Tuesday, July 26, 2005
I woke up to the news that Former US Bill Clinton was in Rwanda and he visited the Genocide Memorial in Kigali. In this picture taken as Rwanda commemorated 10 years after the genocide I had the honour of meeting Tharcise Mukama the only person who survived the Nyamata Church massacre which left more than 10,000 dead in one day. Rwanda will survive but somehow the Clinton tears disturbed me. Clinton, of all people visiting a Rwandan genocide memorial and expressing regret for his "personal failure" to prevent the 1994 slaughter of 800,000 people? Surely, we need another person for crocodile tears! I recalled my earlier visit to Nyamata in Rwanda....
Nyamata is like any other village in rural Kenya and Mukama told me it means a place of milk. Today it hosts one of the largest genocide memorials in Rwanda and I have to tell this story once again.
It was in this small town that Italian priest Tonia Locatelli first blew the whistle a couple of years before the 1994 genocide. For that, like many others in Juvenal Habyarimana’s Rwanda, she paid with her life on the evening of March 9, 1992.
On this day, locals say, presidential guards knocked on her door at a brick house opposite her church and shot her dead.
And with that, the only contact between Nyamata village — some 65 kms south of Kigali — with the outside world was gone for good.
Today, Locatelli lies in a grave in Nyamata Mission Church a few metres from her former residence. A few yards further, in an open space at the back of the church, lie more: in a mass grave holding the remains of more than 10,000 people butchered inside the church in a record five days from April 14 to April 19.
The story of how the Tutsis holed up in the church were killed is one of the most agonising tales you can listen to.
Killings in Nyamata started in 1992 and went on unabated, even as Locatelli raised the red flag.
It all began when the local authorities decided to kill all the Tutsis and began rounding them up. They then locked the victims up in the church without food or water and left them to die.† Locatelli, however, managed to get word out to the international press and the ensuing uproar ensured that the Tutsis were freed without any casualties.† Locatelli’s reward for her courageous act was the full vengeance of the presidential guards.
Pax Christi, a Christian organisation, while mourning Locatelli’s murder deplored "the attitude of the international community, which encloses the magnitude of the violence in Rwanda in a shroud of silence."
The results of that silence are all evident behind the church where a walk-in tomb has been constructed holding bodies in little glass cages for all to see.
Tharcise Mukama, 74, survived the brutes because he had on that day gone to hide in a nearby swamp, but everyone else he knew perished here. Today, Mukama welcomes guest in this church and walks around with a bunch of keys to make sure the gates and the doors are locked.
Nyamata Catholic Church has the power to shock. As we entered the gates of the red-brick church, we held our nostrils. If a previous visit to the genocide site at the Ntarama Catholic Church had left us dazed, Nyamata — across River Nyirabatongo — was promising to devastate us. Here, an intolerable stench came from inside as we counted our steps and slowly walked towards the main porch.
"Iyo uza kwimenya, nanje ukamenya Ntuba waranyise", reads a sign in Kinyarwanda by the door meaning: "If you know me and you know yourself, how can you kill me?" — a clear reference to the hundreds of thousands killed by neighbours and family members here.† The padlock is still intact on the iron door, but the door was forced open.
When Habyarimana’s plane was shot down as it approached Kanombe International Airport, now renamed Kigali International Airport, the locals here took refuge, like everywhere else, at church compounds and schools. That these facilities would turn into death tombs, now sprawled across the hilly countryside, was not known — after all, many people here escaped the 1959 genocide by taking cover in such public facilities.
But as the residents of Nyamata found out, 1994 was a different year. When the Interahamwe militia walked into Nyamata on April 14, a week after killings started in Kigali, they could not manage to get past the iron grills.
"They then came back with the presidential guards who blew up the doors with a grenade", Mukama tells us through an interpreter.
Today, the twisted metal at the main porch are just a reminder of the terror that walked into this compound and its environs.
Holes on the inside of the brick walls caused by shrapnel testified to grenades having been hurled into the crowded building before the killers broke in to finish their work.
Today, Nyamata has been cleared and victims buried in a crypt but still the benches, thick with dust and the pulpit, still covered with bloodied clothes, is all we could find. Here†you can still smell the fear.
The more than 10,000 people who had taken sanctuary here were all bludgeoned, blown up with grenades, shot and matcheted.
As we walked here, 10 years after the genocide, the first thing that hit us was vile smell of rotting flesh.
What was happening? We asked.
A few days earlier bodies of women and children had been retrieved from a toilet where they had been thrown, or forced to jump into, alive. They had been brought to Nyamata to prepare them for a decent burial.
We walked in only to see the bodies of women and children in various stages of decomposition. We counted, 10 women and nine children — some still tied with ropes and exhibiting signs of agony — the struggles they went through in their final hours.
Earlier that week, we are informed, some 400 bodies had been recovered from a hitherto unknown mass grave in Nyamata.
Like all other visitors here, we ask the why question. Overwhelmed by the stench I take a walk downstairs into a crypt where more bodies are held in a glass cage. It is much better here.
There is a central glass case on three levels: the top shelf contained bones — arms, legs and so on; the second shelf contained skulls, dozens of them, staring blankly forward, many with visible cracks where the machetes had sliced through.
Each has a story, a hidden story…
Mukama, one of the few survivors in this village follows me, and we cast our eyes on one wooden coffin covered with a purple clothing.
"The coffin contains the body of a woman named Innocent Mukadori and her child", he says.
Mukadori and her child died a painful death. The Interahamwe tied them together and then thrust a stick through her genitals until it came out through the head. They then nailed the child on her with a sharpened stick.
We move on to another coffin. This one has an identity: It holds the remains of the family of a Mr Louis Kambanda, whose remains were discovered at Kayumba in Ntarama. Nobody knows how the five members of Kambanda family met their deaths.
Flowers left by visitors still litter the floor of the Ntarama church as rays of sun pierce through tiny holes left by shrapnel. A stained alter cloth is still in place, apparently soaked in blood.
Nyamata is one of the churches across Rwanda confiscated by the government and converted into memorials for the victims of the genocide.
Although the government’s action drew sharp protest from the country’s Catholic bishops, the church finally agreed that those slain in the massacres be buried in church crypts and Nyamata was the first to be turned into a memorial.
The then argument by Kigali Archbishop Thaddee Ntihinyurwa was that the government’s plans for the alienation of church property constituted a violation of religious freedom. He had also pointed at the Code of Canon Law, which stipulates that only bishops should be interred inside church buildings.
But at Nyamata, memories of what happened outfoxed the Canon Law.
Strangely at Nyamata, the statue of Virgin Mary stands unscathed overlooking what was a slaughter site.
As we move out towards the mass grave yard, one of the biggest in Rwanda, we pass by the grave of Locatelli, the Italian priest killed in 1992 in a country she inhabited for 30 years. The tombstone, like many others, doesn’t reveal much. Just a slab and a tiny iron cross.
As we take the 14 stairs down the tomb, we are hit by the musty smell of a cellar fully stocked with hundreds of coffins, with skulls and bones below and so many at the bottom
The place is poorly lit but I am informed that it will soon be a lit walk-in tomb, a reminder and a testimony that people died in Rwanda.
We walk out towards a tombstone with names of known victims. They are few and include Alexis Kangage who died on April 11, 1994. His body was retrieved from a 17 metre deep well and buried here. The mass grave also holds 2 children of Gervais Nkima….we count the names, they are no more than 100, the rest are unidentified.
It is time to leave Nyamata and we sign a visitors book with monosyllabic or single word entries — speechless, tears, shocked.
Clinton, or read America, watched as the tiny country decended into anarchy. I wonder what he wrote...