A year ago I found myself inside a mass grave full of the butchered remains of humans who like me had hopes, dreams and feelings. It has taken me a year to write this story. This is how it happened.
It was April, and like all Aprils for the past twenty five years, the people of Rwanda come together to remember the unimaginable events of 1994. In about 100 days people like you and I were butchered, over 800,000 of them, in a tragic period that laid bare the darkness that lurks inside of us mankind. It is a story of Rwanda, of Africa and of humanity itself. This is Kwibuka.
I travelled to Kigali in April 2018 during the 24th memorial of the genocide and attended Kwibuka 24 events. Kwibuka means remembrance. On a cloudy Friday afternoon, my host took me to the main genocide memorial site in Gisozi area of the capital Kigali. It was the first of several harrowing sites that I visited.
First shocker: As per official history, there was never a tribe called Hutu or Tutsi. Hutu was the low economic class of the Nyarwanda people while Tutsi was the upper class. Depending on wealth progression, one could be born a Hutu but become a Tutsi and vice versa. When the colonialist arrived, they found a united people and seeking to divide and rule, they decreed the two economic classes to be tribes and introduced identity cards that made it impossible to change one’s ‘tribe’. This was the genesis of the foundation for the tribal politics that resulted in genocide many years after the colonialists left.
At the Gisozi memorial, there are grey concrete slabs on a beautiful hillside surrounded by beautiful trees and flowers. Under the array of slabs are the earthly remains of over two hundred and fifty thousand souls. The first mass grave I have seen in my life.
There is a museum building of several rooms one of which has human skeletons on display. The skulls have visible machete cuts and bullet holes. Photography is not allowed inside the rooms though one may take photos outside.
I was not prepared for the Children’s room. A symbolic room with a low ceiling, bright orange walls and dim lights. There are portraits of young children provided by surviving relatives, complete with names, age at which they were murdered, what they loved most and how they were butchered. As per the foot notes, some were slaughtered as they clung to the corpses of their dead mothers. Two portraits hit me the most. That of a young girl, about eight years old, whose favourite hymn was This land is mine, God gave this land to me.
Then the portrait of a young boy of about four years old with an innocent and sad far-away look in his eyes. Below it is a caption: we could have been the heroes of our country. It was the last portrait at the end of the room. I looked at it and walked out but I felt it pull me back in. I went back, stared at it again. My throat chocked, my heart broke.
We went through the videos and wall stories in the other rooms and soon it was 6 pm and closing time, so we left the site. This was the tip of the iceberg.
The next day was Saturday. It was the last Saturday of the month when the people of Rwanda participate in communal cleaning of their neighbourhoods. Everything shuts down, no shops no public transport until afternoon. A member or several from each household comes out to clean the street alongside their neighbours.
After lunch, I set out for the old presidential villa. The villa is just a few kilometres from Kigali International airport and oddly, right below the flight path. It is here that the plane of the then president was shot down as it approached for landing from a peace negotiation with rebels in a neighbouring county. This event marked the beginning of the genocide. The plane crashed inside the presidential compound and the burnt fuselage remains preserved on the spot to date.
I took a tour of the villa, with its original furniture, carpets and fittings in place. As the guide explains the various elements of the house, you get a feel of how life was for the president and his family. It’s surreal, you can almost see the ghost of the late president, his wife and children going about their daily lives as a powerful family living in luxury and under the intrigues of political office. I imagined for a moment what it was like to be President.
Besides the mansion and the fuselage, there is the tiled pond where it is said the assassinated leader kept a python for black magic. Interestingly, the mansion itself has two small chapels, one said to be for catholic prayers and the other for consulting witchdoctors. The python is said to have disappeared on the night the president was killed, never to be seen again. The visit to the palace was not traumatising, except at the fuselage where I imagined what the occupants must have felt as the plane tumbled to the ground right above state house.
On Sunday morning, I took public transport to Nyamata, a small rural town about thirty kilometres outside Kigali. As is characteristic of Kigali, the tarmac road was smooth, with very clean sidewalks and good storm drains all the way. I was met by the caretaker of the site. Her family of Tutsi heritage was massacred and she survived by being hidden by her Hutu neighbours who helped her flee to safety. It is worthwhile to note the Hutus who refused to kill the Tutsi were branded traitors and murdered by fellow Hutus.
Nyamata memorial was a church. Victims fled to the church in the belief that the attackers would not dare attack a place of worship. They underestimated the darkness of humanity. They locked themselves in but attackers used grenades to blow apart the church door. The building still stands, complete with the shattered door that still hangs in place and shrapnel marks intact on the ceiling, walls and floor. The victims clothing, dry and caked in mud and blood alongside other personal effects and household utensils are arranged on the worshipper benches. I could see the bullet holes all over the walls, including one on the statue of Christ. Even Jesus would not have been spared.
Under the church floor is the covered solo grave of a woman who was raped, hacked and a long stick of several meters pushed through her privates till it exited her shoulder. She was preserved in that state but the caretaker explained visitors are no longer allowed to view her remains because many would collapse in shock. She was one amongst many who were killed that way. Behind the church are the mass graves of the more than ten thousand people killed at the site. This is where I found myself inside a mass grave.
The graves are like underground bunks. We descended through a narrow and steep staircase into a white tiled under-ground room. We found ourselves between rows of coffins placed on racks from floor to ceiling, on both sides and barely a meter apart. The coffins are not locked and inside each is a mixture of various human bones filled to the brim. The covers are not nailed. We opened, we saw.
‘It is impractical to separate, arrange and have a single coffin for a single complete skeleton.’ Explained the caretaker.
The over-powering smell of dry human bones inside that grave filled every pore of my being down to the core.
I have to say here that the first thing I did when I got back to my hotel room later that afternoon was to take a very long shower and send my clothes to the laundry. But even as I write this, I can still feel that smell engulfing my lungs, my body, my mind and my soul. Death has a smell which cannot be forgotten.
But before I got back to my hotel, I had to visit one more site. I was traumatised but I could not stop now. I had to see it all, everyone has to see it. While I touring at Nyamata, I was joined by a Japanese soldier, a peacekeeper with the UN Mission in South Sudan who was spending his four off-duty days visiting Kigali to learn what happened. He had hired one of the many tour drivers in Kigali who organize genocide tours. He invited me to join him when I told him my next visit was Ntarama Church. He was heading there as well. On arrival, we met a large group of local youth who had gathered for a memorial service and we were all taken around by one guide.
Some victims were locked up inside the church kitchen and burnt alive.
The skull of a young child is soft and at Ntarama church the attackers deployed a most inhumane methodology on the innocent ones. They walked into the Sunday school, picked up the kids, swung them round and smashed their heads against the brick walls. Dry brain matter and blood remain caked to the mud walls, now blackish but still visible, a quarter of a century later.
It was painful to see the group of young men and women break down as they were told of how their parents were hunted in the bush, at night, in the cold and rain. They heard how their siblings, uncles and grandparents were wiped out and how they were extremely lucky themselves to have survived. They laid flowers, lit the memorial flame and wept endlessly. As I looked out to the horizon, I struggled hard not to cry even as my soul wept with them. I pray I never get to know what they feel everyday of their lives.
Dehumanisation is what happens when you allow yourself to see another human being as less than human, a cockroach as the Tutsi were labelled. Every African should visit the genocide sites and see the effects of hate and negative ethnicity. Make time and visit Rwanda, go learn.
As the RwandAir plane took off from Kigali International Airport a few days later, I looked out of the window to the land of a thousand hills below, a beautiful country that is still healing from the betrayal of brother killing brother, its people now friendly and welcoming to visitors like me, and I thought, thank you Rwanda for the lesson.
And so it is that every year Rwanda lights the flame of hope at the memorial sites. For a hundred days the flame burns and flickers in memory of what happened. It carries with it a message, a lesson for humanity and a message of hope: Never again.