The historical event is straightforward and easily summarized. The plane carrying Hutu Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down on April 6, 1994, on approach to the Kigali airport. Their assassination sparked the Rwandan genocide, which lasted for 100 days. Up to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus lost their lives. In the initial bloodshed a majority of the dead were Tutsi.
A French judge has since blamed current Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, for orchestrating the rocket attack. Others still hold to the theory that it was members of Habyarimana's inner circle who ordered his assassination.
In 1994, Kagame was leader of the Tutsi rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which was training in Uganda. Kagame led his troops into Kigali in July, the Hutu government fell, and over 2 million Hutus fled into neighboring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Among the refugees were members of the Interahamwe, and their presence in Congo has resulted in continuing bloodshed. This tension is exploited by multi-national interest in the wealth of Congo.
“Plus or minus 5,000 persons” is written in French, English and Kinyarwanda on the rusting sign outside of the little Catholic church in Ntarama, Rwanda—30 Km from Kigali. On April 15, 1994 while villagers were defending themselves with bows and arrows in the surrounding countryside, members of the Interahamwe, the Hutu militia and Rwandan government forces knocked holes in the church walls and threw grenades into the church nave before using guns, machetes and clubs to murder the Tutsi villagers who took shelter there. Surely God would protect those huddled on sacred ground. “I believe God will be with us until the end,” reads a note we found stuffed in a discarded, blood-spattered church hymnal. The dead were wrong.
The purple tapestry draped over the tiny altar reads “Iyo Umenya Nawe Ukimenya Ntuba Waranyishe”—“If you knew me and knew yourself, you wouldn’t have killed me.” Overhead, amidst the smells of dust and decay, the clothing of those who were murdered hangs like a terrible colorful cocoon, protecting the silent testimony of what happened here. The observer is compelled to examine the fabric and recoils and the sight of strands of hair clinging to a woman’s scarf and the realization that what you think is brown cloth is really a blood-saturated skirt.
At the opposite end of the nave, thousands of skeletal remains are arranged methodically and anatomically, representing 5,000 individuals. Up to one million Rwandans were slaughtered in the 1994 genocide and the mind cannot comprehend that number. The bottom layer of shelving here holds bones of the pelvis, femurs and the long bones of the skeleton. Time and the elements have bleached these bones white— the color of purity.
The shelf above the long bones above holds the battered and crushed skulls of less than a thousand individuals of all ages, including infants and fetuses ripped from mothers’ wombs. It is too much to process and as you take the photos, you wonder whether the very act of bearing witness to what happened here is some kind of sacrilege. How does one sort through the photos and choose the ones that represent this scene without descending into the terrible abyss? After all, these remains have been photographed before. Is it proper to take these photos, let alone show them to the world once again?
24-year-old Dative Bihoyiki provides some comfort and an answer. She is one of the guardians of the Ntarama memorial and was ten years old when her family and almost everyone else she knew was killed here. “It is good that you are here to see this and take your photos home,” she says through a translator. “You see, some people deny that there was a genocide. You can see with your own eyes what happened here. It is very important.” How did she survive? “God had a miracle.” Dative saw how “people were being killed like dogs and ran away and hid in the bush for one month.” Dative survived by digging sweet potatoes from the fields, and comes here now as a docent to tell the story of her family members who rest among the bones on the shelves. She is not paid to do so. The steel beams she is leaning against support a tin roof, which is all that protects the church and its terrible testimony from the elements.
Fifteen years after the genocide, the surrounding wetlands and swamps continue to bear witness to the death of up to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus, while bones and bits of cloth work their way to the surface. As these grim reminders are discovered, they are placed in a grenade-damaged outbuilding at the Ntarama church. Bags of bones, bags of clothing—remnants of individuals who will never be identified—and in many cases there is no one left to remember their existence. For memory is the only framework of existence here.
The Akagera River is arguably one of the sources of the Nile River. This bridge, which has been replaced by a new span, was the source of thousands of bodies being dumped into the main channel. The late genocide scholar Alison des Forges of Human Rights Watch wrote that there might have been as many as 40,000 bodies desecrated and thrown into the waters. Sugar cane debris covers the bridge, which is structurally unsound with gaping holes in the steel decking.
Field workers, many of them young children, harvest sugar cane in nearby fields. The historical record of what happened on this bridge is also unsound because accounts told by the perpetrators of violence are as riddled with holes and gaps as the rotting steel decking. As more and more evidence comes forth, it is becoming clear that the liberating RPF army as well as the Interahamwe genocidaires were responsible for atrocities here.
Much has been written about the Catholic church at Nyamata, where additional thousands lost their lives. It is located about 10 km from Ntarama. BBC correspondent Mark Doyle, visited Nyamata in June 1994, shortly after the killings. Patrice’s family was careful to see to it that he or she be remembered among the victims.
This statue of the Virgin has become somewhat of a miraculous icon. Guides tell the story of how the Interahamwe stormed the church and shot at the statue, because she had “Tutsi features.” Blood-spattered and damaged by a bullet through her left shoulder, Mary stood and does to this day. The locals venerate her.
Ten Belgian soldiers, assigned by UNAMIR (United Nations Mission to Rwanda) Commander Romeo Dallaire to guard the moderate prime minister Agathe Uwilingimana, were gunned down at the Kigali military camp pictured here. Their names are listed on the plaque at the far end of the building. Flowers and candles are arranged inside, and a granite monument of ten columns is situated across the parking lot. The massacre prompted the withdrawal of the UNAMIR Belgian contingent in the days that followed. After the withdrawal of the Belgian troops, the UN Security Council drastically reduced the number of UNAMIR personnel in Rwanda, setting the stage for 100 days of bloodshed to follow.
Colonel Théoneste Bagosora is featured on graffiti in the same room where the Belgian soldiers were killed. In Shake Hands with the Devil, The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, Canadian General Roméo Dallaire described meeting Bagosora in the first days of the killing as "shaking hands with the devil." In December 2008, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda found Bagosora and two other senior Rwandan army officers, Major Aloys Ntabakuze and Colonel Anatole Nsengiyumva, “guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.” He was sentenced to life imprisonment. The court ruled that Bagosora was also responsible for the murders of Prime Minister Uwilingiyimana and the 10 Belgian peacekeepers.
The legacy of the genocide is evident in the children. Only those younger than eighteen will have no memory of the 100 days in 1994. This also happens to be the median age in a country no larger than the state of Maryland in geography, but with a population now estimated to be over ten million.
These children have a life expectancy of about 48 years with infectious disease being a major threat. They face a gauntlet of AIDS/HIV, bacterial diarrhea, hepatitis A, typhoid fever and malaria.
Whether this sign should read, “Jesus is Coming Soon” is pure speculation. What is very much in evidence in Rwanda is the presence of the ministry of the controversial preacher Rick Warren. Sit down at any bar or restaurant in Kigali and Warren’s ministers will approach you and provide introductions, invited or not. The ministry literally blankets the capitol.
While missionaries swarm over Kigali, the road north to the Hutu villages and gateway to Virunga Park at Ruhengeri remains primitive by western standards. We sensed that the women in particular were just plain old sick and tired of being photographed on the main tourist link for gorilla trekking. Imagine having a constant caravan of vehicles driving through your neighborhood with “muzungas” (whites) snapping away with their digital cameras. These women rightly refused to cooperate unless we purchased something from their roadside stand. A bag of peas cost 200 Rwandan Francs ($.36), and a picture is worth a thousand words for describing their resentment.
The Gateway to the Virungas. This proud Hutu woman was eager for us to take a few snapshots. She will never possess them, but was pleased to see the results on our digital displays. Rwanda remains a beautiful country—Land of a Thousand Hills. This woman’s future is still in question.
As Australian journalist Helen Thomas and I prepared for our visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo, we discussed the importance of revisiting the events of the Rwandan genocide. Before journeying to the genocide memorials depicted here, we huddled together on a bed in a small room at the Gorilla Hotel in Kigali to watch a bootleg copy of the PBS Frontline Series: "The Ghosts of Rwanda". Having seen the program, I wanted Helen to be prepared for what we were about to witness. She was shaken as the program unfolded. I fell asleep and later wondered what she must think about my apparent callousness.
The question we kept asking one another was: "What is the responsibility of the journalist? " The journalist's job is to convey information. We knew we had a duty to report the "who," "what," "where," "when," and "why," but also realized that we must become a voice for the voiceless. What we would bear witness to in Rwanda happened fifteen years ago, but its impact was seemingly endless.
The best we could do would be to describe the horror without assigning blame, responsibility, or guilt. In the case of the Rwandan genocide and the ongoing of war in Congo, we could remind our readers and listeners that the relentless bloodshed in Congo is the immediate legacy of the genocidal history of the Great Lakes Region of Africa.
As storytellers first and foremost, Helen and I knew that we must leave analysis to the scholars, and assignment of punishment to the international courts and tribunals.
The public would have added responsibility to not believe every word that we write. Morality cannot and must not be spoon-fed.
The images in this report are atrocious and in some cases obscene. But, they speak the truth of what happened during 100 days in 1994, and how the repercussions of those events of fifteen years ago have led to the deaths of six million or more in Congo.
Incredibly, just as happened in the years following the Holocaust, there are some who say that genocide never took place. Most Americans cannot visit the memorials depicted in this article. It is reason enough to show the photos.
In the United States, if a rapist or child molester is released from prison, the perpetrator is hounded from civil society, driven from neighborhoods and ostracized forever. Every American has access to databases that indicate the residence of every known child abuser and criminal.
Imagine having the world community tell you that you must live side by side with individuals who murdered millions, including your loved ones. To say "we are all Rwandans now," is a public relations attempt to mask the undercurrent of rage and despair that still permeates Rwandan society. This is a lie and the world press continues to paint Rwanda as a miraculous post-genocidal society that has somehow risen from the ashes of recent atrocities. Our collective guilt has given Rwanda a free pass.
Ask the Hutus in Ruhengeri how they feel about millions in foreign aid going first to Tutsi President Paul Kagame's vision for his modern city of Kigali. Ask the poor who are being moved from the outskirts of Kigali to an already overburdened countryside so that modern high rises and apartment buildings can replace their wooden shacks. How they will feed their families?
Ask the Tutsi survivors of 1994 if they still feel hunted and afraid if they live close to the Congolese border, or even in the Hutu community of Ruhengeri.
Ask the Hutu survivors in Rwanda and Congo about the retaliations forced upon them and their families by Kagame's victorious RPF in 1994 and 1996.
Ask the Congolese Tutsi, known locally as Banyamulenge Tutsi, and other villagers of Kivu province how they feel about the FDLR remnants of the Hutu Interahamwe--acting in collusion with Mai Mai, and with tacit approval and support of the Kabila government-- murdering raping, burning, and pillaging.
The same accusations have been made against Tutsi Bosco Ntaganda by an international war crimes tribunal. Yet, Rwanda, the United States, the United Nations and the Kabila government of Congo have put him in charge of troops in eastern Congo.
Any political discussion of these worries is done quietly and never in public in Rwanda. The feeling is that the government has eyes and ears everywhere and that "nothing happens without Kigali knowing about it." The same is true in Congo. Discussions in public are whispered, cell phones are turned off, and even hotel rooms feel unsafe.
The fingers of blame point in all directions.
When the world lost Alison Des Forges, senior advisor to the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, who tragically died in the recent crash of Flight 3407 from Newark to Buffalo on February 12, 2009, a moral compass was also lost. Her book "Leave None to Tell the Story" was a meticulous documentation of the genocide, and she didn't hesitate to criticize the government of President Paul Kagame when it violated Rwandans' rights. As a result, des Forges was banned from Rwanda.
Read Canadian UNAMIR commander Romeo Dallaire's book Shake Hands With the Devil and learn how the United States and the United Nations betrayed Rwanda.
Look at the photographs here and ask yourself who is really to blame. Please follow the suggested links in the text-- documents that will only lead to more questions if you are vigilant and seek the elusive truth.
Also take the time to listen to Helen Thomas's report from the ABC Australian network. It is an excellent example of what Congo endures post genocide.
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