blog posts from GYC's participants, alumni, & staff
Reflections on visiting the Kigali Memorial Center and the memorial at Nyamata Church, where some 10,000 Tutsis were killed between April 14 and 19, 1994.
I came to Rwanda because I care deeply about what happened here and believe I must do everything I can to make “Never Again” a universal reality.
I am not typically overcome with emotion at memorial sites. Not even visits to two concentration camps in Germany — Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrück — could bring me to tears. In the face of these two living dioramas of cold and calculated genocide, I became dazed and wordless, and unable to connect the systems of death with the human dimension of the tragedy.
When I visited the Kigali Memorial Center — where 250,000 individuals lie in mass graves — along with my fellow Rwandan and American delegates from the Global Youth Connect Human Rights Delegation in Rwanda (August 2012), I was indeed saddened by what I learned, but also heartened by the stories of those who stood up against tyranny and terror. As it turns out, the guest house at which I have been staying for most of my three weeks in Rwanda — St. Paul’s Centre Nationale Pastorale — was a refuge for two thousand Tutsis, who were protected by Father Céléstin Hakizimana from certain death. Nor will I ever forget Yahaya Nsengiyumva, who hid 30 people in an outhouse. She used to cite the proverb — found in both Islamic and Jewish traditions — “to save one life is as if to save the whole world.”
I also appreciated that Rwanda’s central memorial to its own recent history dedicated a significant amount of space to educating Rwandans and international visitors about other incidents of genocide and mass atrocity, including the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, Bosnia, and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. Visitors are able to draw parallels between these distinct historical events while uncovering universal lessons. For example, it is hard not to notice similarities between the Nazi Nuremberg Laws and the Hutu Ten Commandments, and between the Nazis’ and Belgian colonialists’ obsessions with physical differences between people — so-called “race science” that paved the way for dehumanization as a precursor to genocide. In commemorating its own tragedy alongside past horrors, Rwanda has clearly gone to great lengths to generate domestic awareness about the legacy of genocide that haunts the international community.
The Church was a place of refuge for countless Tutsis fleeing from their homes to the Bugesera region. Yet the interahamwe gained Hutu government support to massacre nearly 10,000 people at and around the Church.
The memorial visit begins with a glance up to the corrugated tin roof, which is still full of countless holes from innumerable bullets. Inside, pews are covered in the clothing of the victims. Pants, shirts, and the like. Now ownerless, the piles of garments wilt pathetically. We are left to think of the individuals who once wore those clothes. Similarly, I will never forget having seen a t-shirt on display at the Kigali Memorial Center, which featured the logo for Ottawa, my home town. How did the young victim come to wear that t-shirt? The world is too small for comfort.
Beneath the main floor of the church is a tall glass case of brutally smashed and machete-slashed skulls. A single adorned tomb lies below.
Outside, there are two mass graves, each with a small staircase descending into the grave. I hesitated. I let everyone go down first. Finally, I crept down the stairs, wanting nothing more than to be invisible. During nearly every waking moment of my life, there is music in my head. When I entered the tomb, no sound filled my consciousness as it usually does. I had lost access to any usual stream of joy, hope, rhythm or life. I saw rows upon rows of skulls and bones — and one of my Rwandan colleagues using her flashlight to examine the skulls. She picked up a few of them. What was she looking for? I will never know.
My fellow Rwandan delegate whose father was killed at the church entered the tomb without so much as a wince or twitch. He stood before the sea of stolen humanity with incredible strength and courage. He turned to one of the delegates from the US and declared, “my Daddy was killed here.” He said it again. “My Daddy was killed here.” Matter of fact. A few minutes later, he and one of the American delegates shared a moment of deep connection, as the pain of visiting Nyamata collided with her own memory of a family member who had recently passed away. (She bravely put her thoughts together in this blog post, which I encourage you to read). The Rwandan delegate joined her in collective mourning. Beyond the intractable tension and overwhelming emotion of the moment, I think he was deeply moved that the nightmare at Nyamata that killed his father resonated so poignantly — and so brutally — with his new friend from America.
Our group has frequently discussed the notion of restoring dignity to the victims of the 1994 genocide. Surveying the array of skulls and bones while inside the tomb, I could not help but wonder if it is indeed possible to bring dignity to individuals killed in the most undignified ways imaginable — unimaginable.
After we shared a moment of silence, we marched slowly to the bus — many of us finding it difficult to leave the site. I know I left something of myself at the church. Indeed, it may prove difficult for me to re-learn that mankind is basically good and to remind myself that God is great.
I do not yet know how my visit to Nyamata will affect my future outlook on human rights, remembrance, and the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. What I do know is that God brought me to Rwanda to bear witness to the worst of human acts. He challenged me to leave my comfort zone and attempt to process crimes too terrible to be believed, but not too terrible to have happened, as my mentor Irwin Cotler often puts it when discussing the universal lessons of genocide in general and the Holocaust in particular. As he says, no one can say we did not know what was happening in Rwanda. We knew but did not act. The international community had the resources to stop the killing and our collective failure to protect continues to haunt and mystify us all.
The question today remains: now that I have left the Nyamata Church — and have left behind its 10,000 innocent victims of that awful year, 1994, during which I was learning to fingerpaint and count while about a million people were slaughtered senselessly — what can I do to make “Never Again” a reality?