Ntarama Genocide Memorial

Robbie recommended that we see some genocide sites an hour or so from Kigali. He feels that these give a more situated and real meaning to events than the museum in Kigali.

‘We’ are Rachel and Beck (two Australian medical students on elective here), Thierry (a Swiss medical student), Lara (a medical student from the Netherlands who I insist on calling Clara for reasons unknown), Didi (a traveller, also from the Netherlands), and I.

Somehow I volunteer to organise. They’ve known me long enough (about 20 hours) to find the prospect of this amusing. I’ve nothing to worry about though, as the driver ‘knows everything’. An hour later we are lost. The car becomes surrounded by children laughing as I try to question to them, in French and English, without success.

I should be getting used to this technological revolution sweeping Africa by now. As a last resort, I take out my iPhone. Google maps loads straight away at 3G speed, and I direct the driver to the church.

Actually, it’s no longer a church, but a memorial: a new church has been built opposite. A survivor gives us a brief introduction outside the building. There are holes in the brick walls and smaller holes in the tin roof from grenade shrapnel. The original gate is broken from where grenades were thrown in.

On entering the building we are faced with piles of dusty clothes on broken benches. I do not wish to walk around or near to the piles of clothes at first. They command a kind of distance and power. Yet my reaction is not horror. I feel a deep sense of calm. The number who were killed in the small church, as shown by the clothing, is indeed shocking. As are the broken benches: I imagine the grenades being powerful enough to crush the bodies bodies and the benches beneath them.

Yet there’s a settled kind of sad beauty to the place. There is peace. I can hear the birds singing. The lost feel somehow present. The simplicity of the damaged church, and the flowers arranged on a platform behind the bodies, seem a respectful and fitting memorial. Among the shrapnel-holed walls and roof, and the metal frame surrounding the coloured glass windows, is a statue of a holy figure, somehow preserved, watching over the destruction below.

In subterranean spaces under both the inside and outside of the church are human skulls and bones stacked on shelves. Other than the birdsong, the only sound is the methodical brushing sound of the yards being swept. Lara sums up the experience aptly: ‘It’s just terrible’, she says, with neither anger nor hopelessness, but a calm kind of acceptance.

We go to the second church, a short drive away. It is in many ways similar to the first. Yet here the skulls are upstairs, in the light. Atop them are pink roses, wrapped neatly in woven white cloth. However we perceive the genocide and memorials to it, it is surely a great achievement to turn such hate not into a show of anger, but rather an expression of peace and love. Even in its bare skeletal detail, there is a sense that these remains have finally been given a kind of final peace.

Thanks to the guide, I find out why the wall of names here is as empty as the one at the museum in Kigali: Many were displaced from their homes and no-one knows who died where, or whose bodies are in the church. Some have been recognised. Names cannot simply be added to any wall in any church. They have to be tied to places. So the walls are almost empty. Multiple bodies sit in each coffin. They will be added to the mass graves, which also lie empty here (in this case partly because the graves are fairly new, not only for reasons of identification), in April.

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