A warning in regards to this blog: I will be describing my experiences at the Murambi Genocide Memorial. There are no images, but I feel it is necessary to convey the gravity of the genocide through the eyes of this particular memorial site. As a result, the description may be disturbing. I will be posting again soon – something not so upsetting – so be sure to come back if this post isn’t for you.
For the last few days I have been in Butare, a town that was and remains, as everywhere else in this nation, a place effected greatly by the genocide of 1994. While there I visited Murambi Genocide Memorial, a place that is unique even among memorials here in Rwanda. There is not much history to be learned, nothing to be read, and there barely exists a narrative to describe what happened here. Nestled in some of the most beautiful hills this country claims (which is saying something, as the whole country is one gigantic group of rolling hills) lies a small group of buildings containing the painful memories of a not-so-distant tragedy.
On the grounds there are three buildings with a total of 28 rooms. As I approached the first room, I was first struck by the distinct smell. There was no mistake that real death hung in these rooms. In this first room, as in each of the rooms, there is a series of traditional Rwandan beds – lightweight wooden strips of wood on a frame that sits high enough to allow people to sit comfortably beneath it. On each of these beds, laid neatly in rows, is a series of corpses. They have been bleached white by the limestone used to preserve them, but they are eerily recognizable. Their preservation has locked them in the exact position in which they died. Facial features are still distinct, and there is still hair attached to some of the skulls, a personal representation of the person this skeleton used to be. There are bodies of children, of teenagers, of elderly women and men, of people my parents’ age. There are corpses of babies clutched in the arms of their helpless mothers. There are bodies whose faces and mouths, frozen in a stretched scream of anguish display clearly the true horror they experienced as they died. There are bodies whose arms are raised evidently in vain to shield themselves from the attack which would end them. Each body displays graphic evidence of how they died on this hill.
These people were the residents of those living in the villages surrounding this hill. The French ill-fated effort to create a supposed safe zone for the locals called “Operation Turquoise” attracted these visitors to this hill under the impression that the French would protect them. Instead, the villagers congregated on this hill which was so easily accessible from every direction to the people who ended up killing them while the French (unwittingly? No one is sure.) provided an escape route to the DRCongo for the perpetrators. The genocidaires, those who killed during the genocide, attacked from all angles of the hill and threw grenades at, shot at, and hacked to death with machetes almost every single person of the 52,000 who had sought refuge there. The bodies bear witness to the mode of killing they experienced in horrific detail. One of the bodies in particular sticks out in my mind: there was a small mass of flesh and bone laying on a bed, almost unrecognizable. It took me some time to realize that it was the body of a toddler who had been the victim of a grenade attack and that he was missing his head.
What is all of this for? This exhibit highlights the fact that this genocide took lives, and not just hypothetical numbers in a statistical report. This was an utterly senseless loss of life, and it is truly a tragedy. There are more bodies in many of these rooms than there are people who I feel truly close to in my life, and just like that, they were gone. I could fill half of these rooms with all of the people I know. These people were destroyed. As I walked from one room to the other, I experienced an overwhelming feeling of shame and regret. The West could have and should have stopped this. In one of the rooms I entered, I saw that most of the bodies were those of children. What purpose does it serve to take the lives of innocent adults in a village who have no political power or aspirations or wealth, let alone the babies and toddlers and middle school-aged children of those adults? It is horrifying to imagine that people are capable of such an act at all, let alone an entire nation becoming involved. As I entered this room, I felt a consuming urge to apologize to them. I said I was sorry and that I didn’t know why we abandoned them. There isn’t much else to say. It was only after I said these things aloud that the presence of these bodies became accusatory. The silence of their replies and the hollow echoes of a useless apology rang in my ears. I took my scarf from my nose. The smell was almost overpowering, but I didn’t care. It was not the choice of these people to become what they now are, and I felt the obligation to acknowledge and not shy away from every gruesome, true, consideration-worthy aspect of their reality. This is what genocide is, what killing produces. We will do well to remember this when we see a ten-second blurb about violence happening somewhere in the world. That could be your family if you were not born into your circumstance; it could be mine.
As I sat on the hillside after I viewed the seemingly endless rooms of corpses, I raised my eyes to the hills. Mountains have always been a source of inspiration for me, a source of life. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to come here with my family – with my parents, my sister, my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and every person I loved in the entire world. Put yourself in their shoes. You’ve come to this hill because of the promise of hope, of life. You look to the hills for a someone to come, anyone, who will save you from this fate. Every day you hear of more killings and desperately hope that the safety you have been promised will be steadfast; that you’ll live to see your kid sister go to college; that your parents will live to see your kids grow up; that you won’t have to endure the pain of watching your friends be chopped to death, or that they won’t have to endure the hopeless horror of watching you die in the dirt. Every morning to wake and pray to your God to come and save you, having total faith that He loves you enough to save you from this. You hope for life every day until the day you wake and see that where you had hoped there would be soldiers advancing to protect you, you see nothing but young men with machetes, eager to cut your body until it simply stops. I cannot imagine the hopelessness, the betrayal, the despair they must have felt.
In Joseph Sebarenzi’s book, “God Sleeps in Rwanda,” he recounts his experiences throughout his life and political career in Rwanda. I found myself asking the same questions he asks in a part of his book in reference to his family being slaughtered in the genocide: “I thought of the ancient Rwandan saying, Imana yirirwa ahandi igataha I Rwanda, meaning ‘God spends the day elsewhere, but he sleeps in Rwanda.’ Where was God when men, women, and children, the old and the weak were being mercilessly slaughtered? He was asleep, it seemed to me. My mother and sisters and all of the other people who were killed had prayed for protection – was God listening to their prayers? Or was He in a deep slumber, oblivious to the suffering of nearly a million people?” The whole things seems absolutely senseless. These people put every ounce of faith they had in the West and in God, clinging to life with anything they could grab on to, and it feels much like they were betrayed by us both. Where was God? Doing more important things? There is nothing, nothing, nothing more important than this.
As I sat there in disbelief, I watched as a man came up and talked to one of my program directors. They spoke as old friends do, smiling and prolonging their handshake. Our director told us that this man’s entire family – his wife and all six of his children – had been murdered here but that he had hid among their corpses and somehow survived. He told us that over the years he has seen this man in his process of dying. Working at this place every day of his life has been slowly killing him, but that he feels it is so important that he will continue until the genocide claims his life years after its conclusion. Victims of this horrific violence are not limited to those now at rest – the deaths continue. It feels so helpless to come here and know that there is so very little that we can do as Westerners, but it also seems silly that the survivors of such events are the ones on whom the responsibility is placed to maintain and create these memorials. They have sacrificed their families for awareness – isn’t that enough?
The next day we traveled into a village to a women’s cooperative which is comprised of the wives of men who died in the genocide, as well as the wives of men who are in prison for committing those murders. These women coexist, work together, live together, and work for peace in spite of their husbands’ hatred. They have asked for forgiveness and given it to one another, and they strive to raise their children without an awareness of ethnic affiliation; those kids are more passionate about peace than many people in this nation. One of the women asked us to bring a message back to America for them, and so here is her message, and so the hope that we can see in this fog of death.
“Tell them our story, but then tell them to love. Live your lives for love. Listen to one another. Be with one another. Understand one another. Do this, and love will come. If you love, this will never happen again.”
So now it is upon us to decide. As we live, we decide which story we let win and in doing so decide who we are as humans. We must let the truths of death through hatred and life through love both be remembered, but only one may triumph at the end of the day. Which truth will YOU live by?