Nyamata is a small dusty semi-urban enclave located in Bugesera District in the Eastern Province. It lies south of Kigali City, just a 45 minutes’ drive away.
Setting foot in this area, one can hardly fathom the immense tragedy that occurred on its doorstep.
Streets are lined by orchard trees, and a string of typical Rwandan up-country style of commercial buildings, housing a number of businesses ranging from retail shops, restaurants, hotels, and banking facilities.
One thing that stands out on the town’s main street is the bustling bicycle transport system-thanks to the area’s relatively flat landscape. Heavy trucks and ordinary passenger vehicles headed to and from the Rwanda-Burundi border are also occasional sights.
People go about their business with a sense of anger urgenly.
No one looking at the town will not imagine that 19 years ago, thousands of people here were killed by government militia clichés and the Hutu extremists known as the Interahamwe.
“The Genocide against the Tutsi did not start in 1994 for us, it started earlier. Nyamata was a remote area, tsetse fly ridden and full of wild animals due to the thick forest growth that covered the area. The place was an ideal ground for the experimentation of genocide that the government carried out periodically on Tutsis in the early 70’s all the way into the 90’s,” Uwineza Anitha, the guide at the Nyamata Memorial says.
Located about 300 meters out of town, is the former Nyamata Cathedral Parish where over 12,000 people were butchered. The place has since been turned into a Genocide museum, holding remains of over 45,218 people who were massacred elsewhere in the area.
“This place first became a fleeing centre in 1992, during a genocide experiment was carried out against Tutsis. Sister Tonia Locatelli, an Italian nun who ran it saved hundreds of lives by hiding them in the priests' and nuns' residences. Putting her life at risk, she stood up to the soldiers who demanded their release, and later in the middle of the night, sneaked them away to relative safety in Burundi,” Uwineza narrates.
Sister Locatelli did not only manage to save lives of hundreds of Tutsi refugees, she also helped reveal to the rest of the world the atrocities that were being committed in broad daylight by the then Rwandan government against its people.
As a result, the government panicked and temporarily halted the barbaric practices. They called upon the people to come out of hiding, and ironically shifted the blame to “insurgents” who they alleged were out to destabilise the nation.
Some of them did return to their residences, but most of them did not, preferring to stay under the safe wing of Sister Locatelli.
Tragedy struck in May 1992 when the military extremist wing of the government sent an assassin who shot Sister Locatelli in the chest, outside her home near the cathedral.
Since then, Nyamata town became the hub of vanishing Tutsi and also prisons.
A survivor whose name is withheld on request recalled the way they set him loose in one of the forests and told him that they had forgiven him only if he stayed in Nyamata.
“I was grateful for that chance to live. Little did I know that as soon as I turned to go, they set their dogs free! I prayed to God to let me live, like the famous Kinyarwanda proverb, I asked my behind to support my legs and I began the fastest, most furious run for my life. I have never run that fast, and I have never been that scared! I was terrified that I was going to be devoured by dogs.”
Justine, another survivor, said she would rather have been eaten by their dogs than suffer the fate she went through.
“At least 20 men raped me. And they left their dogs to lick the blood off my legs,” she says with tears running down her cheeks.
The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi was planned and executed with bloody hands in Nyamata. The officials knew that with the outside world wondering what had happened to Sister Tonia, they had to play their cards right. So they embarked on mass killings, rounding up families, they feared would end up leaking more information to the international community about the nun’s demise. “By the time we realised that the attack had begun, almost half of the town had disappeared. No one knew to where!” Uwineza adds.
The surviving residents fled to the cathedral and those from neighbouring districts too. They had heard of Sister Tonia and her heroism. They thought that the Catholic nuns who had replaced her had a similar heart.
“Come, we have food and water. Join your friends, we shall protect you,” an announcement by local authorities ran on radio, calling upon all people in hiding to take shelter at the cathedral.
Hordes of people turned up, children, men, girls and women. They filled the church and even spilled out onto the veranda and in the shrubbery. They were given mattresses and blankets. They swung their weary eyes around hoping that they had found freedom and safety.
“That evening, trucks came, filled with militia-men and soldiers holding all kinds of weapons, including machetes, clubs, guns and hand grenades. It was the most horrific thing I have ever had to witness. I think of the 10,000 and more people who were there, only 3 or four of us survived!”
The population of Nyamata in 1993, before the Genocide, was estimated at about 120,000. But, the number had dwindled to a mere 12,000 as of late 2009.