04/06/2014 11:42 pm ET Updated Jun 06, 2014

Mute Witnesses to Horror in Rwanda and Cambodia: The Stations of the Skulls on the Looney Front

As the world marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide on April 6, the macabre human remains of that terrible massacre have become grim stations of the cross on the tourist circuit in the otherwise magnificently beautiful country -- just as they did years earlier in another far-off country from whose experience humanity failed to learn.

They are 5,250 miles apart, one in Asia, the other in Africa. But in each, huge piles of human skulls bear mute witness to the genocidal horrors of the last quarter of the 20th century, long after the world should already have learned better from the enormity of the Nazi Holocaust.

Both have been memorialized in books, documentaries and films -- Cambodia in the Killing Fields, Rwanda in Hotel Rwanda. But nothing quite prepares you for the physical presence of the empty eye sockets staring out in blind despair, the jaw-less mouths agape in a silent shriek of agony.


Shelves of skulls in Rwandan church

If Cambodia's nearly four-year-long killing fields in the late 1970s lacked the inter-ethnic connotations often attributed to genocide, the same cannot be said of the horror that consumed Rwanda in 1994, when in just 100 days beginning on April 6 Hutu extremists killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsi and the moderate Hutu who protected them.

Slashing their victims to pieces with machetes, sometimes clubbing them, shooting them or blowing them up with grenades, the murderers had a predilection for massacring them in the churches where they had been herded or had sought divine help.

One such church is a raw brick-built rectangle in Ntarama, an hour's drive from Kigali, Rwanda's capital. Here Hutu extremists first hurled in grenades, then finished off 5,000 people crammed inside with guns, machetes and clubs.


Shelves of skulls at Ntarama church, Rwanda

The victims still remain, still litter the floor with their bones and shreds of clothing, their skulls piled high on shelves, an eternal memorial to man's inhumanity to man.


Bones and shreds of clothing litter church floor

All that is except one, Nyarabuzungu Dantsira, a woman who was saved by being buried under an avalanche of corpses, among them her husband and seven children.


Nyarabuzungu Dantsira at side of Ntarama church in 2004

A sign proclaiming "Never Again" in Kinyarwanda, French and English has been fixed next to a hole breached in its wall above skulls, bones and other remains honored with flowers beneath a green and purple awning.


'Never Again'

At a nearby church in Nyamata, skulls, bones and bloodstains on the tin ceiling bear mute witness to 2,500 or more machine-gunned to death.

Many of these churches lie in spectacularly beautiful surroundings. The little town of Kibuye climbs a promontory and extends along slivers of land into Lake Kivu amid emerald mountains, limpid waters and tree-garbed islets.


Edenic view over lake Kivu from Kibuye's church of death


Another lake view

The St. Jean Catholic Church and Home Complex crowns a little hilltop with magnificent views. Here in mid-April 1994 thousands of men, women and children were hacked, bludgeoned and shot to death.


Sunset view from church of death


Another sunset view

Today skulls and bones stare out from glass encased shelves built into the church's front. A stone block directs you to another memorial to 11,400 victims slaughtered in the nearby stadium on April 17.


Skulls stare out from church front


Signpost to Kibuye's "killing stadium"

If it is true that the human mind has difficulty in comprehending the enormity of mass killings and it is the single example or a digestible combination of them that really brings home the utter horror, then nowhere is that more true than in the pink-painted Kigali Memorial Centre in the capital.


Mass grave at Kigali Memorial Center

Here, among the mass graves of 250,000 victims, among rooms devoted in morbid solidarity to other 20th-century genocides, from the German massacre of the Herero in Namibia at the start of that blighted century, through the Armenian genocide and Nazi Holocaust, to the horrors of Srebrenica, here among the skulls and bones, there is a section devoted to children, with their pictures, a brief description of their likes and cause of death.

Beneath the photo of an infant: tortured; hacked by machete, slashed by machete in his mother's arms, age nine months.

Here you can take in the true measure of the horror beyond the blur of numbers and statistics.

Beneath the photo of a pretty little girl: Ariane Umutoni, age: 4. Favorite food: cake. Enjoyed: singing and dancing. Behavior: a neat little girl. Cause of death: stabbed in her eyes and head.


View over Kigali from Memorial Center

For not-so-mute witnesses to man's inhumanity to man just cross the continent to Sierra Leone. A young man stands in rags outside the Crown Bakery café on Freetown's Lightfoot Boston Street begging for alms, jagged stumps protruding where his hands should be.

He is one of thousands of survivors of a civil war that culminated in 1999 in Operation No Living Thing, one of the most brutal episodes of a monstrously brutal conflict that tore the little country apart in more than a decade of massacres and blood-soaked coups.


Freetown bustles again after horrific massacres

Launched by the bestial Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the operation claimed 6,000 lives alone in Freetown and destroyed large swaths of the city. It was the climax of RUF's appalling atrocities that left thousands of people without hands or feet, in a massive frenzy of mutilation until West African regional forces, British troops and the UN finally reestablished peace.

In Rwanda, too, you can find the mutilated survivor of its genocide, where a slashing machete only succeeded in lopping off a limb and not a life.


Freetown market's mobile shoe shop -- no use to mutilated victims

On the other side of the world, in the tranquil emerald countryside just 10 miles south of Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, a modest Buddhist stupa with double-gilded eaves houses over 5,000 skulls, an infinitesimal fraction of the 1.7 million Cambodians tortured, starved or slave-labored to death by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge henchmen during their horrific years in power from 1975 to 1979.


The skulls of Choeung Ek

Here at Choeung Ek, the most easily visited of Cambodia's killing fields due to its proximity to Phnom Penh, nearly 9,000 Cambodians annihilated by their fellow Cambodians were tossed into mass graves. Human bones still abound in these fields where the skulls stare out from layer upon layer behind acrylic glass.


The killing fields stupa at Choeung Ek

Many of the victims came from a former school that the Khmer Rouge converted into a mass torture chamber in Phnom Penh itself. Once the Chao Ponhea Yat High School, Pol Pot turned it into Security Prison 21 (S-21), where of the nearly 20,000 who passed through its satanic doors only a dozen survived. It was just one of scores of such hellholes where prisoners were beaten, tortured with electric shocks, burned with searing hot metal and water-boarded among other torments.

Today the nondescript building is the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. It, too, has its cupboards of skulls and a map of Cambodia formed of skulls among rooms of floor-to-ceiling wall-to-wall photos of victims, torture implements and cells.


Cupboard of skulls at Tuol Sleng school

By the same author: Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.