With ghosts in Rwanda

By Jonathon Van Maren

So it turns out that if you remain utterly comatose for an entire nine-hour flight, the stewardess may get worried. She obviously had not heard that travel clinics now dispense sleeping pills to “help deal with jetlag,” so I gulped one down during takeoff from Amsterdam, wondered briefly if it would work, and woke up to a very concerned face peering at me asking if I was alright somewhere over Uganda. I was not only alright, but feeling exceptionally well-rested. Charmaine groggily agreed. Sleeping pills are awesome.

We were whisked from Kigali International Airport to the Discover Rwanda Youth Hostel, which was part of a hostel chain Charmaine had stayed in last time she was in Rwanda. Apparently, the hostel she had stayed at was a very nice one. The one we were staying at was not. I know, I know, it’s a hostel—but I’ve stayed in plenty of hostels in under-developed countries, and this one was singularly unimpressive. Charmaine had booked the “Double Deluxe Luxury En-Suite,” which should have been our first clue. One luxury that didn’t work was our toilet, our shower was actually a faucet with just enough warm water for one person to take a half a shower, and our double bed was rather small. The previously fluent and tri-lingual receptionist suddenly remembered she didn’t know English when we began asking questions.
The mosquito netting over the bed was about the size of a bridal veil, which meant that I was going to have to hope the malaria pills worked in case I accidentally stretched out to my full height and the netting popped free. On the upside, everything was painted a vibrant yellow in order to remind us how cheery everything actually was.
The next morning, the weather was warm and the breeze was cool and the day was beautiful. The veranda of the hostel looked out over Kigali, which was all palm fronds and red roofs and blue skies. An African king fisher swooped past while we were eating breakfast and disappeared into an enormous cactus the size of a small redwood. Everything here is a full, luscious green—even the cacti are thriving.

We took motorcycles to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, which is to say we perched on the very back of them. I stuck my very large head into a very small helmet and clung to the bike while the driver focused very hard on remaining unaware of the fact that we were driving with very skinny tires on very cobblestoned streets, which meant that my teeth would have been clanging together if my helmet had been large enough to allow any jaw movement. Fortunately, the new “experience” was over in ten minutes.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, it turns out, is both a museum and a mass grave. Rows and rows of enormous gray slabs cover crypts containing the corpses of more than 250,000 Rwandans, and a black iron wall running alongside them is being utilized to record the names of the murdered. Later in the day, one tour guide told me that all victims of the 1994 genocide must be buried at a national memorial site, so that “the next generation knows what has happened.” What happened was a massacre of savage proportions—the Hutu majority murdered between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Tutsi Rwandans between April 7 and July of 1994, wiping out nearly 70% of all Tutsis and 20% of the Rwandan population. One display described it this way:

Genocide was instant. Roadblocks sprang up right across the city with militia armed with one intent—to identify and kill Tutsis. At the same time, Interahamwe began house-to-house searches. The people on the death lists were the first to be visited and slaughtered in their own homes.

The perpetrators had promised an apocalypse and the operation that emerged was a devastating frenzy of violence, bloodshed, and merciless killing. The murderers used machetes, clubs, guns and any blunt tool they could to inflict as much pain on their victims as possible. It was genocide from the first day. No Tutsi was exempt.

Women were beaten, raped, humiliated, abused, and ultimately murdered, often in the sight of their own families. Children watched as their parents were tortured, beaten, and killed in front of their eyes, before their small bodies were sliced, smashed, pulverised, and discarded. The elderly, the pride of Rwandan society, were despised, and mercilessly murdered in cold blood. Neighbors turned on neighbors, friends on friends…even family on their own family members.

That generation is already missing thousands upon thousands of men and women. Inside the KGM, exhibits featured videos of survivors talking, often in broken voices, about what they had endured. Many have lost every single one of their relatives. “I am the only one left of my father’s house,” said one woman. “My father…they cut him in two pieces to see if he really bleeds, and threw him into the river.” Her little brother was killed by a blow to the head with a spiked club. A picture of a beautiful little girl looking at an aid worker with a bewildered expression caught my attention. One side of her head featured a crimson slash where a hole had been whacked into her head by a man with a machete.

As always, it is hardest to understand how people could do such awful things to children. The numbers are staggering. More than 80% of Rwandan children lost a family member. Some 70% of them actually saw a family member get killed or injured. And a full 90% thought, based on everything they had seen, that they would eventually be killed too. The Children’s Room attempts to bring the lost little ones back to life, displaying large photographs of gorgeous, smiling faces with their stories told in a few short lines.

Ariane Umutoni
Age: 4
Favorite food: Cake
Favorite drink: Milk
Enjoyed: Singing and dancing
Behaviour: A neat little girl
Cause of death: Stabbed in her eyes and head

Fillette Uwase
Age: 2
Favorite toy: Doll
Favorite food: Rice and chips
Best friend: Her dad
Behaviour: A good girl
Cause of death: Smashed against a wall

Near the door hangs a plaque: “In memory of our beautiful and beloved children, who should have been our future.” The result of reading these truncated stories is a mixture of nausea and rage. The impact of these killings has stretched on, the exhibit informs us. After all, an entire generation grew up with the terror and trauma of an orgy of murder buried deep within their brains, and they carry the pain with them for their lives. Their children and children’s children, too, will display the effects of those horrifying 100 days in 1994. The screams have died away, but the carnage echoes forward in time. Widows, orphans, rape survivors, mutilation victims—in a few short months, the face of Rwanda’s population was utterly changed.

The Memorial Center has one room simply featuring rows upon rows of photographs, many of them submitted by the family members of the slain. These were the faces that made up the bloody piles of nameless, hacked humanity in the history books. It reminded me of the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem—impossible to fully process, and overwhelming in the realization it drives home: That these smiling, laughing, exuberant mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, infants and children were butchered by their own neighbors, many of whom they had grown up with. Some of their remains were piled in an adjacent dark, black hall: legbones stacked like kindling, and rows of brainless, eyeless skulls grinning their mockery at the happiness of the people in the photos next door. Many of them were cracked and sliced where machetes had struck home. Nearby, a sign: “If you knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.”

After the 100 days of death were ended by the forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front under Paul Kagame, who now serves as Rwanda’s president, the turmoil sent two million refugees flooding into the roadways and across the borders. Some were desperate and displaced survivors, and others were the fleeing perpetrators. Most people couldn’t tell the difference. That was the madness of it all.

One of the hardest things to understand is the forgiveness. I remember interviewing Rwandan genocide survivor Imaculee Illibagiza a few years ago, a woman who lost most of her family in the genocide but chose to forgive the killer—face to face. I hung up the phone utterly ashamed of my smallness and meanness and marveling at the magnitude of her forgiveness and love. I felt the same thing all over again as I read about the Gacaca Courts, which were described thusly:

After the genocide, the challenge was to deliver justice and punish perpetrators while restoring the fabric of society. After serious deliberation, the government initiated Gacaca, (meaning ‘grass’), a community restorative justice system which evolved from a mix of traditional and modern approaches. Officially launched in 2002, Gacaca brought together survivors, perpetrators, and witnesses before locally-chosen judges to establish truth about what happened in the genocide and determine consequences for perpetrators.

The miracle of Rwanda is that forgiveness has become a way of life. Forgiveness is why Rwanda has survived and thrived. After all, if each successive group of victims demands their revenge, the killing never stops. But still, stories like that of Imaculee Illibagiza still shock me to my core and provoke an admiration based on a lurking doubt that I could never forgive something like that. Over lunch, Charmaine asked me just that. “Could you forgive someone? If they did something like that?” I couldn’t even philosophically grapple with the question, or prayerfully consider my Christian obligation. One of the pictures in the Children’s Room immediately leapt into my mind, a picture of two little girls, an infant and a toddler. They were sisters:

Irene Umotoni: Age 6
Uwamwezi Umatoni: Age 7
Relationship: Sisters
Favorite toy: A doll they shared
Favorite food: Fresh fruit
Behavior: Daddy’s girls
Cause of death: A grenade thrown into their shower

Impossible to understand. Seemingly, impossible to forgive. But yet, Rwanda has moved forward. They have built bonds of love between the children of the Tutsi victims and the children of the Hutu butchers. One story, near the exit, caught my attention:

On March 18, 1997, rebels burst into a classroom at Nyange Secondary School, where students had just finished homework and evening prayers, and told students to separate into Hutu and Tutsi. The students refused, saying, “All of us are Rwandans here.” The rebels fired and threw grenades; six students lost their lives and twenty were wounded rather than betray their friends and classmates.

That is a miracle. That is Rwanda.
After talking to the waiter at the restaurant, we hired a driver—a friend of his—to drive us out into the countryside. The Rwandan approach to traffic was interesting. People shoving bikes and carts laden down with massive payloads of what I presumed were some sort of wheat or grass would lurch out onto the road precisely when they felt like it. Honking was immediately and liberally utilized by all approaching cars like some vehicular profanity, which was ignored by everyone but the driver doing the honking. The drivers refuse to moderate their speed even slightly, the merchant jaywalkers refuse to recognize the insistence of the cars bearing down on them, and when the vehicles miraculously miss the pedestrians, they carry on utterly unperturbed.

In this fashion, we drove past President Paul Kagame’s office—little guard towers replete with machine-gun toting guards were buried in the palm fronds along the fence—the World Health Organization, and UNICEF. Our driver, a married man named Justin with a deep, sing-song voice and two children he seemed very proud of, informed us that Kagame was “very good man.” Kigali, we were informed, was very safe—“the safest city in sub-Saharan Africa.” The soldiers with guns were there for our protection.

Another one of my wide-eyed white boy observations was that nobody smokes. At least, nobody that I could see. We drove all over Kigali and through dozens of towns through the countryside; nobody was smoking—not even the men loitering outside the little pubs and restaurants. Charmaine was smug and approving. As we drove further out into the countryside, paved roads gave away to bright red dirt roads with potholes big enough to entirely swallow an environmentally friendly car, or at very least a man on a motorbike. Justin began to swerve back and forth, honking at any pedestrian so inconsiderate as to have missed the driver’s intention of swerving abruptly to the left or right.
About an hour out of Kigali, we pulled up at the Ntamara Genocide Memorial Centre, which is actually a red brick Catholic Church and outbuildings. It is now also home to several mass graves, as 5,000 people were slaughtered here on April 15, 1994. There are signs of construction. The tour guide, a young pregnant woman named Chantel, informed us that they were presently working on “a new mass grave.”

The little church is itself a mass grave. Inside, I counted 268 skulls stacked up against the walls. Some of them were little, and had obviously once featured the faces of children. Many of them had holes bashed into them. There were coffins, too—fifty-one of them, covered in white shrouds and crosses. Twelve huge wooden boxes against the back wall were apparently filled with “stray bones.” The tour guide pulled aside a blue tarp covering a pallet, and my stomach flip-flopped. It was a jumbled pile of human parts: pelvic bones, fragments of jaw, a small stray rib, a few spinal vertebrae. People are still finding bits of victims and bringing them to the Centre, she told us. She pulled aside another tarp to reveal two layers of skulls, and the casual motion was almost intensely jarring. On one of the coffins lay a few rusty machetes and iron hooks. Presumably, they matched some of the holes smashed into some of the skulls. Light came in through jagged holes in the brick, the result of hand grenades flung at the terrified Tutsis inside.

In the little building just outside the church, shelves still held yellowing textbooks and piles of ripped school papers. The children who hid here, Chantel told us, had expected to survive and go back to school, so they took their papers and books with them. She led us behind the church and into another little brick building, lined with short, concrete pews. This was where the children had attended Sunday school. She pointed at a large, dark patch on the brick wall against the back of the classroom. I walked over to take a closer look. The patch was still covered with congealed, stringy fluid that had hardened and stained the brick. Brains. The dark, stringy stains were the brains of children who had been grabbed by the legs and smashed against the wall. The depth of the evil was almost too hard to comprehend.

The building next to the Sunday school was made of tin, and was filled with piles and piles of rotting clothes that were now beginning to lose their color and fade to brown. Many of them were piled onto what looked like slat bunkbeds, jarringly reminding me of black-and-white photos of concentration camps. They reminded me, too, of the endless heaps of empty clothes I saw at Auschwitz, which have by now lost all color and taken on an almost uniform color and consistency. The clothes, like the memories, eventually become less vivid, and less real. We begin to think that such things cannot happen again. And then they do. Some of the clothes belonged to the women who had been trapped by Hutu butchers in the small kitchen next door. When they refused to come out, the killers thrust burning mattresses soaked in gasoline into the kitchen, and then battered down the wall so that it collapsed onto their screaming victims.

Of the 5,000 Rwandans who died here, only 260 names are known.
A half hour later, we stopped at a second church, the Nyamata Genocide Memorial Centre. Here too, Tutsis had come for refuge from the carnage. There was none. Ten thousand people died on April 15, 1994, clinging to the hope that the walls of the church would protect them. More than 45,000 other victims are buried here in mass graves lining the grounds.

The tour guide, Stanley, showed us into the church. It was bigger than the Ntamara church, and again filled with piles and piles of bloody and empty clothing, draped across the kneelers and scattered across the ground. Light shone in through the roof where grenade fragments had pierced it, and there were black blood stains sprinkled across the ceiling. I caught myself wondering how in the world it had sprayed that far, and pushed the thought down. On the altar at the front of the church lay a sad pile of artificial legs, which had once belonged to disabled Tutsis carried into the sanctuary for safety. As the rusty machetes lying next to them testified, it had been to no avail.

In the middle of the sanctuary, Stanley led us into a crypt containing a glass case with 130 skulls. Again, the cracked heads testified of the savagery. Stanley showed us the difference between someone who had been chopped with a machete and bashed with a club. He pointed to a coffin deep in the crypt, lying under glass. It was covered in a shroud with a white cross. “The woman buried there was raped, like so many others,” he explained. “And then the murders thrust her from bottom to top with a spear. She lays here to testify of the many victims of sexual crimes during the genocide.”

I don’t have the stomach to write more, so I’ll excerpt one display from the Kigali Museum:

Women and children were the direct target of the genocidaires for murder, rape, and mutilation. The killers were determined to ensure that a new generation of Tutsis would never emerge. Tutsi women were systematically raped and sexually mutilated as a weapon of genocide. This was often by known HIV-infected males. They were then either killed or spared to suffer on another occasion. Hutu women in mixed marriages were raped as a punishment.

Genocide is not simply mass murder. It is a depraved, ugly hate crime in which the perpetrators glut themselves on the pain of the victims, strangle their humanity with the garbled cries of those they kill, and drown their consciences in the blood of the innocents. It turns men into monsters. The most terrifying fact is that it can happen so quickly, and has happened so many times.

Outside the church, Stanley led us to another crypt. Down the stairs and inside, I saw stacks and stacks of thousands upon thousands of skulls, stretching back into the dark as far as the eye could see. Empty eyes, glittering teeth, deathly silence. Their sightless stares were unlike anything I have ever experienced, and the crypt was suffocating. I lasted only minutes before escaping back to sunlight.

Charmaine was talking to Stanley, who smiled whitely and widely to every question he was asked. She had just asked him how his family had fared through 1994. Stanley, it turned out, had been sixteen when the bloodshed had begun. His whole family had been murdered. Some of his aunts and cousins were buried here. It was hard to work here, he said, but he was used to it now. He smiled again.

We walked past a guard lounging with her machine gun at a desk near the church’s front door. She glowered at us. I couldn’t blame her. How many weeping Westerners has she seen scrawling guest book slogans like Never Again, while fresh bodies pile up in places like Congo and Sudan? Our smooth talk had meant absolutely nothing when it counted, after all, back when we had men and guns in Rwanda but had to wait for enough people to die so we could call it genocide.
On the way back to Kigali, it began to rain. The blood-red dirt clumped and ran in rivulets into the gutters, giving everything an eerie look. Thunder rumbled overhead, and I thought about the impossibility and necessity of forgiveness. The Rwandan miracle serves as an incredible example.

5 thoughts on “With ghosts in Rwanda

  1. Anne Hooper says:

    There are no words to relay my feelings after reading your article, Jonathon. I recently began rereading your Culture War book. Our countries here have so many choices for good and have no idea of the suffering of others. May God be with you and Charmaine on your trip and bring you safely back to Canada again.

  2. D says:

    As hard as this was to read. I thank you for writing on such truths and not hiding your head in sand. If we dont learn and change our selfish ways and put God first and love our neighbours, it will keep repeating. I shared your story. Leviticus 19:18 (KJV)
    God bless you and keep you safe/protected on your journey’s and please continue to write gods truth in your stories.

  3. Rachel Burkey says:

    Thank you for writing this, Jonathon. It was hard to read and I’m sure hard to write as well. But a needed reminder for sure of the depravity of man and the grace of God in forgiveness.

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