Seventeen years later and it is still almost impossible to understand how so many Rwandans could have turned into heartless killers.
Most people know the 100 days from April to June in 1994 that made Rwanda infamous when between 800,000 and a million people, mostly Tutsis were killed by their neighbors, co-workers and friends. The perpetrators were mostly Hutu.
But very few people can wrap their brains around “how” such insanity can occur.
One thing is certain; no one will soon forget the genocide. As mandated by Rwandan law, every city has a genocide memorial.
Our group of reporters and editors with the International Reporting Project stopped at a church in Bugesera, a district in Eastern Province, at the Nyamata Genocide Memorial Site.
The rain starts as a trickle as soon as we arrive and quickly begins to downpour, punctuating the mood there. At Nyamata church, like many other churches, people fled here looking for safety. While in many cases the Catholic Church leaders were accomplices to the genocide, at Nyamata, a nun, Tonia Locatelli gave her life trying to save Tutsis who were being hunted down like animals.
The church was supposed to be a safe haven, a place of peace, love. But within hours it turned into a bloody death trap. The militia, Hutu extremists, killed men, women even children who tried to hide underneath the dead bodies of their parents and other adults.
The blood thirsty killers first started outside butchering those in their path with machetes. Then they made their way inside the church continuing the massacre. Blood stains still appear on the cement walls, even the ceiling where children were swung high, smashing their small bodies. Women were raped with sticks and knives. And this is just one church.
We make our way downstairs where a glass case holds skulls which have holes in them where the machete ripped through heads. Even I.D. cards are “on display,” evidence that people were judged by their ethnicity. Being a Tutsi was a death sentence.
45,276 remains are here at Nyamata.
Just when I thought I’d make it off the church grounds without my eyes welling with tears, the guide shows us a dark, musty underground room filled with piles of skulls, leg bones, arm bones just laying out in the open like books on a library shelf except these “books”… bones tell a tale of sheer horror. Somehow I ended up in the dark cavernous room by myself and images of the people who are now just a memory fill my mind. And the walls start caving in and it gets difficult to breathe. I quickly scramble up the ladder-like stairs. And while I start to pull myself together I hear our young guide tell us that two of his family members were killed in the genocide. I can see the pain in his eyes as he reluctantly tells his story.
The fence outside the church is lined with banners from different visiting organizations in support of the victims and encouraging words to never repeat the tragic past.
While Rwandans are not allowed to use terms like Tutsi and Hutu today, (they would be committing “thought crimes”) these genocide memorial sites in each city are a constant reminder of a painful past and in many cases the Catholic Church’s role in the genocide.
I’ll tell you what Rwandan President Paul Kagame has to say about the Catholic Church in my next blog.
Meantime, the Land Cruiser we’re traveling in is silent as we leave the church and human remains behind us in a dust cloud.
Tamara Banks traveled to Rwanda on an IRP Gatekeeper Editors trip organized by the International Reporting Project (IRP).