Two Days of Death

We drove by the Hotel des Collines today, which was the scene of the movie, “Hotel Rwanda.” The name means “Hotel of the Thousand Hills,” a play on Rwanda’s nickname during the Belgian colonization, Pays des Mille Collines, or “Country of the Thousand Hills.”

It is still a working luxury hotel, and not a scheduled stop for us. A few days later, I went there for lunch, but I didn’t see anything there to commemorate the 1994 genocide. That wasn’t really a surprise.

Our guide, Jacob, says that the movie is banned in Rwanda, that it has never been shown because the government does not feel the story has been portrayed accurately. I have not seen the movie, so I have no opinion one way or the other. Rather, let me tell you what we have seen and heard in the last two days.

The three months, “the hundred days,” of extreme violence, usually referred to as “The Genocide,” began on April 6th. President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was flying back from a meeting with leaders of Uganda, Burundi, and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo,) where agreements had been made to defuse the growing tension between the Hutu and Tutsi. Those countries had significant Tutsi and Hutu populations, most of them refugees from previous conflicts.

The party responsible for shooting down the plane carrying Habyarimana, his staff, and the president of Burundi has never been determined. Some say Hutu extremists, anxious to eliminate the Tutsis, who did not support the negotiated approach of Habyarimana, and some say President Nagame, then leader of the Rwandan Peoples Front (RPF,) who has always vehemently denied these accusations.

The reaction was immediate: road blocks, checkpoints, and militia were all moved into place, making the plane incident appear to be part of a larger plan made by someone. In the space of a hundred days, April 6th to about July 19th, perpetrators of the genocide, mostly Hutus, killed between 800,000 to 1,000,000 victims, mostly Tutsis. “Moderate” Hutus and Twa, an indigenous minority (about 1%, who were a smaller-statured ethnic group, were killed also. We visited three memorials – the Murambi Genocide Memorial, the Nyamata Genocide Memorial, and the Kigali Genocide Memorial, each with their own story.

The Murambi Genocide Memorial, Murambi, Gikongoro

The Murambi Genocide Memorial is located in Murambi village, in the Gikongoro region of Rwanda. It is housed in what was intended to be the Murambi Technical School, which was under construction at the time of the genocide. As the government’s Interhamwe militias arrived in Gikongoro region, they started killing Tutsis and looting and burning their houses in an organized, efficient operation. Local government leaders, Hutus, at the outbreak of violence, told the Murambi area Tutsis that they could not protect them while they remained widely scattered, and so the government would escort them to a place in Murambi where they could be protected.

In the next two weeks, Tutsi residents were sent or taken to the school. Hutu residents were separated and sent elsewhere. According to our guide at the Murambi memorial, French soldiers were present, and entertained themselves by choosing women to rape. (France denies this.) Once gathered at the school, the water lines were cut and food was withheld. On April 18th, the interim president, Theodore Sindikuswabu, and Prime Minister Jean Kambanda, both Hutus, met with Gikongoro leaders, also Hutus. On the next morning, April 19, 1994, the attacks began.

The Tutsi resisted with bricks and stones, during two days of attacks, but then the main assault began. This assault was perpetrated by militia, police, and Hutu residents of the area, and the attack was much more forceful. They circled the school, which was on a hilltop. Tutsi trying to escape were easily spotted and killed. There was no escape. Of the approximately 50,000 people in the area, there were 34 survivors.

The local Hutu leaders and French soldiers organized bulldozers to dig mass graves. No one’s story includes the French soldiers in the actual killing, but they were accused of protecting the Hutu who had perpetrated the genocide. France denies this, too. Our guide told us that the French soldiers built a volleyball court on top of the graves.

Our group had read the displays in the lobby of the school building that had some history of the leaders of various groups, such as Nagame, who was the leader of the RPF at the time, and Ferdinand Nahimana, a radio personality, a Hutu, who spent his energy inciting hatred of Tutsis in the months leading up to the Genocide.

Our guide, a woman in her forties, was a survivor. She did not escort us to the next building, but told us what we would see in the classrooms. In September, 1995, the hastily made mass graves were opened and bodies were exhumed. The bodies had been so tightly packed together that they had hardly decomposed over the intervening months. Of the thousands, over 400 bodies were covered in lime powder to preserve them. What we would see were these bodies, placed on wooden tables in the classrooms, but, she said, she could not accompany us there. She didn’t say why, although it was obvious that the trauma was just too great for her. She said that she would meet us over by the new graves.

I stepped into the first classroom filled with bodies. I still remember the air, which was thick and humid, with a slightly acidic smell. The bodies were laid out, but not like a funeral. Some were on their back, some on their sides, all of their arms and legs and heads at awkward angles, depending on how their bodies had taken shape in the mass grave. They were not bodies at rest. They were bodies in torment. They had not been simply executed, they had been beaten, tortured, and hacked to death. You could see it.

Looking back, I wondered why I had not felt more emotion in those rooms. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I get choked up during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” watching a husband and wife enjoying a joke together, or trying to tell some stories about amazing kindnesses. But, there, in that room, I stood, dry-eyed, staring at victims of such unimaginable inhumanity.

I have concluded since that the sight of those bodies was just that: unimaginable. I have been lucky in my life, and there was simply nothing that I have experienced that could help me grasp and internalize what had happened here. I was solemn, as were others in our group. The scene made us quiet, looking, standing still, trying to see what was in front of our eyes.

We joined our guide again over by the large mass graves. It was not possible to identify all of the victims buried in the mass graves and re-bury them individually, so there are now these large places of interment. It seems right that they should be together in death as they died, the ones bonded forever by the ghastliness. Occasionally, even now, twenty-five years later, new remains are discovered in Gikongoro. Their identity can rarely be determined, and they join the others in these crypts.

Mass graves for the Gikongoro area victims who rest together. Residents who know their relatives are in there come to visit and grieve still.
The front gate to the church at Nyamata, another scene of The Genocide. The language used to identify the location is Kinyarwandan, one of the national languages used in Rwanda.

In the Bugesera region, thirty-five kilometers from Kigali, is the Nyamata Genocide Memorial, formerly a Catholic Church. This place became representative of the brutality perpetrated against women in particular, and the area suffered some of the greatest devastation.

Our guide, a member of the church and a survivor, began their story. As the Interhamwe began attacking Bugesera, area residents gathered in the church, hoping that they would be protected there. Churches were traditionally places of sanctuary. People padlocked the gates and bolted and locked the doors.

The Interhamwe, a name meaning “the ones who attack together,” the Hutu militia acting on behalf of the government, broke through the locked gates.

The Hutu government had form youth into the Interhamwe, teaching them to fight together and use weapons, and indoctrinating them with “Tutsi are the enemy” beliefs.

Along with the Rwandan government forces and other Hutu militia, the Interhamwe entered the church area with rifles, grenades, and machetes. They used sledge hammers to break holes into the walls, and then tossed hand grenades inside. The grenades killed the first people, and then, breaking through the doors, the attackers used guns and machetes, killing about two thousand five hundred people who were hiding in the church. Bullet holes are still visible in the walls and in the ceiling.

The clothing of the victims was placed in piles on the pews. Men’s, women’s, children’s, and infants’ clothing, sometimes grouped in “families.” Occasionally, you can spot a bone peeking out of a blood-stained sleeve. The blood spilled onto the altar cloth, which was spread across the place of Holy Communion. She did not say that the church had been de-sanctified, but the church is no longer used for any services, only to stand in silent witness to the acts of inhumanity that occurred here.

The church basement, accessible in back of the church, has become a permanent catacomb. On either side of the narrow halls are shelves that hold bones, skulls, and coffins. The coffins do not hold individual bodies. Instead, the coffins were used to gather the bones of families together, and the family name was written on the end of the coffin.

Not very legible, but the end of one of the coffins where remains that could be identified as one family were collected.

Two thousand five hundred were killed at the church, but across the Bugesera region, there were over ten thousand victims of The Genocide. The remains are interred in two mass graves behind the church.

Above the entrance to the church itself, there is a banner in Kinyarwanda, “If you had known me, and you had really known yourself, you would not have killed me.”

Photos of genocide victims in Kigali. Relatives occasionally add to the collection.

In the capital, Kigali, is the Kigali Genocide Memorial. This was our last visit to a genocide memorial. The mass graves hold the largest number of victims, over two hundred fifty thousand (250,000.) Equal parts museum and memorial, it serves as a place for relatives and friends of victims to grieve and pray for those they lost, and also as a place to educate Rwandans and foreign visitors about what happened, what the causes were, what Rwanda is doing to prevent recurrences and to promote unity.

One of several cases of skulls. Hard to see in the photo is the damage to many of the skulls, representing fatal wounds.

In this museum, the Genocide was described in painful, grisly detail: “The genocidaires often mutilated their victims before killing them. Victims had their tendons cut so they could not run away, they were tied and beaten. They were made to wait helplessly to be clubbed, raped, or cut by machete. Family members were made to watch on as their parents or children were tortured, beaten or raped in front of their eyes. On occasion, victims were thrown alive down deep latrines and rocks were thrown in one at a time until their screams subsided into silence. On other occasions, large numbers of victims were thrown down pit latrines. Victims trampled each other to death. The piles were sometimes ten bodies deep. Death was made a painful, agonizing, frightening, humiliating end.”

“Many families had been totally wiped out, with no one to remember or document their deaths. The streets were littered with corpses. Dogs were eating the rotting flesh of their owners. The country smelt of the stench of death. The genocidaires had been more successful in their evil aims than anyone would have dared to believe. Rwanda was dead.”

What happened to cause such deep-seated hatred between Hutus and Tutsi? History doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It was not the first nor was it the last of the fighting. Killing happened not just in Rwanda, but also Zaire/Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Burundi.

Many scholars believe that the Hutus settled in the Great Lakes region of central Africa, which would be Rwanda, Burundi, and southern Uganda, between 1000 – 500 BC. The Hutus were agricultural people living in large family groups. The Tutsis (aka “Watutsis”) were nomads who arrived about 1600 AD, settling alongside the Hutus, adopting their language, beliefs, and customs. “In Rwanda, the Tutsi and the Hutu are the same people.” [“Heart of the Hutu-Tutsi Conflict,” PBS News Hour presentation, October 10, 1999.]

But the cattle-tending Tutsis accrued more wealth than the farming Hutus, resulting in a society that was dominated by the Tutsis, even though the Tutsis were the minority. While the cultures and religions meshed, the economic class divisions became synonymous with ethnic designations. According to Congolese Professor George Izangola, “If you were close to the King, you owned wealth, you owned a lot of cattle, you are a Tutsi. If you are far away from the King, you are a cultivator, you don’t own much cattle, you are a Hutu.”

Germany colonized “German East Africa” in 1891. German East Africa encompassed Burundi, most of Tanzania, and Rwanda. After WWI, the Belgians occupied Rwanda. It was the Belgians who forced the Hutus and Tutsis to carry ethnic identity cards, their “ethnic group” determined by certain physical characteristics. They favored the Tutsi, and Hutus were barred from higher education and governmental positions of power.

The Belgians used physical characteristics to distinguish the “indigenous Hutu” from the “alien Tutsi.”

When independence came in 1962, the Belgians left, and Ruanda and Urundi became Rwanda and Burundi. Rwanda became a republic with a Hutu majority. The Hutus’ resentment boiled over and thousands of Tutsis were killed and hundreds of thousands of Tutsi fled to Uganda. In Burundi, which became a military dictatorship, the Tutsi retained control of the military and used it to terrorize the Hutu. When the Tutsi Yoweri Museveni seized power in Uganda, Tutsi refugees from Rwanda, the RFP, had a base from which to attack the Hutu government in Rwanda. Violence in these countries broke out sporadically, from independence up to, and including, the worst – The 1994 Genocide.

The UNAMIR task force, created by the UN Security Council to see that the Arusha Accords were enforced, arrived too late to prevent the bloodshed, and even then, their commander, Canadian Romeo Dallaire, was prohibited from involving the force in protecting civilians. The international community did virtually nothing to prevent or stop the killing.

The 1994 Genocide was so especially violent, so especially cruel, and so especially vast, it was as if the survivors on both sides were so shocked by what they had done and what they had suffered, that there was born a determination to prevent it from happening ever again.

There are still resentments. People who murdered their neighbors still live with survivors. As hard as it is for Rwandans to face one another, I think it must be impossible for anyone who wasn’t there to understand. The Kigali Genocide Memorial runs programs to help understand what happened, to enhance communication as a way to prevent or resolve conflicts, and, most of all, to remember the victims and help survivors cope.

“We can all be champions of humanity by standing against division wherever we live.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s