, life continues to be lived in the most seemingly unexceptional way. That says a great deal about the resilience of Rwanda and Rwandans.

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Silverback dominant male Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Rwandans don’t want to forget what happened in those murderous days in 1994, when a deliberate and terrible wave of violence was unleashed across the whole country. They certainly don’t want the international community to forget what happened here. The same international community which stood idly by, passively allowing the genocide to claim the lives of nearly one million people. Men, women and children, old and young, were slaughtered by the military and Hutu militias, many tortured and killed in the most horrific manner imaginable.

Interior of the church at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial site, the clothes are those of people killed in the church, Rwanda, Africa

Interior of the church at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial site, the clothes are those of people killed in the church, Rwanda, Africa

Shoes of the dead inside the church at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial site, Rwanda, Africa

Shoes of the dead inside the church at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial site, Rwanda, Africa

If the genocide defines people’s perceptions of Rwanda, Rwandans also want the world to know that their country is much, much more than just that one catastrophic period in its history. Talking to people as you travel around the country is humbling, and every person I met had a thirst to know where I was from, what my life was like and whether I was enjoying my time in their country. Some people talked openly about the family members and friends they lost in the genocide, but mostly it seemed inappropriate to ask too many questions.

Rwanda landscape, Rwanda, Africa

Rwanda landscape, Rwanda, Africa

View over Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

View over Lake Burera, Ruhengeri, Rwanda, Africa

Women sit by Lake Kivu, Rwanda, Africa

Women sit by Lake Kivu, Rwanda, Africa

There is a wealth of information – news stories, academic research, biographies, histories, documentaries and films – detailing Rwanda’s history and descent into genocide. The film, Hotel Rwanda, is one of the more moving accounts; and the book, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, by General Roméo Dallaire, the UN Commander in Rwanda, is a startlingly human account of someone forced to witness the genocide first-hand without the power to prevent it.

In Rwanda, its impossible to avoid the legacy and memory of the genocide, but this wasn’t the reason I wanted to visit. A friend had returned from Rwanda and her description of the country and its people fascinated me, made me want to understand it better. In the end, it was the opportunity to see one of the most iconic of all creatures on this planet, the Mountain Gorilla, that tipped me over the edge into booking my flights.

Baby Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Baby Mountain Gorilla, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Beach on Lake Kivu, Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

Beach on Lake Kivu, Gisenyi, Rwanda, Africa

A couple of weeks isn’t a lot of time, but Rwanda is a small country with probably the best maintained roads in Africa. Travelling is easy and quick, although if you want to get to some more distant places, hiring a 4×4 is probably the best idea. The thing that struck me most about Rwanda, is just how beautiful and verdant the countryside is. Although it is hard to escape the fact that, in this tiny country with a growing population, almost all the available land is already used for agriculture.

This is important. Land rights were one of the hidden causes of the genocide, and competition for land and water could cause future conflicts. Its also important because some of the last remaining wilderness areas are under serious threat from agriculture. This is putting pressure on the habitats and animals which could be the source of a tourism boom; while the loss of trees for firewood and to clear land for crops, could severely effect the watershed.

View over Lake Kivu, Kibuye, Rwanda, Africa

View over Lake Kivu, Kibuye, Rwanda, Africa

Sunset over Lake Kivu, Kibuye, Rwanda, Africa

Sunset over Lake Kivu, Kibuye, Rwanda, Africa

Rwanda is addressing these, and many other issues, with limited resources, but from my experience it is looking to the future with confidence. Although it’s involvement in the conflict and theft of natural resources in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, casts a long shadow over that future.

Sunset over the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Sunset over the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, Africa

Travelling around the country though, Rwanda struck me a stable, safe and welcoming. It certainly deserves the name the Ministry of Tourism has bestowed upon the country – Land of a Thousands Hills. There are hills everywhere, including the volcanic Virunga mountain range, home to mountain gorillas which roam across the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. It was a journey I’m unlikely to forget any time soon.