“One soldier came up to the house. I was sitting with my baby boy on my lap. He grabbed the child and threw him against the wall. He died from the impact… At dusk on the sixth day, I was raped by two gangs of Interahamwe. A third gang gave me a hoe and ordered me to dig my grave.” – Anne-Marie Bucyana, Rwandan genocide survivor
A visit to the Kigali Memorial Centre is traumatising. Thankfully my mind has a unique way of dealing with trauma. When I meet a traumatising situation it switches off and engage in what I term ‘fiction mode’. Denial, you might call it. This prevents the tears and shock. Some people say it is being ‘heartless’. But touring the Rwandan genocide memorials was enough to crush all the shock resistance in me.
While on a solo road trip from Botswana through Zambia, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, I stopped by Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda. It was one of the key places in my itinerary because I wanted to understand the atrocities of the genocide. I visited the memorial just a day after arriving in Kigali.
The lush green manicured gardens and spotlessly clean Kigali streets make visitors forget about the horrible deeds that happened there in 1994. I say visitors because no Rwandan could ever forget such tragedy. As they say, “It is impossible for us to forget. It is also very painful for us to remember”. That is why they have powerful memorial centres around the country to remind people of the madness of the 1994 genocide. They call it ‘jenoside’.
At the Kigali Genocide Memorial there are video accounts from the surviving victims painfully retelling the evil deeds of the genociders.
They say genociders often mutilated their victims before killing them. Victims had their tendons cut so they could not run away. They were tied and beaten.
They were made to wait helplessly to be clubbed, raped or cut with machetes. Family members were made to watch as their parents or children were tortured, beaten or raped. Victims were thrown in pit latrines and rocks were thrown in one at a time until their screams subsided into silence. Death was made a painful, agonising, frightening and humiliating end.
After witnessing her husband being hacked to death, her baby boy smashed against the wall and being gang raped by the Interahamwe militia, survivor Anne-Marie Bucyana said, “I started pleading with them to shoot me, and not to kill me with a spiked club. They asked me if I knew the price of a bullet.”
As I went through the Memorial listening to these horrible narrations my mind would naturally switch off to ‘fiction mode’ and refuse to believe. But I wanted it to sink in. I forced my mind to record these events as real so that I could try and understand. So I kept rebooting my mind from ‘fiction mode’. But the accounts of the genocide were just too ghastly to understand. Why would anyone engage in such evil acts?
I heard that in Natarama and Nyatama on the outskirts of Kigali the elderly, women and children fled to the Christian churches to seek refuge. But that only created easier work for the genociders. Hand grenades were thrown in churches and shocked victims were then hacked by machetes.
Children were simply smashed against the church walls. As I heard this I pictured an innocent infant who probably thought its killer was saving him/her as he lifted him up and smashing its head against the church walls. Its small brains splashing out after the concrete wall cracked open its soft skull.
How could anyone do such a thing, I asked God? God did not answer.
At some point I felt nausea, a headache, sore throat and a shiver. It was cold inside the Memorial. The air conditioner was on. I saw some of the fellow tourists shedding tears.
I tried to bring my own tears, hoping that I would understand, but my mind shut down before I could wet my eyes.
I arrived at the remains section of the Memorial where there are bones, skulls and blood stained clothes of the dead. The bones are aligned immaculately; skulls on one section, leg and arm bones at different sections. It looks like a decoration. I tried to refocus so that I can view these beautifully arranged bones as human remains. That they were once human beings, like you and I.
They had dreams, maybe they wanted to travel the world like me, or they simply wanted to live a better life, yield good crops on their farms in the hills, so their children could grow healthy and be better human beings. They were individuals who had feelings, who loved, laughed and knew pain and their only difference from their murderers was an imagined label in the identity card saying they are Tutsi.
From remains sections there are small items like jewellery that showed that the dead once lived. They understood beauty and dignity like every human being. One thing that struck me most was the ivory Catholic rosary that was displayed with some of the skulls.
It belonged to the dead. They believed in God. That is why they wore rosaries and fled to churches. But this God that they trusted so much did not save them. I found myself doubting God. What kind of God lets his people suffer like that? I looked at the rosary and asked, where were you Virgin Mary? Where was your son Jesus Christ – the saviour? Where were you J?.
When that mad machete wielding Interahamwe rebel picked Anne-Marie Bucyana’s baby and smashed him against the concrete church walls slashing his brains on this humble shelter that was built to praise you? Where were you J? How could you let that happen? Do you even exist J? Do you know Rwanda J?
The Rwandan genociders were unimaginably successful in their evil feat. They wiped out some Tutsi families leaving no one to remember or document their deaths.
They littered the streets with death. The country smelt of the stench of death. Dogs were eating the rotting flesh of their owners. It is said that months after the genocide dogs had to be killed en masse because they had developed a taste for human meat.
The genocide, which is now officially called ‘Genocide Against the Tutsi’, resulted in the death of over a million people. Some died later after suffering from machete cuts, bullet wounds, infection and starvation. There were over 300,000 orphans and over 85,000 children who were heads of their household, taking care of younger siblings and sick relatives.
There were thousands of widows some carrying their HIV children from rape assaults by the Interahamwe. There was rampant lawlessness, looting and chaos. The infrastructure had been destroyed, the ability to govern dismantled. Homes had been demolished, property stolen.
When I left the Memorial I was confused and shocked. When I got a bodaboda (motorcycle taxi) at the gate I realised that I had forgotten my backpack inside the Memorial or maybe I was just fleeing from the horror. The constant ‘rebooting’ of my mind had crushed me. I could not think properly.
An edited version of this article appeared in the Mmegi