We travelled to the Bugesara region to visit the Nyamata Memorial and to listen to the testimony of a rescuer. The Nyamata Memorial commemorates the thousands of people who were killed in the Catholic church to which they fled during the genocide. Interestingly, there had been an attack in 1992 when Tutsis had escaped death by fleeing to the church and so this was remembered and it was expected that the church would be a refuge again in 1994, but this was not the case.
We entered the church through a door that had been destroyed using a grenade. Bullet holes were visible all over the roof and walls of the church. On the pews were piles of clothing that belonged to the victims. The altar was draped with a cloth, once white as snow, that had become stained with the victims’ blood.
We descended downstairs inside the church and observed rows of skulls and bones from the ceiling to the floor. There was also a casket draped with a white cloth and with a wooden cross on top. This was to represent all of the rape, the horrific and disgusting violence against women and girls during the genocide. The woman who is buried there was raped repeatedly by numerous genocidaires. She was then killed by the most torturous method that involved piercing a spear through her genitals to her head.
We walked outside of the church and saw the tomb of an Italian nun andhumanitarian named Tonia Locatelli. She is remembered for her bravery and her opposition to ethnic violence in Rwanda. When the systematic killing began, Locatelli gave food and shelter to the persecuted and sought to alert the international media of the horrific events. Her actions did not go unnoticed by the local government and she was killed on the steps of her home.
Then, we proceeded to visit the mass graves and more rows of skulls and bones. It is overwhelming to see so many skulls and bones at these memorial sites all across the country. My heart begins to sink each time we drive up to a memorial site marked by purple and white flags and banners. Each site has a story and it is important to bear in mind the individual lives stolen in the genocide. I try to acknowledge that each skull represents an individual person and to reflect on that individual life. To be distracted from this point by the shear numbers of victims seems to dehumanize and dishonor them. Still, it is incomprehensible that one million people were killed during this genocide, about one in six Rwandans comprising the population at the time.
From there we ventured to the Ntarama Memorial. At this site there is another Catholic church where Tutsis sought refuge but were tortured and killed. There were mass graves inside the church and the clothes of victims scattered on the pews.
Behind the church there was a small building, a children’s Sunday school. There were a few rows of small pews made of clay where the children sat. At the front of the room the brick wall was stained with the blood of children who had been killed by being thrown against the wall. It was devastating to learn of such brutality against children, especially in the place where they would have learned the faith. Meanwhile, I could hear the laughter of children across the street from the memorial. I sat on the little pews inside the Sunday school imagining that I was a young child learning the ‘Our Father.’ The genocide is the most severe contradiction to every line of that prayer. How many faithful would have prayed, “Deliver us from evil” before being tortured and killed? That many Rwandans have lost faith seems understandable and that many Rwandans continue to have faith seems remarkable.
In the evening we had dinner followed by a debrief of the day’s activities. Our nightly debriefs are an essential component of the trip. As a team, we share our most immediate reflections and allow ourselves to confront the challenges of the past, present, and future. Sharing these experiences with a diverse group of Canadian students inspires tremendous growth. As we journey together we ask thousands of questions. What are we to make of all that we are learning? What lessons will we take away with us and share with others? How can this education be transformed into action? What can I do to promote peace and respect in my community?
In gratitude for their support of this trip, this post is dedicated to Georges and Grace Lambert.
Dear Amanda, I have been reading your Rwanda posts. Thank you for sharing. Very moving, and very important. I wish you and your fellow travelers all the best during this time. What an absolutely amazing and fantastic experience.