Sandi Alaska is no Indiana Jones yet sometimes it’s as if I get a little taste of his adventures- exploring new territory, discovering the unknown, maybe a little danger here and there. It’s no Temple of Doom for sure yet walking alone down cold cement stairs where a single window muted by the rain dimly lights the underground room holding shelves of thousands of broken skulls murdered 16 years earlier will give anyone a slight chill…
On April 1st, 2010, Terry, Curtis, and I decided to visit the brutal past of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide. We first traveled to Kigali Memorial Centre for historical information, secondly to two massacres held in churches around Ntarama where it is thought the priests may have been involved with the 15,000 deaths, and lastly Nyatama- 50,000 individuals massacred in two weeks time.
The drive to KMC took us through hills full of color and life. As you descend down the drive to the centre, the crisp white building with landscaping invites you inside starting with the lower level describing the Rwanda genocide. You work your way to the upper level where 5 other tragedies around the world are depicted then out to the garden which holds mass graves for some of the 800,000 -1,000,000 lives murdered.
As with any genocide (which means killing of a tribe or people) it doesn’t begin overnight- it evolves over time with certain characteristics of disaster. Walking through the halls reading historical facts, watching films of personal testimonies of the horrors they lived seeing their families brutal deaths, knowing it could have been stopped but wasn’t… questions start arising. Outsiders from Europe came here, decided one tribe, Hutu, was better than the other, Tutsi, measuring skulls and making stereotypes. Beforehand, the minority Tutsi’s traditionally held the majority of power in Rwanda. There was intermarriage between the tribes and they lived happily beside one another. What happened?
Colonized first by Germany and later Belgium, they played on ethnicity to divide the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. In 1956, Mwami Rudahigwa called for independence from Belgium… which turned the Belgiums against the Tutsi’s and in favor of the Hutu tribe. Armed clashes began following the death of Mwami in 1959. The ethnic conflict culminated in the 1994 genocide leaving up to 1,000,000 lives lost and thousands fleeing and displaced.
Between 1959 and 1994, outburst of violence were lived between the two tribes. In the 80’s and early 90’s, the Hutu’s performed guerrilla acts to test their skills and abilities. In April 1994, after a conference with power sharing on the agenda, Habyarimana, who had worked towards healing ethnic divisions in the past, and President Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi, their jet was about to land when a surface to air missile took them down. All hell broke out as Hutu ethnic cleansing extremist took over the radio airwaves and unleashed one of the 20th century’s bloodiest genocides.
Before the French came in, Hutu and Tutsi tribes lived in peace marrying each other, doing business deals, and living in harmony. In the “Ten Commandments of the Hutu”, it spoke of the Tutsi as swindlers, dishonest businessmen, woman as incapable of matching up to the standards of Hutu women. Before the genocide, Tutsi were the more educated and wealthy minority… the government created a registration list of Tutsi’s in Kigali, and the most educated and successful were the first on the list to be slaughtered. A cartoon drawn in 1994 depicted the military general talking to a doctor about his sickness, his problem- the Tutsi people. Hutu extremist decided to act upon a well planned final solution to the ‘Tutsi problem’ by eliminating them.
By killing 10 Belgium UN peacekeepers, Expats and foreign workers were pulled out of the country- Peace Corps included (Volunteers were brought back January of last year and have been asked by locals why PC left in their biggest time of need). Troops were brought in to evacuate people… enough troops to stop the genocide but didn’t. Slaughtering continued.
No place was safe. No life was spared. Even Hutus that had married a Tutsi were either raped or tortured after seeing watching their loved ones shot or sliced apart by a machete. Neighbors and old friends turned on each other. There were a certain few individuals hiding people in safety, but getting there before it was too late was a challenge. At times, people desiring refuge inside the compounds of the Catholic church were betrayed by nuns and priests to death squads. People were injured and thrown into mass graves. Some thrown down latrines (equivalent to nasty deep hole campsite porta potties) where 12 other bodies would be thrown on top of them, suffocated and broken. They were forced to dig ditches only to stand and be shot to fall in the handmade grave. Streets were full of decaying bodies and puddles of blood. Eventually, dogs had to be killed in massive amounts because they had developed a taste for human flesh.
The genocide finally ended in July, 3 months after its beginning. UN Force Commander Lt General Romeo Dallaire had warned senior UN staff and diplomats about what was to come, but no one listened. The international community turned its head. When Unimar went into action in July, the RPF had already taken power in Kigali… too much, too late as said by Dallaire himself. Even President Clinton said something about his biggest regret was not helping Rwanda. At this point in the memorial, the lower level is finished.
Walking up the stairs, you wonder what other genocides have occurred in our world. Many- even a couple have occurred during your life if you are under the age of 25. Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Romania, time and time again, people have believed that ethnic cleansing of wiping out a whole nationality of people is the only way to improve the world. How is it that the international community is incapable of stopping genocides from happening when we have studied and know the danger signs leading to their conceptions?
The second part of the upper floor contained photos of smiling and playing children. Plaques held their names, personality descriptions such as a mommy’s boy or cried a lot, favorite food or pastime, and ended with how they died. Sliced by a Machete. Smashed Against the Wall. Single Shot to the Head. It took a lot to keep the eyes dry while looking at photos of bubbly kids who were no more.
The last part of our visit included a walk into a garden. A long archway with green plants hugging the frame. Large cement surfaces covered the mass graves of over 250,000 individuals. Spaces for mothers, fathers, toddlers, orphans, youth, loved ones that are no longer. This is not a site for smiles or laughter but rather sincere pondering of bewilderment.
Once leaving Kigali Memorial Centre, we traveled half an hour away to a church in Ntarama. The fenced covered about 3 acres and held 3 buildings, a garden, and a cement wall containing the names of only a few of the 5,000 people who died within the compound.
We walked up the drive to the main church. Sunlight came through the doorway and grenade hole “windows” on the eastern side of the building. Metal shelves on both the North and South ends held the bone remains of the people slaughtered in the church. Clothes worn by those who died were hanging on wire against the walls.
Similarly, the small building to the left which was used as the priests study was missing bricks from grenade attacks. The Sunday School room/ kitchen building only had a few remains you would expect from an abandoned building. A Rwandan woman telling us about each space said how people were locked inside the kitchen and burned alive. Before heading out, we walked the garden and looked at the names of the 5,000 individuals that were killed on the compound.
Lastly, we drove with little conversation to the memorial in Nyatama. The rain began trickling down putting a gloomy feeling in the environment. This memorial site was a larger church where an office would have been to the left as you walked in and then a large sanctuary to the right with a raised platform and seating in the back for a choir. Although there were no bones upstairs, a bed of clothing across the church pews gave an illusion of bodies floating out to sea- Piles and piles, enough to clothe the 10,000 individuals who were ushered into the sanctuary by troops to contain the bodies that would be blown apart by the grenades. If you look up, you can still see little holes of light from the shards of metal.
Terry, Curtis and I walked outside to sign the visitors book when I met four Rwanda Peace Corps Trainees and began talking. The program there is only a year and a half old since being pulled out back in 1994. Rwandans are very inviting to Peace Corps volunteers although there might be a little feeling of abandonment since we left during the genocide… which you could only expect from the US government. Thankfully, we are back and people are impressed with our language training and grassroots work.
Because I delayed, Curtis and Terry went on ahead of me to the underground mass graves. I walked quickly through the rain to the covering of the entrance and looked below me to what looked like a deep dark hole. I used the light on my phone to assure I didn’t trip down the stairs since I could hardly see. Turning to the right towards the window which wasn’t helpful since it began raining, I saw thousands of skulls and bones. Multiple coffins held more. As I walked down the corridor, I felt as though the floor would be flooded with rats or snakes when I was least expecting it. Thankfully, that didn’t happen and I spent as little time as needed within the rooms.
Friday, being Good Friday, we relaxed and walked around the city some. We went to Hotel Des Mille Collines which is better known as the place in the movie Hotel Rwanda (although shot in South Africa). It stands close to the top of the hill and overlooks Kigali city. It’s a beautiful location and the renovations hardly make it believable that it has such a history as it does.
Saturday, we began the 2 hour journey to Butare. Over the hills and through the woods to the well known technical college in Gikongoro. When you step out of the little bus, cobble streets and fresh air greet you. To get to the once technical college, you must take a short ride through town passing mothers carrying vegetables to the market and little local shops. The school is on the outskirts of town and you ride along the mountain ridge to get to the large plot of land on top of the mountain that must have been quite a site with students and intellectuals roaming around once upon a time.
First, you walk up the stairs to the main building. A woman who knows no English hands you a paper that has been folded and creased by some other visitor’s hands. She leads you behind to see about 30 long buildings and she stops at the one on the edge. Fiddling with the keys, she attempts to unlock the room door and finally gets it on key 9 of 15.
She swings open the door and walks down the sidewalk to unlock 8 more. Powdered lime, which was used to preserve hundreds of bodies, fills the nostrils with the stench of stale death. The room is filled with white lime bodies lying on top of low tables. Instead of full dark bodies covered with clothes like I had imagined these were bodies where the skin so gently laid on top of bones.
Some looked peaceful as a mother holds her child, some look horrific as their mouth was open as if screaming in agony. Some bodies had large gashes through their chest skin, others had flat skulls, some were missing limbs. Hair occasionally left on the skull reminded you that these were people. People that were alive and came here because they had been tricked into believing it was safe. Two weeks and 50,000 individuals were massacred. Families, brothers and sisters, university professors, aspiring students, people who had a future and all of which was stopped because of ethnic cleansing.
As we travelled back to Kigali, I had plenty of time to think about the cruelty of humankind. What has to happen to the mind of a person to believe that another human kind with very few differences is equivalent to a dog and therefore should be executed to better society? What would it take to stop these horrific acts from ever happening again? With today’s technology, I can find your house on google earth yet we can’t find guerrilla troops raping women and burning villages? Hmmm…
Although a short and slightly morbid trip to Rwanda, I’m very glad to have experienced a taste of the peace and beauty Rwanda is today. People were so sick of the fighting, the death, the corruption, that today’s Rwanda is a new place. Streets are clean and landscaped, people are smiling and working together, corruption is unheard of. Every 4th Saturday of the month there is mandatory community service where individuals are fined if found not working- and this includes the President and everyone in power. Rwanda is a changed place.
My prayer is that Northern Uganda will be a changed place. The 21 years of insurgency ended here only a few years ago but is still alive in the DRCongo. Just the other day, the Lord’s Resistance Army was blamed for killing 300 in a small northern village over there. I read on BBC how rape committed by civilians in previously war areas has increased incredibly because locals have changed their views into believing it is okay. War causes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder where people will have flashbacks and hallucinations because of small triggers. Fear of the unknown and threat from others keeps people from trusting each other and creates a distance.
I may be no Indiana Jones and I’m okay with that. He tends to come and go as soon as he finishes his quick mission. I’ve been given a different mission. I can only hope that by living here amongst the people God will give me favor as I work with the young women who have lived through the horrors of genocide.