Not too far from Kigali, down a long stretch of dirt road that winds past farm fields and vast expanses of green, there are two small churches that stand as reminders of the horrors of the genocide. Behind the twisted metal doors of Nyamata Church, over 10,000 people were brutally murdered in 1994.
The tour guide, a graceful young woman with a quiet voice, greets me and beckons me inside the dark sanctuary. One step inside of the shadows and I’ve stepped into history. It’s not just the musty smell of clothes covered in dried blood, its the heavy silence, the thin beams of light filtering through the bullet holes in the ceiling, the rotting cloth on the altar. The bodies are gone, but everything else has been preserved and I am surrounded by death. Everywhere around me on rows and rows of pews are the clothes of those killed.
But immediately, there is an obvious question: The church is so small – how did 10,000 people fit into such a confined space?
The tour guide nods, this is a familiar question. “It seems impossible, but you have to believe it,” she says, “They saw the soldiers coming and they fled here. If they had not been massacred, they would have died in a couple hours from suffocation.”
She leads me to the altar, on which several of the weapons of the killing remain. A machete, a bullet, a spear. Traditional weapons were the tools of choice since they were abundant and inflicted the greatest pain. Overlooking the altar, a statue of Virgin Mary stands with hands clasped, eyes looking up toward a ceiling peppered with bullet holes. The tour guide directs my attention to the splotches of black stains on the ceiling just above the altar. “They lay the victims on the altar to kill them,” she says, “You had to pay for bullets. Otherwise, they killed you with the machete – she slashes her hand through the air and points at the ceiling – so that the blood reaches up.”
In both churches, there is one wall that is completely stained with dried blood and the clothes that lie on the floor are much more compactly assembled than elsewhere in the churches.
“Here, they murdered children,” she tells me, “They killed them by taking them and hitting them against the walls.”
We walk downstairs into a small memorial that was constructed after the genocide. There, one coffin sits behind glass enveloped in beams of white light.
“The most beautiful woman in Rwanda,” she says, “She refused to marry Hutu, so in the genocide, they raped her, tortured her, and cut her from genitals to face. On both sides, front and back.”
We walk back upstairs and out of the church to the back. There, lie the mass graves of over 40,000 – the bones of the 10,000 from the church and the bodies of 30,000 more from the surrounding area. There are two structures: one for the bones of those whose bodies had already rotted away, and one for fresh bodies found in streams, latrines, etc. that could not be laid with the bones.
I see steps leading down into the graves and question the guide. She says that I may enter but suggests that my friend accompany me in case I get scared. He says no. I enter alone.
As I descend the steps and lose sight of the world outside, once again, the sense of history overwhelms me. I am part of the shadow. In the darkness, I can make out the skulls lined on shelves just a couple feet away. I step down from the last step and walk in.
All around me are rows and rows of skulls and bones on shelves that extend deep into the chamber far past my line of vision. The light from the staircase barely outlines the tens of thousands of round surfaces, some of which bear the marks of machetes, others with multiple punctures from bullets.
I suddenly cough and gasp. I realize I had stopped breathing.
I fumble with the clasp of my purse and reach in for my camera. I hesitate. What am I doing? I am standing in a mass grave, surrounded by the bones of people who were massacred just sixteen years ago, and my first response is to take a picture?
Nausea hits me and I reel.
I can’t allow myself to have emotion, can’t allow myself to think. I have to save that for later. I take the camera out, and before I can allow myself to further contemplate the morality of my actions, I take a couple pictures, close-up, then farther away, with flash, without flash.
In the meantime, the skulls remain silent, lined on their shelves, sitting still as I apply the rule of thirds and try different angles to maximize the lighting.
The last click. I take my eye away from the camera and place it back in my bag.
Silence. Darkness. Stillness.
I walk back in and stand close to the shelf, my face just an inch away from a skull. Who are you? What was your story? How old were you?
I stare into gaping holes that once held eyes that embraced life, absorbed experiences. But the eyes are gone. There is only darkness. Once a subject. Now an object. The unrecognizable abject amidst rows of identical thousands.
My friend calls. I tear my eyes away from impenetrable darkness and remember the light from the staircase. I walk back, ascend steps toward the sun and the living.
Stop. Take a look back down.
Silence. Darkness. Stillness.
I can barely make out the outline of the skull nearest the stairs.
My friend calls again. This time I don’t look back.
I leave history in its grave, but take with me the legacy of the silenced – a reminder for the future, a command of Never Again, a hope for harmony and peace in a new Rwanda.
Later, I hear the story of the guide. She was in this church in 1994. When the soldiers came, she fled with her sister and sought refuge inside a nearby creek. For two months, she hid waist-deep in the water, skin rotting, but too afraid to emerge for fear of being seen. Her parents did not escape; their bones lie unidentified within the depths of the mass grave. She was seven years old.
Now, she works at the Genocide Memorial as a volunteer. She has no job. She lives off of the funds that the government gives to Genocide survivors. Everyday, she sits at the site of death, telling the story of the church to those who will hear it. Her single occupation in life is to preserve the story, preserve the legacy of its victims, of her parents, of horrors that can never be erased as her country steps forward – forward into a brighter future that she hopes will never forget the lessons of its past.