To never forget the past
During our trip through the lush and green Rwanda, a small but interesting country tucked in between the iconic safari destinations of Kenya and Tanzania, we visited two churches, converted in National Genocide Memorial Sites, that remind the sad past of Rwanda: Ntarama and Nyamata.
In 1994, members of the Hutu ethnic majority murdered in only 100 days as many as 1 million people, mostly of the Tutsi minority. On the night of 6 April, an aircraft carrying the Hutu President Habyarimana was shot down, killing everyone on board. After accusing the Rwandan Patriotic Front (a Tutsi rebel group) of the plane crash, on 7th April, the Hutu nationalists started the Rwanda genocide that, in a while, spread throughout the country with incredible brutality. The Hutu extremist incited the citizens to take up arms against Tutsy, moderate Hutu, and Twa people.
During these tragic 100 days, where even neighbours killed neighbours, Hutu husbands killed Tutsi wives, Tutsi women were kidnapped and used as sex slaves, thousands and thousands of people took refuge in the churches, believing and hoping that they would have been safe, mainly because during the previous civil war, the attackers had respected religious sites. Unfortunately, this time it did not happen that way, and the churches became a killing ground.
The Church of Ntarama
The church of Ntarama is our first stop, and it’s located an hour’s drive south of Kigali. Converted into a Genocide Memorial in April 1995, it’s dedicated to the 5.000 people who lost their lives there during the Tutsi massacre. The church is a simple brick structure that doesn’t look like a church building at all. The interior is quite dark and contains bones and skulls piled up towards the back walls.
The centre of the church contains the clothes of the victims hung up on the walls and on some wooden beams that support the ceiling. It’s shocking to see that many of them show remnants of bloodstains. Above all, there is a thing that hits our heart. We notice a big dark patch on a wall that our driver told us to be the point where Hutu smashed children’s heads. Unbelievable and really sad. In another tiny brick building, next to the church, are on display personal belongings like shoes, books, letters, and school materials left in a state of decay.
The Church of Nyamata
The church of Nyamata is only 8 km south of Ntarama church. It was converted into a Genocide Memorial site in April 1997 to commemorate the 25.000 Rwanda massacre victims buried here. Within its brick structure are displayed an incredible quantity of victims’ clothes and their belongings. On 10th April 1994, the Hutu militias broke down the church’s doors, and once they entered the building, they killed about 10.000 people using rifles and machetes.
Looking at the church ceiling, you can still see the holes created by the bullets, and the altar cloth is still stained with blood from the victims. The structure that hit more of our hearts is the mass graves behind the church. A vault houses thousands of skulls, and other human remains all piled up one over another. The memorial site also includes the grave of Antonia Locatelli, a catholic Italian missionary based in Rwanda and killed in the Busegera region. It is said that she witnessed a Tutsi massacre by the government and denounced the political killings. On 9th March 1992, she was murdered by a group of presidential guards.
The two Genocide Memorials are disturbing, touching, and unforgettable. The cruelty of human beings is shocking, and there is no justification for what happened in Rwanda. The emotions and feelings we experienced during the tour will stay printed in our hearts forever.