Never before have I had a more painful reflection on the hell that this country’s past was – while at the same time, proudly looking back at the recovery path it has carefully treaded following the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi – than on the Easter Eve, when I and my colleagues at The New Times Publications, visited Ntarama Genocide memorial in Bugesera District.
At this Catholic church-turned Genocide memorial lie the remains of an estimated 6000 Tutsis who were brutally hacked, blown by grenades, smashed or burnt to death by Interahamwe militia and the genocidal forces in April, 1994.
The story of Ntarama mirrors that of many other Catholic churches where hundreds of thousands of Tutsis had sought refuge – with the false belief that no one would dare attack a church as was the case in the slaughter campaigns of the preceding years– only to be ruthlessly attacked and killed there. The marauding killers had no respect for the Alter, priest quarters, and the Holly of Hollies chambers as they combed even the most sacred of places to eliminate Tutsis.
One of the guides at this memorial site, which silently stands on one of Bugesera’s beautiful gentle hills, is Gaspard Mukwiye, a survivor who lost his father and almost all his other relatives to the Genocide.
He reckons that many Tutsis fled to churches hoping to survive the killings since some of them had evaded earlier pogroms by camping at worship places. Actually, in most cases organizers of the killings were actively luring people to go to churches to ‘escape’ the slaughters.
And, considering that military leaders had issued public warnings against any ‘unauthorized movement’, while at the same time roadblocks had been hastily set up along all roads and pathways and manned by Interahamwe militia armed with machetes, the panic-stricken and defenseless Tutsis had little choice.
As they fled en masse to churches, they carried basic household items such as clothes, mattresses, and smoking pipes, with them, some of which still lie beside their amputated bodies.
“Most of them never thought the killers would go to the extent of shedding the blood of innocent people who had sought refuge in churches. It was a false belief because the killers did not only exterminate them, but did it in the most cruel way; they blew them up with grenades hurled through church walls; most of them were cut and crushed into pieces with crude weapons such as machetes, hoes and clubs, and then set ablaze; in some cases church walls were brought down to make sure no one survived,” recounted the survivor, who lost his own father and most of his other relatives in the Genocide.
However, the most chilling symbol of the killings at Ntarama is the small building in the backyard of what used to be the church, where the most brutal among the Interahamwe death squads killed babies. “Prior to the Genocide this place was used for Confirmation, administering Holly Communion, as well as Sunday school teachings.
When the killers stormed the Church compound on April 15, they gathered all the kids and new-born babies in this building, and then selected a group of the most ruthless among themselves to exterminate the infants.
They would hold the baby by the legs, and then smash the head against this wall,” explained a brave Mukwiye, as he pointed to a still-visible huge mark of clotted blood on the wall. One of the babies whose life was tragically ended only a few days after birth was Chantal Murekatete’s daughter, a survivor whose story sent cold chills down my spine.
Yet, for all she has endured, Murekatete is full of hope.
Just like Mukwiye, she believes the future is much brighter based on what the Rwandan people have already achieved in the way they relate with one another, and how the country has since evolved. “Thinking about the past is obviously painful but we are determined to move on,” she said.
And this determination was evident in Mukwiye’s language when he said: “We must not allow Genocide deniers to continue perpetrating their lies and destructive ideology. Who says Genocide was spontaneous? Let anyone with doubt come down here and see for themselves what we’re talking about…”