Nyamata Memorial Church Visit

Nyamata Church Memorial Visit

By: Sean Motl

On August 19, 2012, the Global Youth Connect delegation traveled just outside of Kigali to the Nyamata Church Genocide Memorial in Bugesera District. On the way to the memorial, Jesse Hawkes pointed out developmental differences from 1994, including villagization, a new market, improved roads, and a growing, bustling town. Approaching the memorial, purple and white, the colors Rwanda uses to memorialize the genocide, adorn the outside of Nyamata Church—even a tree in the churchyard blooms purple flowers.

Nyamata’s history started long before the genocide in 1994. Dating back to 1959, there were systematic attacks against Tutsi in this region. Repatriation resulted in Bugesera District maintaining a highly concentrated Tutsi population. By 1992, there was another outbreak of violence. Seeking a place of safety and refuge, people flocked to the Nyamata Catholic Church. Though approximately 1,000 people were killed, the church offered protection for many others. At this time, there was an Italian nun named Tonia Locatelli. She tried to alert the international community of the killings and insisted they intervene to protect those who sought shelter. This did not happen. Instead, in the same year, an ex-soldier of the government’s Rwandan Armed Forces (FAR) shot her at the steps of her home. Though her life was silenced, her courage has not been forgotten. On the side of the church building, Locatelli is buried and memorialized; her gravestone reading, “We must save these people, we must protect them. It is the government itself which is doing this.”

With many of the survivors remembering the safety they found in the church during the 1992 violence, Church became the primary option for safety when the genocide erupted in 1994. However, the survivors were not the only ones that remembered the church offered protection. As the interahamwe also knew a large population of Tutsi would seek shelter behind the church’s gates, they asked the government of Rwanda for support in its attack.

Broken concrete can still be seen today where the grenades exploded at the foot of the gates. Bullet holes in the ceilings from the machine guns shower the floor with light. After the government soldiers left their marks, local killers came with their machetes. Bloodstains are still found from where killers had grabbed the legs of children to smash their heads against the very walls that the parents had hoped would protect their children from the bullets. This was violence born through the doctrine of hate. In the end, near 10,000 people had died in and around the church.

As the delegation was guided into the church, they were met with the musty smell of thousands of clothes heaped and piled on the pews. At the front of the church a statue of Mother Mary keeps a watchful eye on the blood-stained altar ladened with relics of perpetrators and victims alike: wallets, crosses, smoking pipes, jewelry, machetes, bullets, and a rosary.

The basement of the church houses skulls of the some of the victims, many bearing the marks of their violent deaths by machetes. Others, clearly smaller than those around them, indicate that the killers did not discriminate who they killed since children were included in their massacre. Even though this acts as the final resting place for these people, the display case was brightly lit surrounded by white walls, creating a stark juxtaposition. From above, one would not expect to be entering into a place where human bones are on display. As such, some participants wished that they had been warned earlier, either by the tour-guide or by our facilitators, that they would come face-to-face with human remains, so they could have abstained from this part of the tour if they felt personally led to. A personal identification card that would have been used to separate those to be killed was also in the display. At the very bottom lays a single, private coffin, belonging to a woman named Annonciata Mukandoli. The guide noted that she represents all the women and girls in the genocide, as her death was particularly violent. She was tortured and raped by 20 killers and then staked from her genitalia to her head. Annonciata was 28 years old.

Behind the church, two mass graves were constructed in 1996. It stores the remains of thousands of people that were killed in Bugesera. Flowers on the tombs suggest that family members still visit to mourn the loss of their loved ones. The tombs are open, allowing visitors to walk into the graves to pay their respects, if they so wished. Other participants took personal issue with the idea of displaying bones at memorials, and they preferred to avoid seeing them. Stepping down into the dark hole, stacks of long bones and skulls tower over visitors, producing an overwhelming feeling of the enormity and violence of the genocide. While many people are probably aware that Nyamata displays human bones, many others may not be aware as to how they will react to these remains. A few people reported they felt a sense of panic being amongst the bones—an unsettling feeling they were disturbing the peace and did not belong there. With such a strong emotional response, one must consider the ethical implications of displaying human bones. Future delegations could discuss the purpose having the bones on display serve, and whether they have an educational or exploitative role. In the end, the memorial visit proved to have strong and varying emotional effects on the delegation that will not soon be forgotten.

As a final note, at the Kigali Memorial Center, the delegation had discussed a quote that said genocide is a single act of violence that happens over and over and over again. Offering an example of such violence, a member of the delegation told his own personal story about his family who had been killed at Nyamata. He related that at first he was angry and wanted revenge, but now he greets the perpetrator amiably on the streets. Just as the memory of his parent’s death serves as a reminder of the violence that happened at Nyamata, his testimony serves as a reminder that peace is possible. With this in mind, perhaps the opposite of that quote is true. That is, reconciliation is a single act of forgiveness that happens over and over and over again.

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