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Rwanda Bearing Witness Retreat 2010: Day #4

We skipped our early morning small group councils today in order to leave early for Murambe, 3.5 hours southwest of Kigali near the border with Burundi. On April 25, 1994, 50,000 Tutsis were murdered at a recently constructed, but yet to open, technical school campus. The local officials began encouraging the Tutsis of the area who were seeking refuge in churches and smaller schools to all go to the new technical school where they would be safe and cared for. This was part of the genocide/extermination plan. Once all the Tutsis were at the school around April 9th, the officials cut off water and food and began starving the Tutsis. Then on April 25th, the Interahamwe militia entered the school and systematically slaughtered all the Tutsis. Only a few managed to escape. They then took all the bodies out of the many different classroom buildings and bull dozed them into a mass grave pit, which they carefully covered up to hide the bodies. They then cleaned up all the buildings, which were then used by the French soldiers for barracks. The French soldiers played volley ball on top of the mass grave site. The was in the Turquoise zone. Ostensibly this was a buffer zone manned by the French between the Hutu government forces and invading RPF army that stopped the genocide. Intended or not, it functioned as an escape route for the Interahamwe militias and Hutu government troops to escape into Burundi and the Congo after committing the genocide atrocities.

The 3.5 hour bus ride to Murambi took us through some of the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen, lush green, verdant hills dotted with mud brick houses, banana plantations, and corn and sugar cane fields in the valleys. There were 19 of us on the bus, 18 bearing witness retreat participants (half Rwandan and half international) and Emmanuel, our guide and new friend, provided to us by our friends at the National Museum.

Arriving at the Murambe genocide memorial site, we were given a short introduction to the site’s history by Emmanuel before eating our box lunches out on the grounds in front of the memorial. We then began our tour of the site, which consistently principally of entering classroom after classroom filled with preserved corpses laying on low wooden wracks. Because all of the victims were discovered in the mass grave where they’d been hidden by the murderers and because the soil contained lime, the bodies were discovered to be preserved. We silently bore witness to thousands of corpses, many of the children, obviously emaciated from starvation and mangled in all kinds of poses and expressions of horror, hiding, or reaching out, apparently pleading for life. The smell of death in these rooms was almost unbearable. We visited the center of the French garrison and the site of the hidden mass grave where the survivors and other locals recount that soldiers played volleyball, knowing full well that the bodies were buried there to hide the evidence of the genocide. After spending several hours with the corpses of the victims arranged in some 30 different classrooms in five of the school buildings, we returned to the conference room at the main memorial site building to listen to the stories of two survivors, Jeanette and another Emmanuel. Emmanuel had a deep indent in his skull from a bullet wound. He had been shot by the genocide perpetrators.

After listening to their graphic accounts of the events at Murambe, we took chairs out onto a veranda in order to do our large council (listening circle) in the cool air. All of the memorial site staff, including five survivors from the area and one of the survivors daughters joined our circle. Many of the nine Rwandan participants on our Bearing Witness Retreat are also genocide survivors from different parts of Rwanda. So we had about 25 people in our circle, all but our nine international participants from Rwanda. Most of the Rwandans shared in their native language, Kinyarwanda, while someone translated. A few spoke in English while someone translated into Kinyarwanda, as they did when our international participants shared in English. The council lasted almost two hours and became an amazing journey of the heart. We were so happy that all of the local staff and survivors joined us and that the circle was largely Rwandan. Everyone easily picked up on the council format, taking their turn to speak as the “talking piece,” a stone from the memorial site grounds, was passed around the circle.

After finishing our council we went to the new memorial mass graves to lay a wreath and spend time in prayer and contemplation. Finally we boarded our bus for the 3.5 hour drive back to Kigali. To our great delight, most of our new friends from the memorial site staff joined us on the bus, hitching a ride to a nearby town. One of the survivors, a memorial site guide named Francois, returned all the way to Kigali with us. On the way back to my delight, we stopped at one of the national museum sites near Butare, were it’s director, Jerome, came out to see us. Jerome participated with us on the 2008 Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat in Poland, along with our key Rwanda retreat partners Dora and Issa from Memos, Learning from History. Another Memos member, Jeanette, who also participated in the 2008 Auschwitz retreat, visited us for dinner last night here at the guest house where we are staying in Kigali. At Murambe today, a number of us were struck by the similarity of the scores of class room buildings at the site to the barracks at Birkenau.

Tomorrow, we will once again begin with our small group councils after breakfast and then visit the prisoners at the TIG camp. Convicted genocide perpetrators have been divided into 4 levels of culpability. The TIG prisoners are on the lower end of the scaled and there cases were handled through the Gacaca (community courts) process. Then we will spend the afternoon with youth groups and young survivor groups working to heal the trauma of the genocide build a new, unified Rwanda.

As I finish writing this and head for bed, my mind and heart are swimming in a sea of the victims corpses we witnessed today. I pray that I can connect with the humanity of all these victims, now represented by bones, skulls and emaciated, dried up, somewhat ghoulish cadavers.

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