It’s the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda Genocide, and there is a lot of good, thoughtful coverage in the media this week.
This series in the Guardian for example
About a third of the kids in the Nikibasika project are Rwandan, and two of them were born during the genocide. Rebecca’s father was killed as he tried to get to her mother as she was giving birth to her at a refugee camp at the Ugandan border. She just finished high school, and she is the most compassionate human being I know.
I went to Rwanda in 2010 with some of our kids, to visit their home village. I stayed for a few days afterwards by myself. I blogged a fair bit about how safe but muted the country feels, with a lot of thoughts about how that happened and what that means, how different it is from Uganda at first impression. But I thought today it would be good to repost what I wrote about my experience of one of the starkest genocide memorials.
On my last full day in Rwanda, I hired a driver and went on a pilgrimage to Murambi, possibly the most horrifying memorial in history.
Murambi was a technical school in the south of Rwanda, where thousands of people sheltered during the genocide, and something like 50,000 were ultimately murdered. Chickens in a cage. It sits starkly on a hill, gaping holes still in the walls of the buildings where grenades landed, a tattered flag in the middle of a dozen deeply verdant hills.
The memorial is simple. A few months after the genocide ended, the mass graves were exhumed to give the corpses a decent burial. They decided to preserve about 1800 of them in lime, and laid them in the classrooms. That’s the memorial. More than two dozen classrooms, with bodies laid on simple wooden frames in each.
No one should see this. Everyone should see this.
What follows is upsetting.
Most of the corpses are, by now, faded negatives of themselves, bone coloured and close to bone, shriveled. But here and there, gut wrenching signifiers of individuality remain. Tufts of hair. Clothing made of fabrics that didn’t compost — sagging and set on the flattened frames.
A tiny figure in the arms of a larger one.
I’m trying to describe the indescribable. Door after door of this. The guide, alone and weary, in a suit and pumps completely out of context, has dark circles under her eyes. “And here are more bodies.” She’s very persistent on the topic of the volleyball court the French troops supposedly constructed over the mass graves after the massacre, when they were posted here to “protect the community” and supposedly protected the Interahamwe. I’ve heard about the volleyball courts before. It’s one of the only “exhibits” here, actually — signs that say “Here is where the French soldiers played volley.”
The official genocide memorial in Kigali lush and thoughtful, considered, a carefully tended headstone. Murambi is the worms and maggots under the overturned rock. Just… corpses, and a weary guide. The small exhibit is closed, with no explanation. There’s a visitors’ book to sign, and toilets that have no running water in the sinks. Tile floors that were laid for the feet of schoolchildren.
At first, my driver and I are the only ones here, then a pair of uncomfortable Swedes show up. They can barely bring themselves to glance into the rooms, and the male of the pair asks me “do you want to see more rooms?” when the guide takes us up the hill. His wife chastizes him in Swedish, and he’s silent.
My camera bangs against my waist, useless. My driver whispers that he will shield me if I want to take a photo. I flick my hand toward my camera automatically, but realize I can’t imagine who I would show such an image.
There is no fence around this horrifying space, the classrooms typical of Rwandan architecture, a long outdoor row, open to the air. There is a tiny farm about 20 metres from the end, where a child stands calling mzungu! mzungu! to me. She and her brother are digging. I hold out my hand and she comes forward to take it, and the guide yells at her to get away. As she admonishes the two boys making an incursion to do something vaguely like gardening on the other side of the building.
Her job: pointing out corpses, telling the volleyball story, chasing away children. Sitting alone in this enormous silent building on top of the hill, with 1800 corpses.
As we drive down the winding road away from Murambi, I pull out two nut bars from my bag. I offer one to Régis, my driver. He has been here before, but stayed with me through the whole thing, muttering. “Les bébés.” We speak in French, his fluid, mine primitive. “Après avoir voir qu’el que chose comme ca, on doit manger et reclaimer notre humanité.” “Oui.” We eat in silence.