Today it’s April the 7th 2018, a day that marks the 24th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide.
One million people were killed in a hundred days in one of the darkest, most horrific, most shameful periods in history.
This post is part of the series ‘Letters from the Heart of Africa’ first published on http://www.heyloons.com
One hour away from Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, a perfectly tarmacked road winds its way between hills and spurs. You might think you were in the Scottish highlands, but there is a warm breeze that sways maize stalks, ripples the sugar cane and dispels the parallel.
The road takes you to a place called Nyamata, a quiet and unassuming village where farmers trudge with huge bunches of plantains on their backs, women scythe grass and children with dusty bodies play with wire toys in the road.
While the Scottish highlands have the purple of heather and dulcet browns, here it’s the green that hits you. It’s all green. A green I had never seen before. The trees, the maize, the banana leaves, it’s a vibrant green, look-at-me, flag-waving green, ostentatious green, electric, neon-green.
It could be just like any of Rwanda’s villages but Nyamata is different. Nyamata harbours a terrible secret and whispers of tragic past.
There’s a church there, a simple red-brick building, shaded by acacia trees, peaceful and serene. If bricks could chatter, they’d tell you their story:
… in April 1994, during the Rwandan genocide, thousands of people, many of them women and children, came to this church, seeking sanctuary within its walls to escape the interahamwe, the Hutu militia who perpetrated the genocide.
A church. A place of refuge, a place of Christ’s word, of love and good-will. But also a church in Rwanda, Africa’s most Christian country. Surely they would be safe here they thought. No one would dare attack a church?
Yet the interahamwe, the thugs, fuelled on booze, drugs and bigoted brainwashing, fired machine guns and mortars at the church; they made small holes in the walls through which they lobbed grenades and once they got inside, amongst the dying, crying, bleeding people crawling on the stone floor, they left no-one untouched. They hacked everyone to death with machetes. Ten thousand people were murdered there.
Today the church is preserved as a memorial and holds reminders of that dark day. There are piles of decrepit and dusty clothes, a child’s t-shirt, a summer’s dress, a jacket with buttons, some shoes, just simple clothes that you might have in your wardrobe.
Its walls have gaping holes, bullet holes and bigger, and the altar cloth is stained with brown. Aged blood turned darker, over 14 years. A statue of Mary, face pink and robes royal blue, gazes downwards, standing solitary, contemplatively, silent witness to a past horror; her serene appearance looked disturbing and incongruent to her surroundings.
Behind the church, I descended a wooden ladder in to a dark, underground room that smelled musty; out of the sun, the air felt cool on my face and strangely refreshing. As my eyes adjusted to the half-light, shelves appeared, and between them were narrow aisles. On them sat skulls. Thousands of them. In neat rows. All staring. In a single direction. Their eye sockets were hollow and sad, some teeth missing, some without jaw bones, many skulls had fractures.
I felt observed. I also felt intrusive, as if I was interrupting something in session, their peace perhaps. Their dignity. Their right to not be seen. But then I thought about the importance of memory. And that we should never forget this. An act where due to perpetration or lack of action, we who were adults in 1994 (I was one) are all involved, for culpability is one of extent. It only takes good people to do nothing for evil to prevail.
On lower shelves the bones were laid out parallel like firewood bundles; femurs, ribs, collar bones, fibulas, tibias and fingers, all brown, some flaky. The most disturbing of all the skulls, the ones that that smacked you like a brick in the chest, were the ones the size of your fist.
Every now and again more bones are found and added to this underground chamber, discovered perhaps by children too young to have lived through the genocide, chasing a stray ball in a thicket or by showers jet-washing the red soil above them. When they are found, they are cleaned ceremoniously and brought to the church to rest finally in dignity.
In the home-bound taxi the rolling scenery changed; the white cumulus clouds sullied to darkened underbellies, the blue skies diluted to a drab wash of grey and the emerald of the patchwork fields became taupe. The green of the beautiful Rwandan countryside had lost its sheen. The electric green was unplugged.
This was the a post in the series, ‘Letters from the Heart of Africa’ first published on http://www.heyloons.com.
Previous posts in the series are below:
20. Feeling down
25. As time goes by
Further posts will be published over the summer of 2018.