Today marks the 22nd anniversary of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and a day to reflect, remember and honor the nearly 1,000,000 people who died over the course of 100 days in Rwanda.
During my time in Kigali I visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre and I also took a trip about 30 minutes outside of Kigali to a district called Bugesera. Here you will find two memorial sites from the 1994 genocide one in Ntarama and the other in Nyamata.
On the road to Bugesera
Visiting the sites where such horrific atrocities and crimes took place was very educational, overwhelming and deeply upsetting.
Both the memorial sites– Ntarama and Nyamata are Catholic churches. In both 1959 and 1992, hundreds of Tutsis were murdered in Rwanda. During both periods, Tutsis fled to the churches for safety and were spared.
When the genocide began in 1994, Tutsis and Hutu moderates once again turned to their religious leaders and the church for safety. However during the genocide of 1994 many priests and pastors told Tutsis to gather in their churches only with the intention to allow the militia to exterminate the innocent men women and children as they sought refuge.
We first visited Ntarama which is the smaller of the two churches. Behind the church are the remains of the kitchen where people were burned alive and a small Sunday school room where the heads of children were smashed against the walls.
At Ntarama there is a wall where they’ve engraved the names of the victims who died at the church. There are only 200 or so names. Although over 5000 people died here, entire families had been killed and after the genocide, there was no one to identify their bodies.
What I did not expect and was completely unprepared for is that the bodies of those who died at Ntarama are kept on the grounds. I was very confused as our tour guide began unlocking the padlock to a metal shed and was overwhelmed when she opened the door.
Inside were two rows of coffins filled with bones stacked three or four high on top of each other. In the back of the shed were wooden shelves with hundreds and hundreds of skulls and bones. Our guide was nearly in tears as she pointed out how you can see how some victims had bullet holes in their skulls or were shattered by machetes.
After we left Ntarama we went to Nyamata which is the larger church between the two and today there is a new church that is used just next to the original site. When you enter the original church it is a large room with rows and rows of small pews covered with piles and piles of clothes and shoes– belongings from the over 10,000 victims who lost their lives here.
Behind the church is a mass grave encased by cement. I was shocked to hear that over 45,000 bodies lay at this site.
I was even more shocked that the underground grave could be entered. We walked down a small set of stairs and immediately the air was warm and smelled of the thousands of bones that rest there uncovered. Inside were rows of coffins a dozen feet high stacked on top of each other. Each coffin contained bones from up to 50 bodies and there were wooden shelves lined with bones and skulls just as high.
It was so so upsetting and overwhelming. I could barely bring myself to walk down to the grave before I needed to exit the site.
45,000 bodies. And yet those 45,000 bodies were just a fraction of the nearly 1,000,000 people who died over the course of about 3 months in 1994.
Shocking. Horrific. How could anyone commit such horrible acts?? Never again.
My visit to Bugesera really reminded me how thankful I am for my wonderful, easy life and how lucky I am to be able to join Akilah in creating opportunities for women and families who have been through more than I can ever imagine.