The Mass Graves: Ntarama and Nyamata

* Trigger warning: this post contains explicit descriptions
of violence

I did the math, and if I count conservatively, today marks
the 18th and 19th genocide sites I have visited.  This list includes mass graves, memorials,
concentration camps, and ghettos.  I keep
telling myself that it will get easier and that maybe this time it wont hurt so
much, but in many ways I am relieved that visiting these places wrecks me.  I do not want to become desensitized to these
things, because the emotional reaction is a sign of my persistent
humanity.   People often ask me why I do
this to myself, why I keep going to these places, what possesses me to seek out
these painful experiences.  Over the
years I have come up with polished answers that growing up Jewish and working
with members of the Sudanese refugee community when I was young influenced my
“path.”  I am not a particularly
religious person, so I don’t think that this is some sort of higher
calling.  In reality I have no idea what
led me here.

 I questioned my own motivations when I visited Ntarama and
Nyamata memorials in the East of Rwanda today.
At 11:30, after church services ended, Jean picked me up.  He is a Rwandan taxi driver who I met a few
days ago.  It is common practice here
that once you find a driver you like you exchange numbers and almost
exclusively use their services.  For me
the challenge was finding someone with whom I had a minimal language barrier,
and who would not charge me the “Mzengu Price.”
Jean is a kind soft spoken man in his late fifties, who speaks French
and Kinyarwandan, and continuously seems to charge me Rwandan prices.  Prior to departure we agreed that for a few
hours of driving it would be about $35.
I got in the back of the cab and we began our hour’s journey to the

The drive there, through the Rwandan countryside, was
beautiful but I felt a tightness in my chest the entire time.  This was the first time I was visiting a
genocide site of this severity on my own.
I had gone to smaller memorials and museums on my own, but for the
concentration camps and big places I always had someone to lean on.  I had been forewarned that these were two of
the hardest places to visit, not just in Rwanda, but generally in the history
of genocide in the 20th century. 

We arrived in the district, and pulled onto a narrow dirt
road.  After bumping along for a while we
arrived at Ntarama, adorned with white and grey memorial fabrics.  In the front lawn of the property was a group
of about forty Rwandans each holding a single white lily with a grey bow
wrapped around it.  Jean parked the car
and softly announced, in French, that he will accompany me inside.  We walked onto the property and hung
back.  I was unsure if it was a group of
survivors or if it was a private memorial and I did not want to intrude.  Jean asked one of the people in Kinyarwandan,
who explained that there was only one person available to give tours of the
grounds and she was currently presenting to this group, so if we wanted to be
guided we would have to wait.  Jean and I
stationed ourselves on a bench and waited for around 45 minutes, which gave me
time to calm myself and take account of the surroundings.

Ntarama was a church in small Tutsi town.  During the beginning of the ethnic
segregations, many Tutsis were forced to move to this region, where there is
little arable land and a high presence of tsetse flies.  By the time the genocide began, nearly the
entire area was Tutsis.  From the garden,
it looked like a standard church for the region.  By the time the first tour had finished I had
memorized every inch of the gardens.
Right as we were about to begin, two other white foreigners arrived, so
they joined us on the tour.  This was the
first thing about the genocide that they were seeing, so the tourguide first
gave a bit of background to the conflict.

Then she explained that two days after the genocide began,
thousands fled to this church, believing that no one would hurt them in the
house of god.  They managed to keep the
interhamwe away for a few days, but by April 12th 1994 they overtook
the church.  They threw grenades onto the
property, and then came in with machetes, clubs, and guns to kill anyone who
survived the blast.  In a matter of days thousands
of Tutsis were murdered at the church, a number managed to escape to a nearby
swamp, where they could hide.  The guide
said that inside there were clothes, bodies, coffins, possessions of the dead,
and the weapons use to kill them.  Then
we walked in 

The church is a small rectangle, with two rows of maybe
twenty benches, a modest alter, and two doors.
We entered through the back door and were immediately confronted with
shelves containing human remains.  The
shelving spanned the entire back wall of the church.  Two shelves contained hundreds of skulls and
the third contained arm and leg bones.
Then to the left of us were the church pews, each with a coffin
atop.  Then there were clotheslines drawn
across the width of the church, each sagging with the weight of the clothes of
the dead.   The guide pointed to
different skulls, explaining which cracks were left by different kinds of
weapons.  “This is a bullet, this is a
machete, this is a club” and so on.  Then
she pointed to a shattered skull that was no bigger than my fist.  To kill the babies and small children, she
explained, they smashed their heads against the walls.  Then she pointed to the coffins and said each
contained the remains of probably fifty people.
Then we proceeded towards the altar.

 The other end of the church was full of different
relics.  There were strings of brightly
colored rosaries, pots, pans, mattresses, and shoes.  Then around the base of the altar there was a
collection of weapons, which had been used in that church.  There were machetes, scythes, nailed clubs,
knives, large unidentifiable metal objects, and then a long narrow sharpened
stick that was perhaps five feet long.
The guide explained how the different objects were used.  Most were obvious, she said that they stuck
nails in the wooden clubs, since it made the killing more efficient.  Then she explained about the long
sticks.  She said Tutsi women in particularly
were tortured as a way to dehumanize the population.  After women had been raped the militia would
force the stick through her genitals, through her body, until it broke her
neck.  This was considered one of the
most gruesome ways of killing.

I was in shock.  I
felt adhered to the ground, my eyes running across the length of the church,
from the pointed stick, along the rows of clothes, the children’s skulls.  I couldn’t cry.  I was just kind of there – in front of it all
and unsure what to do.  We walked out of
the church, and the guide said there were three more things to see.

 First we walked into what used to be the priests
quarters.  The room had empty coffins,
waiting for bodies yet uncovered.  It
also had stacks of worn bullet ridden bibles and school children’s
notebooks.  She said this is where they
kept the documents that were recovered with the bodies.  Then she led us to another building, which
used to be a kitchen and had suffered extensive damage from the bombing.  It was left in its condition, so show the
extent of damage that the grenades caused.
Next we went to the Sunday school room.
Here the children and babies had been hiding when the interwhame overtook
the grounds.  One wall was marked with
blood and brain matter of the babies who had been hit against the wall.  Then on the surrounding walls there were
notes from different school groups that had visited the property.  

Finally we went to the mass graves, which like the others I
had seen here in Rwanda, was massive grey concrete rectangles.  There are roughly eleven thousand people
interned here from the Ntarama massacre as well as bodies recovered form the
surrounding area.  The Wall of Names here
only has 250 names written on it.  The
guide explained that these are the only reported names they have after twenty
years.  Since this was a primarily Tutsi
area, entire families and neighborhoods were killed and there is no one left to
remember their names.  

 That concluded our tour and we walked down to main entrance
and a guest book.  I talked with the
guide, who said she is currently earning her masters in peace and conflict
studies.  She is writing her thesis about
the Ntarama memorial and asked me to fill out a survey for her.  We exchanged email addresses and then Jean
and I walked to the car.  

 The two white foreigners from our tour, were standing next
to the cab.  Then said they had taken
moto taxis here and had no way to get back to the nearest town.  We gave them a ride and I sat in the front
with Jean.  Turns out one was from Texas
and one from the Netherlands and they had both sold all of their possessions to
travel the world.  They met a month ago
in Uganda and were now continuing on together.
We dropped them off where the dirt roads turned to pavement and headed
in the opposite direction towards Nyamata.
Sitting in the front seat made my conversation with Jean more
comfortable.  He told me that it was also
his first time visiting these places.

 About ten minutes later we arrived at the second memorial
and Jean parked the car.  From the
outside it was clear that this church is considerably larger.  Our temporary Dutch and American companions,
had warned us that Nyamata is a harder place to visit.  We went in the main entrance, past the armed
policeman with an AK-47 resting in his lap, and up the main doors where we were
greeted by yet another kind Rwandan woman, who was also pursuing her masters
thesis in peace studies.  I am continually
impressed that these women are able to do these jobs, to sit next to the mass
graves and memorials day in and day out, to constantly repeat the history.  It takes a certain mental strength which I
cannot imagine.  

 We stood outside the main gain and the guide said she would
give us a brief overview and then she would let us wander through the church on
our own.  Standing in the foyer of the
church she showed us where the first grenade had broken through the door.  Then she pointed to the ceiling, which was
pocked with bullet holes and smattered with blood.  She said that inside, the church was left in
its original condition and much like Ntarama, the pews are covered with the
clothes of the victims.  She said there
was also a small basement, accessible from the inside, where there were some
remains and also the coffin of a women who was raped and murdered with a stick
in the manner described previously.  

Jean and I entered and both took a moment’s pause.  The church could probably hold thousands of
people for services.  It was massive,
especially compared to the previous one and every single pew was covered in
stacks of clothes.  The garments varied
in color, but through dust and time they had all been rendered a similar shade
of brown.  We walked down the aisles and
stopped at the front row of the church, just before the altar.  Jean murmured “le chemise d’enfant” and
pointed to small red and white striped shirt that belonged to a baby of no more
than eight or nine months.  

We walked up to the altar that had a few different artifacts
from the war, including a Tutsi passbook.
Jean explained to me about the passbooks they were forced to carry,
which identified their ethnicity.  We
stood for a moment in silence.  On the
drive to Nyamata, we had discussed how the more places you visit, the more of
this you witness, its harder to have a reaction – and for Jean he lives in the
aftermath of this.  I had yet to cry and
didn’t want to be the first one to do so.
To cry while he, a citizen of this country managed to keep his
composure, somehow seemed wrong.  

Next we turned down the steps of that lead to the
basement.  Floor to ceiling the basement
was covered in white bathroom tile.  A
few halogen lights twitched above us, giving off the sterile and discomforting
sense of how I imagine a morgue.  On a
glass shelf in front of us there were, the once again neatly organized, skulls
and bones of about fifty people.  Below
was the coffin of the women killed, covered in intricate white lace, with a
cross resting on top.  The door to the
case was either missing or never there in the first place, so hypothetically
one could reach forward and touch the skulls. Hanging from the wire frame of
the shelving was another myriad of sparking rosaries, which honored every color

 My breath quickened and I put my hand to my chest. I tried
to focus on breathing.  I turned to Jean,
he nodded at me and then mounted the stairs to the main room.  He let me alone so that I could break
down.  In the privacy of the white room,
just me and the remains, I began to cry again.
Softly at first, and then the tears ran from my eyes in an
uncontrollable manner.  I stayed down
there for only a few minutes, but it felt much longer.  I kept looking at the bones, unsure of how I
was supposed to respond.  I hummed the
Mourners Kaddish to myself, wiped away the tears, and walked up into the main
room of the church.  I had managed to
regain myself, when I walked by the little red and white infant’s shirt from
earlier.  A whimper escaped my mouth and
tears fell again.

We exited the building, and met the guide again.  She told us to make our way around to the
back of the building, where the mass graves were, and that upon our return she
would provide an explanation.  We walked
back to see three rows of the grey concrete rectangles, ornamented with single
roses, white lilies, and the grey fabrics of remembrance.   There
had been silence between us for a while until Jean said “C’est dommage” which
translates to “what shame.”  Our guide
told us that 50,000 people were buried in the mass graves, who had been killed
inside the church and in the surrounding area.

I thanked her, signed the guest book, and left a
donation.  We walked out of the church,
past the policeman with the AK-47, and back to Jean’s taxis for the hour long
drive back to Kigali.  On the way to the
car we passed a sign, with a phrase in Kinyarwandan, that is commonly used in
the reconciliation process here.  It said
“If you knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.” 


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