Revisiting the 1994 Rwandan Genocide: Nyamata Church Massacre Site
Stepping out of the car, I looked at the red-brick building and well-manicured lawn in front of me. The building and its compound seemed sterile and unassuming. It was quiet, with the exception of the soft chatter of the compound caretakers. However, as I stepped into the premises, I was immediately confronted with the deep evil behind the walls - where 10,000 men, women, and children were mercilessly slaughtered as they became trapped in what they thought was a safe haven. Walls don't talk, but the bullet holes and dried blood stains on them do.
A lady guide at the compound showed me around the complex and gave brief explanations about the genocide and the events at Nyamata Church. She didn't say much; she didn't need to, what I saw spoke the unspeakable truth of mankind's brutality towards their own.
Inside the church, with evidence of bullet holes on the walls and iron gates dented from grenade attacks to gain entry, laid piles upon piles of dusty and rotting clothes - once belonging to the people who sought refuge here. The church was a massive complex, but space would still have been quite tight, packed with 10,000 refugees and their belongings. Threatened with violence that erupted quickly after the assassination of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, thousands of Tutsis from the surrounding region had sought refuge at Nyamata Church, as they have always done, when tension erupted between the Hutus and the Tutsis. Little did they realise that even the sacred sanctuary the Church provided in previous years could not save them from their inevitable and violent deaths.
The mass killings of Tutsis began almost immediately following the President's assassination on 6 April 1994, with civilian Hutus being supported by the military to kill their Tutsi neighbours, to loot their belongings. Moderate Hutus were also slayed. Many Tutsis were encouraged to seek refuge in churches and schools, where they were to become easy targets for large-scale massacres by the government interahamwe forces. Grenades, machetes, knives, clubs, and farming tools were used as killing aids. To save bullets, many victims were hacked to death. Pepper was also thrown on upon the piles of bodies to search for survivors, who were then killed. Women were also raped before their deaths.
At Nyamata Genocide Memorial Centre, even though my visit came two decades after the atrocities, the air I breathed in at the compound still felt heavy, as though burdened by the brutal deaths of thousands of innocents. Descending a flight of stairs at the mass graves, I saw shelves upon shelves of bones, unidentified and grouped by the body segments they came from - dehumanized, as they were prior to their deaths. In all, I was told the bones came from over 45,000 people, including those massacred in the surrounding areas. Even though the bones laid right in front of me, I could hardly fathom the cruel truth: the merciless killings of thousands of innocent people in the House of God.
I had watched "Hotel Rwanda", a drama film based on the Rwandan Genocide. I would recommend this film for those unfamiliar to the Rwandan Genocide to know more. The film depicted how propaganda was used through mass media (such as the radio) to incite violence against the Tutsis, labelling them as "cockroaches" to be "exterminated". According to the guide at Nyamata, Tutsis and Hutus shared similar appearances and culture, and even worshipped at the same churches, the only differences between them was the label "Hutu" or "Tutsi" listed on their identity cards. And yet, the military forces were so successful in their propaganda to dehumanizing the Tutsis that the Hutu civilian population had no qualms in killing off their Tutsi neighbours.
I didn't stay at Nyamata Genocide Memorial Centre for long yet it left me with profound feelings and a heavy heart. The guide informed me that photographs of the church interior and inside of the mass graves were not allowed (the exteriors were fine), but she left me pretty much on my own to explore and allowed me amble time to reflect on this dark chapter of human history.
I didn't take any footage of the interiors - out of respect for the victims, and also, to give them, that little bit of dignity, which they did not have at the last days of their lives.
The video experience of Nyamata Genocide Memorial Centre may be viewed here: