Day Three – Outside Kigali Rwanda

Day Three: A Voice from the Grave

Today we visited memorials. In Ireland memorials are comprised of well-polished granite stone with gold or back inlaid ornate writing. The area around memorials has carefully selected matching pebbles and ornamental shrubs making it a pleasant place to visit. In a sense memorials sanitise the memory. Not in Rwanda. As I sit and write I have a knot in my stomach; I am ever so slightly nauseous; all caused by what I saw. I still have the smell of death lingering in my membranes. These are the things that can’t be adequately captured in words and they only hint at the horrors of genocide. The memorials do not seek to obscure the horror of it all. This is the effect that today’s visits had on me; how awful must it be for Christine who travels with us. In these places we visited today she lost her family to this barbarity. I looked in as an outsider; she looked from within.

In the morning we visited the memorial in Nyamata. The memorial was once a church. The guide told us that up to six thousand people were killed here soon after the genocide began; over one thousand were shot in a twenty minute period. The memorial contains trays of human skulls and bones as you walk in the door. All around are clothes of victims draped over whatever they can be draped over; they are blood-stained; they carry memory, cruelty and death. The floor is pocked marked with holes made from grenades blasts; the building tattered with bullet holes. Some of the weapons used in the genocide on this site were left behind. The usual machetes and even one metal ball commonly called a shot-putt used in athletic events but it this case used to splinter a person’s skull.
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Draped over the altar is a purple cloth with the following inscription Iyo Umenya Nawe Ukimenya Ntuba Waranyishe. Obviously scribed by a survivor it is indeed a voice from the grave. ‘If you knew who I was and you knew who you are you would not have killed me’. There is play on tense in this powerful sentence. The person who speaks is gone…the person who committed the act is still alive. Other memorials carry slogans like ‘lest we forget’ or ‘Never Again’…this memorial brings out the fact that individual human being were killed by other human beings. In what used to be the sacristy there was a shelf containing books that children used when they took sanctuary and refuge in the church. One book lay open. It depicted the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. As you see from the photograph, the pages are wearing thin but the colours in the picture remain strong.

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One may rightfully ask why were churches a place of genocide? The answer is quite simple. In the countryside when people are in fear they gather in one place. They thought they’d be safe in a Church but those planning the genocide were no respecters of place or of people. Later I asked Christine and John Bosco what was the prayer of the people in these places. Not surprisingly they had moved beyond the prayer of ‘God please save me’. Their prayer was ‘if I am to survive please let me’ but also ‘when I die take me into your loving arms Father’. They knew what was ahead; in one place only one thousand out of the ten thousand that were hidden in a swamp called the Valley of Death survived.
The guides in these locations start talking in the third person and then quite soon you realise that they are survivors; one guide was ten when the genocide struck. He was left with no family. ‘Being a survivor is about gratitude’, he said ‘gratitude for the gift of life and living well physically, emotionally and spiritually’. I suppose when the taken for granted connections are ripped away from you, you have to work on the deeper ones.
In the memorial at Nyamato we had mass. We sat together and prayed. From this highly articulate group -not slow to give a view or an opinion – there was only silence. What we were witnessing was beyond words; what we needed was beyond words; what Christine and John Bosco needed was beyond words. Some reading this blog may not be religious but for those who are, you may be aware of the power of the Eucharist to connect and to transport. John Bosco was the only one who spoke; he said that it is now clear to him that the purpose of his return is to connect with his family who were taken from his; he spoke also for Christine who nodded. The mass was celebrated above a tomb that contained the remains of thirty five thousand people killed in the genocide among the remains in that place were those of her two sisters.

Buried close by are the remains of an Italian nun, Sr.Tonia Locatelli. She was murdered in 1992, two years before the genocide. On national radio she said, ‘we must save these people, we must protect them. It is the government itself which is doing this’.

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Today Nelson Mandela was buried; I will never forget this day…laid to rest in his African soil.

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