Conceiving the Inconceivable

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Africa » Rwanda » Ville de Kigali » Kigali
June 25th 2010
Published: June 26th 2010EDIT THIS ENTRY

Today was rough. For some reason it was far from the toughest day of the trip though. We visited three different genocide memorials in the area of Kigali. The first two were churches which were sites of massacres. We walked through the gates of the first, Ntarama. Against the back wall of the church were shelves which had more than a hundred skulls on each. The top shelf had arm bones. The bottom shelf consisted of femurs and pelvises. This was not quite what I expected, but I definitely felt the impact. The walls of the church were are covered with the clothes of those who were massacred.

In the front of the church were the foam mattresses people brought with them. Next to this were shelves with their belongings. One shelf held food containers they brought, another shoes, another random knick-nacks. A bol sat next to the shelves holding many pipes of the people killed. For a long while the church was left how it was after the massacre. Bodies were right left to decompose. Dogs began coming in during the night to eat. For the sake of preservation of the site, bones, and artifacts, items were sorted through and organized as described.

The next building was a Sunday school. The Interahamwe (Hutu militias made up of trained civilians) soaked a mattress in gas and threw it inside to burn the people alive. The bodies were removed, but otherwise it stood as it was when burned. The next site was Ntayara. People took refuge there during the test runs for the genocide through the early 1990s. Smaller groups of Tutsi were killed to assess the effectiveness and international reaction. An Italian nun attempted to provide aid and international attention to the crisis. Her calls remained unanswered until silenced when she was killed. Shortly after, soldiers began grenading the church which held 10,000 people in a space no bigger than a basketball court. Once inside, they separated the children to kill them first. Theysaid they had to check how sharp the machetes were so they began beheading the children. The militia also threw children against the brick walls which still have blood stains. A bloody cover remained on the altar.

One Hutu woman was told she should leave. She refused to abandon her Tutsi husband. The soldiers first killed him. They then told the woman she must leave, but not until they cut the Tutsi child from her womb. A child's ethnicity is determined by its father. The Interahamwe just saw the fetus as another Tutsi. Considering that the invading force from Uganda was made up of the children of Tutsi refugees who fled in 1959, they saw the child as a future soldier.

Seeing all of this makes understanding genocide and what happened here even more impossible to comprehend. Looking around Kigali, it is unfathomable to understand that genocide occurred here so efficiently and quickly. Being here in the place where it happened only makes it more difficult to conceive. Over 10,000 people were killed in the small church.

In the basement of the church was a glass case with bones on display. Below was a casket. It held the remains of a beautiful Tutsi woman many Hutus wanted as a wife. She hid in the forest during the genocide, but was eventually found. Over 50 militia members raped her before stabbing her to death in a brutal fashion. Her remains reside here in this special place to commemorate the women who suffered similar fates.

Outside the church were two mass graves. I was surprised to hear we were going in. I always imagined mass graves as a huge sealed off pit of bodies. When we descended it was just a hallway about 3 feet wide with caskets 15 feet up to the ceiling. We were told 20 bodies filled each casket since they were either hacked to pieces or well on the road to decomposition by the time clean up occurred. The other mass grave was more upsetting. It was hands down the most uncomfortable I have ever been in my entire life. It was shelves and shelves of bones from the floor to ceiling. Imagine descending into a 3 foot wide hallway and being surrounded by hundreds of skulls and other bones from the bottom to top, 15 feet of them. That is an estimate. I am terrible at estimating distance so it could have been 20 for all I know. I could only take the shallowest breaths possible while in this space.

The last site was Gisozo. It was not the site of a massacre, but a genocide museum and memorial. 14 mass graves lined the gardens. 250,000 people were buried there. A quarter of a million. The most moving parts of the exhibits were those that personalized the remains. One room was filled with pictures of people killed taken at times long before the genocide. I saw happy people, just married, bright future, a newborn baby, having fun. Everyone was killed due to the fact their national identity card said "Tutsi." No other details were considered or mattered.

Another section had pictures of young children telling their stories. One boy refused to leave his now legless friend behind. On the road he was threatened by a group of militia members. He was attacked and dropped his friend. He got away, but saw his friend finished off. Whenever he remembers, he cries for the rest of the day. How many days do you think he lives without remembering that?

One area had brief profiles of young children killed.
Name: Yves
Favorite Food: Rice with sauce
Best friend: Big sister
Death: Hacked by machete
The bones were something different. They dehumanized the experience to many in the group. I am still figuring out how I feel. They are important to see. They show the brutality. Other genocide memorials do not have this. I feel like it is because in the Holocaust Zyclon B was impersonal. Bones decomposing and remains became a fact of life in Rwanda where every death was the result of numerous hacks of the machete or swings of the club if you were not wealthy enough to pay the Interahamwe for the bullet to shoot you with. The bones tell the tale of brutality more accurately, but their stories provide something drastically different.

The stories are all we have of these people. Their bones are bones and tell us little. Maybe how they died if the skull has an obvious machete wound or was clubbed in. A few details of the people's lives are all we have. Even without a body, marked grave, or bones, a friend, mother, father, brother, sister, or distant cousin telling the story of a loved one's death or what they enjoyed in life provides more flesh and body than bones ever could. I see a skull and try to put flesh on the form. How many tears were shed for this person? Hearing details of their lives helps me imagine the buckets cried for each individual who still had relatives left to mourn them.

I do want to end on a more positive note. Amid all the stories of humans treating each other with no compassion are the tales of those everyday people going out of their way to save countless strangers. One man dug a deep hole. Individuals hid there. He covered them with banana leaves and dirt. He then planted potatoes to make it look like a harmless garden.

Another woman used the rumor about her being possessed by evil spirits to scare away the Interahamwe trying to get to the Tutsis she was harboring. A girl came late who was expected much earlier. She was turned away because the safehouse was now full. When the good Samaritan heard her grief she said "Come back... Your tears will judge me for all eternity." The power of human emotion moved this woman so much that she accepted the girl in. If only everyone was so passionate about alleviating the suffering of another. The most inspiring quote came from a man who decided to help someone. "When you save one life, it is like saving the whole world."

If only everyone realized the importance, magnitude, and invaluable nature of one human life. Even when that person lives across the globe or within a different arbitrarily drawn border, or if they are white, black, yellow, brown, or polka dot we must value every human life. When a person dies, their unique perspective dies with them. They are the only one who will ever experience life as they have, make a certain order of decisions, and truly understand the world as it relates to their experiences. THis cannot be recovered. It cannot be salvaged. Preserving a life is the only way to begin to value the individualistic perspective of one person which differs so drastically from any other who ever has or ever will exist.


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