This article was originally posted at Converge Magazine here.
Thirty kilometers south of Kigali, where the towering hills of Rwanda’s capitol city give way to the softer hills of the countryside, sits the small town of Nyamata. The main road of the town is lined with orchard trees and retail shops that give it a lively atmosphere without being overbearing – typical of most African towns that are situated along a highway.
My wife and I arrived in Nyamata in an overcrowded matatu (a local bus) and were relieved to stretch our legs after they were pinned for the better part of an hour against the metal rods of the bench in front of us. We endured the short journey to Nyamata for one primary purpose: to see the genocide memorial site that was once a Catholic Church.
Nineteen years ago this spring, Rwanda experienced one of the most dehumanizing acts of violence that we in the modern world have experienced. In 100 days, as many as 800,000 Rwandans were killed with machetes, clubs, and rifles and many more were left scarred, raped, abused, and alone, as the violence left individuals, many of whom were children, without their loved ones. The destruction and devastation that occurred during those 100 days in 1994 were so extreme that it is difficult for those of us who haven’t experienced such manifest evil, myself included, to imagine the reality of such atrocities. To think about these things is uncomfortable and arresting, but that was why we came to Nyamata and really why we were in Rwanda in the first place: to learn about the uncomfortable truths of what it means to be human.
The church at Nyamata is a beautiful red-bricked building tucked away from the main road that runs through the town. The space that separates the church from the road is filled with old gravestones overgrown with grass. The graves were traditional, some had cross-monuments and others had non-descript stones, but they were all distinct, with each gravestone having a name and a space in which to lie.
As we walked past the graves toward the church, we wondered whether many of the genocide victims had been buried there, whether the families of the dead had a place to call their own to honour and remember their loved ones. But, when we entered the church it soon became clear that this was most certainly not the case. Not only did the dead not have a grave, they did not even have a name.
It is believed that up 10,000 Tutsi individuals, men, women, children, and babies, were slaughtered within the grounds of the church by the Hutus during a 5-day period from April 14 to April 19, 1994. The church did its best to be a place of refuge – unlike many churches in Rwanda who simply stepped aside and provided no active resistance, or sometimes a veiled condoning, to the atrocious killings happening on their door step – but it could not resist the overpowering thirst for blood. Eventually, machetes, hand grenades, and rifles overcame the barricades set up at the church, and the Tutsi inhabitants were brutally murdered with those same weapons. Men and women were hacked to death and babies and children were taken by the legs and smashed against walls.
The remains of many of the dead have been collected in underground catacombs behind the church. Thousands of skulls, young and old, broken and intact, sit in the catacomb, open for the public to see. Inside the church lay the dirty and torn clothes of the dead. The clothes are piled on the church pews, along the bullet-ridden walls, and underneath the bloodstained altar cloth. Even though the clothes lay motionless, inanimate objects that they are, they still exude a measure of life, a certain amount of timelessness that our flesh and bones do not possess.
It was very difficult for me to imagine that such unspeakable tragedies occurred where I stood, to people who wore clothes like me, a mere 19 years ago. I stood among the clothes and the bones quietly, not because I was reticent, but because I did not feel an overwhelming sense of anything. One might expect, as many do, to feel a sharp sense of grief or anger when they are presented with such assaulting stories and images, but for me, I felt curiosity more than anything else.
My curiosity was born out of a desire to understand how people not so different from myself were consumed by a hate that made their own humanity barely recognizable. I thought my ability to understand would help me to empathize with the victims, but as I discovered, my inability to empathize had more to do with a lack of experience, not a lack of knowledge. I grew up in a loving home in a safe Canadian city and I have rarely, if ever, had to face the grim reality of death, especially the all-encompassing death experienced during genocide.
What I found was that as I toured the genocide memorial sites in Nyamata and in Kigali, in my attempt to understand the violence, I ended up rationalizing it and in some sense explaining it away.
Since violence always has a history and history always has more than one side, I found myself thinking that surely there were wrongs on both sides that contributed to the genocide, which, by definition, is a one-sided ethnic killing (though, to be more accurate, there were wrongs on all sides since it was more than the Hutus and the Tutsis involved; the Belgian Christian colonialists after all were the ones who practically created the distinction between the Hutus and the Tutsis.) Of course, there will always be wrongs on more than one side, but the danger is to rationalize these wrongs as something that is to be merely understood, not experienced. If we try to understand something that we have not experienced, like a tragedy or religious faith for example, we will more often than not end up explaining it away as something no more than it’s composite parts. This is why genocide is often explained away as civil or political strife (or simply explained away entirely as in the case of many Holocaust doubters), and faith is often explained away as an opiate or a primitive belief, when in reality these things reach far beyond their explanation.
I asked our local Rwandan friends and hosts while we were visiting whether Rwandans still talk about the genocide since it is apparently illegal to ask someone whether they are Hutu or Tutsi. “Oh, all the time,” Bernadette told me. “For us, the genocide did not happen 19 years ago, it happened 2 years ago. We are never far removed from the pain and the reality of what happened in 1994.” What then is it like having visitors like me come to learn about a history that I am sure Rwandans would like to forget? “Actually, it is a very good thing because it helps the world not to forget what happened here.” This is was message I found all over Rwanda. On the memorial at Hotel des Mille Collines (“Hotel Rwanda”) it reads “Never again” and the closing words at the Genocide Memorial Museum in Kigali were “We remember the past in order to learn from it.”
I was in Rwanda for 2 and a half days, barely enough time to know your way around let alone understand the impact of the genocide that took place there. I came to Rwanda hoping to learn about it, and learn I did, but I left hoping not to forget it or to rationalize it, no matter how tempting that may be.