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Kwibuka 27: Nyamata And My Two Year Ricochete Of Reflections And Ruminations

By Dolapo Aina
30 April 2021   |   10:13 am
Let me begin by stating that you would probably not read anything similar to this Rwanda-themed piece from a non-Rwandan in 2021. This piece which is the concluding part took almost two years to write. And within this epistle you are delving into, you would discover why it took almost two years (eighteen months) to…

Let me begin by stating that you would probably not read anything similar to this Rwanda-themed piece from a non-Rwandan in 2021. This piece which is the concluding part took almost two years to write. And within this epistle you are delving into, you would discover why it took almost two years (eighteen months) to mentally conclude and sit down to write this piece. The first part of this piece was written in the last days of October and early days of November 2019 whilst transiting between Kigali to Marrakesh via Doha. It was published via The Guardian Nigeria on Monday, November 11, 2019 and titled Beholding Beautiful Bugesera. You can read it here.

I had no idea writing the concluding part of this piece would be herculean if not challenging from a wordsmith’s perspective. But as you read on and as I have reiterated, you have not read anything similar to this Rwanda-related piece from a non-Rwandan in 2021, for one major reason; which is, this piece was not written with a tourist’s eye or someone in transit or from a journalist who flies into Rwanda for some days or weeks and writes a piece that enthrones, bestows or christens the individual with bird’s eye view of the country. This second part and concluding piece traverses more than a visit to Nyamata Genocide Memorial and would highlight other related angles emanating from a plethora of events.

At this juncture, I have to state that I realised that watching Kwibuka commemorations online for years and experiencing Kwibuka 20 in April 2014 on the ground in Kigali or as a tourist were and are quite different from experiencing Kwibuka when residing in Rwanda. I would touch base on this much later on in the piece.

In a paragraph of the part one (published in 2019) of this concluding piece; I stated that “I always wanted to visit Bugesera in Rwanda and for two reasons (this piece would focus on the first reason). And when the opportunity presented itself, I took a trip.” Some paragraphs later, “At about 10 am, the NDA Rwanda tour guide by the name Florence informed Wally Walter and I that we had arrived Nyamata Genocide Memorial (also known as Bugesera Genocide Memorial.) What awaited me is another article worth reading.” So, what awaited me?

We waited at a rusty gate after we had walked into the serene Nyamata Genocide Memorial. At the old entrance with the rusty gate, the tour guide gave us (Wally Walter, the five elderly Americans and I) the history of the memorial. As someone who has visited Genocide memorials and would probably end up writing about each visit when the mind has completely processed what was seen; I was scribbling some notes and the only elderly man amongst the American group had to ask if I were a professor? The history of Nyamata and the memorial are interlocked like every location in Rwanda if you are an avid reader of Rwanda’s history.

The Nyamata Memorial page of Genocide Archive Rwanda website hosted by Aegis Trust is quite informative with a virtual tour. According to the website, the Nyamata Memorial is located in Eastern Province in Nyamata Sector, Bugesera District. Historically, Bugesera was an uninhabited region of Rwanda, covered by dense forests and rife with tsetse flies.

The Genocide Memorial is one of Rwanda’s six National Genocide Memorial Sites. It is noteworthy to state that the Nyamata Genocide Memorial was desacralized (secularised) by the Roman Catholic Church on Friday, 11th April 1997 and transformed into a memorial to the victims of the 1994 Genocide Against The Tutsi. One person is buried inside the church, which also houses victims’ clothes and their belongings. Mass graves are situated behind the church, containing 45,308 genocide victims. The 11th of April every year is dedicated to the commemoration of the victims killed at this site. The number of victims includes those who were killed inside the church, as well as others who were exhumed from surrounding areas. The memorial is located in what was originally the Nyamata Parish.

According to the website, after the 1994 Genocide Against The Tutsi and following negotiations with leaders of the Catholic Church in Rwanda, the Government of Rwanda converted the Nyamata Church into a memorial site. The memorial is composed of a chapel in which victims’ clothes are displayed, along with the weapons used to kill them. Beneath the chapel there is a room displaying the remains of those killed in the church. Mass graves are situated behind the church, with a vault that houses the skulls of victims and other human remains. In addition, the memorial site includes the grave of Antoinette Locatelli, with a placard explaining her life and work in Rwanda, and her eventual murder on Monday, 9th March 1992. On Sunday, 4th of July 2010, President Paul Kagame posthumously bestowed upon Locatelli a medal of honour during the ceremonies of the 15th anniversary of Liberation Day.

Since, I had the writer’s initiative to scribble down notes whilst in the premises, let me give you a vivid description of the aforementioned paragraphs which were captured in my scribblings.

In the main church (chapel), I counted ten pews on the left, four pews were empty. I counted three empty pews (opposite the altar). Also, I counted two sets of twenty-four coffins each properly placed. There were also twelve pews on the right and one was empty (that is, there was a vacuum without a pew). Almost all the pews had clothes placed on them.

I walked down the stairs of the burial ground (the one in close proximity to the altar), I counted neatly placed human skulls totalling 66 (42 skulls and 60 skulls separately placed.) In the main church with the altar, you could not miss the bones of children, men and women. There was also a large place for piles of clothes.

One sight that would still stop you in your tracks if you visit more than once; is the corner where children were thrown and smashed against the bricked wall and if you looked closely, you would see that the wall has some unforgettable and recognisable crimson stains. I counted seventeen coffins by this corner. I remember I stood there and for a brief moment (no thanks to the vivid mind of a writer) seeing flashes of the barbaric acts being committed. It was like one was transported back (in a time-machine) to this day; Monday, 11th of April 1994.

If what was witnessed in the main parish was gory, what awaited one behind the main parish, would leave the visitor with a feeling of numbness and dejection. The empty and serene vicinity at the back belies the shocking discoveries beneath the well-constructed and roof-sheltered underground-resting place of coffins of victims of The 1994 Genocide Against The Tutsi in Rwanda. As at when I visited in October 2019, the meticulous arrangement of the coffins were done in such a way that you can actually count the rows and columns of coffins (if you were not in a hurry). So, I decided to walk from one end of the underground resting place to the other end.

I was able to count one hundred and ninety coffins neatly placed on stands (on each side of the walls) which stretch from the ground to the rooftop of the underground burial site. A casual look into some of the coffins indicated that several remains (bones) were placed in them. You have to understand that I have never visited such a place before and usually would not go in. But one felt no intuition telling one not to go in. One feeling I had which I still relate to people about my visit is that, spiritually speaking, I realised that such places can be visited by people who have good souls/spirits and they would be comfortable there. I don’t think I can say the same for people without good souls/spirits. In such a place, your conscience would either be at ease and at peace or your conscience would not be at ease. In my native language (Yoruba), there is a saying; “Eje so ro” meaning innocent blood speaks.

I came out of the underground and I was extremely sober to the extent of being speechless as I recorded my thoughts (a recording I did not upload online till late 2020. And the reason being that I was still processing what I had seen.) I walked my way to meet the other members of the group (the four elderly Americans; three ladies and a man and the Zimbabwean.) We walked over to the new Nyamata church and attended the third mass.

The reason for this detailed experience is to highlight to the reader a minutest description of what transpired at the Nyamata Genocide Memorial which was a church in 1994. Now, imagine what the stories of surviviors would be? I remember when I talked about visiting Nyamata to see the memorial to a Rwandan friend in early September of 2019. She informed me she was from Nyamata. One day, she showed me some pictures she took when she visited the memorial. Going through the pictures, I realised that was the first time I ever saw my landlady gloomy and sad. Her family members including parents were buried at the Nyamata Genocide Memorial.

The 2021 Commemoration of Kwibuka 27 took a different meaning for this writer as I alluded to in the first few paragraphs of this piece. This year, I was able to really read, listen and watch stories of victims, survivors and even perpetrators who had served jail terms. All of the stories tore at one’s heart every day during RBA’s 10pm news. A plethora of emotions (from shock, amazement, disbelief, puzzlement, sobriety, lost in thoughts) hitting you as the listener at once. Now, imagine the storytellers who expressed, experienced and lived it? For almost two weeks and still counting, terrestrial stations in Rwanda had Kwibuka-related reports (in Kinyarwanda, English and French). There were days this writer thought there would be no new report only to watch a more intense report. As I compose this piece on Tuesday 27th April 2021, I still shake my head as to the stories one watched. Stories that had different angles and shades of pain, loss, forgiveness but not forgotten, memories, documentation of events, hope and survival. Too numerous stories to highlight in this article and the stories were much that I decided not to scribble them down.

Snapshots of some stories. Imagine an elderly man who lost all his children and wife and is the only survivor? Imagine an elderly woman who lost four of her six children and still thinks about them? Imagine the story of a family whose father was watching television and saw their lost daughter (they were separated in 1994 and since they didn’t find her thought she was not alive) on a documentary about salons in Kigali? How did a father recognise his daughter twenty-seven years after; since she was just four years old in 1994? A DNA test proved him right. They say, blood is ticker than water. What about the stories of children who don’t have any single family member alive and have formed an association of like-minded people and some become the father figure when the ladies in this association are being walked to the alter during the marriage ceremony? Or those who were born in the last quarter of 1994 but whose mothers didn’t inform the son or daughter who his/her father was? What about those who just have their parents but no extended family member? Imagine hearing stories of brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, nephews or nieces, you never met? Imagine hearing stories of family members but not a single picture for you to have a look at? Imagine hearing stories of friends who almost broke down mentally because they tried to process the traumas of their experiences in 1994? Imagine the different traumas of those who were refugees in Uganda, Tanzania, Congo, Kenya? Imagine the traumas of those who were outside Rwanda. East Africa, Africa and in the Western Hemisphere but were worried about the safety and whereabouts of family members back then?

In 2014, during Kwibuka 20 commemorations in Lagos Nigeria, I remember about four Rwandan women were seated in front of me at the famous cinema complex in Victoria Island. When a documentary about the Genocide Against The Tutsi came up on the huge screen, the ladies brought out their handkerchiefs and their hands went up their faces. They had their own stories.

Twenty-seven years after the 1994 Genocide Against The Tutsi; the stories of survivors are unending and would tuck at your deepest thoughts. Watching the stories at 10pm news every night, several thoughts played out and the realisation that there are different degrees of trauma, processing trauma and healing and a specific trauma called transgenerational trauma. The trauma of those who were victims, those who survived, the lone family member, parents without their children, children without parents, people who don’t know what happened to their loved ones. Not forgetting non-Rwandans (UN soldiers, journalists etc) who were in Rwanda in 1994; they would also be processing their own form of trauma regarding what they experienced.

I always noticed and wondered and usually asked some journalists and some non-Rwandans who were in Rwanda in 1994 why they don’t really talk about their time in Rwanda. One who was in Rwanda less than two years after 1994; simply said, trauma. it takes time for the mind to process any Genocide and to talk about it. One understands since it took close to two years to write (talk) this concluding piece on the Nyamata visit. Even though, I still visited Kigali Genocide Memorial in Gisonzi, in December 2020 with a close friend of many years Stephan Eloise Gras and Aphrodice Mutangana (both of Digital Africa); I was still not ready to write about the Nyamata visit.

Coincidentally, other talking and writing points during the first few weeks of the Kwibuka 27 Commemoration, were the commissioned reports (Duclert Report and Muse Report) which shed more light on what transpired pre The 1994 Genocide Against The Tutsi in Rwanda. With these new reports especially the 628-page Muse Report which is easy to read and understand by all and sundry and which is not grandiloquent in its grammatical delivery; academic scholars, lawyers, historians, history aficionados, writers and journalists would have new and ample treasure trove of information to work on. One of such would be the appropriate terminology and usage by the media of The Genocide Against The Tutsi. The Holocaust is not termed and called any other terminology by global media. Anything short of the appropriate terminology; like an African saying goes; is adding salt to wound/an injury.

On this seemingly deliberate misappropriation of the terminology, I asked the British investigative journalist Ms Linda Melvern who according to her official website; “began research into the circumstances of The Genocide of the Tutsi in April 1994 in New York while completing her third book – a history of the United Nations commissioned for the organisation’s fiftieth commemoration.” And who has written several books on Rwanda (her latest book titled: Intent to Deceive. Denying The Genocide of The Tutsi); why there seems to be a deliberate misappropriation of the exact terminology by global media? Ms Linda Melvern responded and without paraphrasing, she said; “I wish I knew. It seems obvious though that one set of journalistic rules exist when reporting western events and another set entirely when reporting Africa. What these journalists have in common is a failure to carry out any investigation, the hard and tedious work of checking facts and seeking out documentary evidence.

Instead, they rely on unverified witnesses’ testimonies from dubious sources.” Those who tend not to source out credible sources would find the online dialogue which held on Wednesday, 28th of April 2021 very insightful. It was titled Colloquium on the UN and the 1994 Genocide Against The Tutsi in Rwanda. It was hosted by the Rwanda’s Permanent Mission at the United Nations had credible sources who were on the ground in Rwanda and at the United Nations in 1994 when the Genocide Against The Tutsi commenced.

On Monday, February 3rd, 2020, an international conference was held in Kigali titled: Incitement + Dehumanisation: Five Precursors To Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. It was organised by Israel’s B’nai B’rith International, Embassy of Israel in Rwanda and Aegis Trust. The speakers who are experts in their respective fields (related to the theme of the conference) ranged from Israel, Rwanda, United Kingdom and America. The clear-cut conversations which touched on several aspects from these speakers were and are still insights you would not have thought of or read in the pages of newspapers. For example, surviving parents are sometimes asked tasking questions by their children.

Questions like what did father or mother look like? Another speaker Rabbi Seth Mandell stated that the trauma of a Genocide never ends. As children get older, they deal with the trauma in different ways. Mrs Esther Mujawayo-Keiner talked about the impact of trauma on future generations. Stating that even babies also experienced 1994 via emotions from parents especially mothers during breastfeeding.

The mental illness aspect of Genocides was also discussed. Whilst Genocide is a process that involves eight stages, the conference highlighted the eight moral lessons of Genocides which are; the importance and imperative of remembrance: the danger of forgetting; the danger of state sanctioned incitement to hate and violence; the dangers of indifference and inaction: The 1994 Genocide Against The Tutsi was preventable; the danger of impunity, of not holding the perpetrators to account; the danger of the vulnerability of the victims: speak up on behalf of the powerless and vulnerable; the danger of Genocide denial; remember the rescuers; remember the survivors.

I would end with the opening comments of Israel’s Ambassador to Rwanda, Ambassador Ron Adams who initiated the UNGA resolution of Holocaust Remembrance and the International Commemoration Day during his time at Israel’s Permanent Mission at the United Nations. He stated and paraphrasing him; “We have an important role to play in fighting Genocide. Rwanda after the 1994 Genocide Against The Tutsi is an inspiration.”

Going through all the articles, I have written (since 2013) pertaining to the theme of this epistle, I realised one recurring rhetorical question and soliloquy which after all the reader has read in this piece; I would still repeat; “What happened in Rwanda in 1994? I am still trying to understand and process it.” Now, not that the mind does not know what happened. There is a limit to what the mind can comprehend and process and any given time. The 1994 Genocide Against The Tutsi boggles the mind and would still boggle the mind. The human mind. But at the end of the day, individuals and countries have to take a stand for what is true, right and morally appropriate for at the end of the day, human dignity would win.

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