Our fourth week here we travelled to the Huye Province of Rwanda (in the South) to stay in Butare. Before we got there though we visited Murambi Genocide Memorial. Words cannot describe what I saw at this museum, but I will try to express what I experienced there.
In 1994 the site was being constructed as a secondary school. However, it was never finished and during the atrocities of the genocide thousands of people fled from their homes in the surrounding hills to seek refuge in the buildings. Additionally, local government officials instructed citizens to hide there in order to be protected. Like so many other establishments that were sought out as sanctuaries, this one did not protect those hiding within it. Perpetrators killed an innumerable amount people at Murambi.
Mass graves filled with bodies – of those both alive and dead – at the back end of the site. When France sent troops to Rwanda in order to ‘help’ with the situation they used the same site at Murambi for their operating offices. It was from this area that they planned the actions of their operation: Zone Turquoise. When the French soldiers arrived at the secondary school, they cleaned the area and removed any evidence of the atrocity that occurred there in order to report that all was well. Additionally, the mass graves (which were not closed or covered and therefore very noticeable) were covered over and used by French soldiers as a place to play volleyball.
The memorial itself consists of two components. The first part you encounter at Murambi is an historical timeline of the events leading up to and during 1994 with personal testimonies, photographs of survivors and victims, video clips, and other elements not uncharacteristic of such a museum. The second part of Murambi distinguishes it from other genocide memorials and anything I have ever seen in my life.
Two buildings, each made up of (I think) six classrooms, house the remains of victims who were removed from the mass graves. Both sides of the rooms have low-lying tables covered with bodies of those who perished there. The moment you walk in the room, every part of you stops.
The mass graves preserved the bodies of many of the victims as Murambi. The pressure of so many people combined with the heat made it so that many of the bodies excavated from the graves now look like they were carved out of stone and will last forever. Only the skeletons remain of the majority of the bodies, but some still have tufts of hair dusting their skulls while others still have remnants of clothing pooling around them. The bodies are white and compressed looking, some are almost completely flat. It is not just their skeleton either – I have no idea what happens to a body when it decomposes under those conditions but the way it makes a person look afterward is unforgettable. I do not really know how to explain the way the bodies looked.
You can see the last moments of each one of those individuals’ lives in the way their body is positioned. Some of them are contorted and you can see the pain in their face still. Some of them no longer have a face to read. Some of the bodies bear the marks of machete hacks – missing hands, feet, arms. On some of the bodies you can easily see the wounds inflicted upon them before they died while some look like they suffocated under the weight of others in the graves – their mouths open and their arms and hands desperately folded across their face.
I started crying in the first room. The tiny bodies of the children were so hard to see. Looking in the room and seeing 20-30 preserved bodies is one thing but once you start looking at each single, individual body you cannot stop. You have to at least try to see each of their faces. Looking at a child’s body, while looking at it’s tiny, little toes I realized I could still see where his or her toenails had been. Every part of me hurt at that point. Going through all of the classrooms I could only stand and pivot, trying to see everyone in the room. There was another child’s body that still had a pair of reddish orange shorts on. They were caught on the hipbones and just kind of hanging around the child’s body. This particular little one had been flattened in the graves but the shorts indicated how the child was once normal sized. Now he or she was so flat that if the shorts had not been there I would never had known they had a cute little tummy before they died.
I still do not really know what I felt as I walked through those rooms. Seeing the result of the incident at Murambi made me feel everything and nothing all at the same time. Between the two buildings of classrooms, I sat down at the edge of the sidewalk and two girls were playing a little ways away from me behind their house and waving and smiling. It was so odd to have just walked out of a room with so much death and see these adorable girls just enjoying the sunshine and each other’s company. I tried to imagine going from that to what I just saw in the classrooms and I could not fathom how the events were carried out. I know what happened historically but I just was not able to grasp it. It was so hard.
The second building of classrooms had some rooms with bodies but it also had some rooms with display cases holding rows of individual skulls and other bones. These were so disconnected from the live people to me now. After seeing the whole bodies individual bones did not have the same effect on me as they had before. At other memorials (Nyamata and Ntarama) I had a hard time connecting with the fact that parts of so many people were sitting right in front of me but now I could barely even look at them as belonging to someone. I was so disconnected from them at this point. The bodies were just so different looking than a single skeleton.
Before we got bank in the car to leave, I was sitting alone in front of the main building of the memorial and I could not look up at the hills of Rwanda. We were on top of a hill with hundreds more around us, by far the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen, but I could not look at it. I kept trying to picture these horrendous acts of violence occurring in the hills around me and I honestly could not do it. The contrast of the two blows my mind. I will never forget the feeling of being at Murambi and probably will never experience anything like it either. The memorial site is very impressive and I wish everyone could experience it.