Eglise St Pierre genocide memorial

Visiting genocide memorials in Rwanda

In this post I share my experience of visiting genocide memorials in Rwanda. It includes descriptions of the Kigali Genocide Memorial and the Nyamata and Kibuye churches. At the bottom of this post you’ll find some practical information in case you wish to visit these places yourself.

Every April for the past couple of years, I felt that I should be writing this story. And every year, I found excuses not to. Or rather, I would let the month slip away while I was busy doing other things. I would then ascertain with a certain sense of relief that April was now behind us. It meant that the right timing for this story had passed and I should wait for next year.

Of course, these were just excuses. The reason why I was so hesitant to write this story, is because unlike most other travel tales, it is not a happy one. In fact, it is a terrifying and heartbreaking one. It is a story that I try not to revisit too often in my photographs or memories of this place. Rwanda, where in April of 1994 the horrific genocide started that resulted in the death of close to a million people.

So why am I finally writing this story this April? It’s simple. I sat down to write it because it is long overdue. The discomfort that it may cause me in writing it, or you in reading it, is the least we can offer to honour the memory of those who perished in 1994.

Rwanda was one of several East African countries that I visited on a trip with my two sisters. We had spent a fantastic time in Uganda, tracking gorillas and going on walking safaris, before coming to Rwanda. Where Uganda was all about glorious nature, Rwanda was on our itinerary because of its history. Granted, nowadays most people come to the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills‘ to enjoy its beautiful scenery. Many come to visit the population of mountain gorillas in its eastern volcanic range. And that is a good thing. The purpose of our journey however, was mainly to get a grasp on the country’s modern history by visiting Rwanda’s genocide memorials.

The dark side of history

When we travel, we often have the fortune of seeing some of the most beautiful parts of our planet. But in some places, we can also see its ugliest sides. It is my personal conviction that it is elemental to visit these disturbing places. To skip them would not do the country and people I am visiting justice. So when I was in Krakow, I spent a day to contemplate humanity at Auschwitz. When in Cambodia, I made a solemn visit to the Tuol Sleng prison and the Killing Fields. And in Japan I made sure to include Hiroshima in my itinerary.

The difference this time was that in Rwanda, the genocide was not the subject of a day trip. It was the common thread throughout the entire length of my stay there. Its memorial sites are not limited to one specific location, but they are spread all over the country. We visited several places that could teach us something about the horrors that had taken place here. The thought of this genocide brings up a multitude of questions, questions we wanted to have answered. Most of these questions are of an almost abstract level. It is just impossible to really comprehend what happened in Rwanda, and what this tells us about the nature of humankind.

In addition, it is pretty much impossible to travel around Rwanda and not be confronted with its horrendous past. The traces of the genocide are still visible everywhere. For every one of its thousand hills, the country has a thousand tragic stories.

Not unexpectedly, we did not find answers to the big questions about the essence of humanity, or the reasons why people can be so evil. What we did find was a better understanding of what had happened here, and why it is so important to actively remember.

Kigali Genocide Memorial

A poignant place to start our inquiry to Rwanda’s recent history was the Genocide Memorial in Kigali. From our hostel we took one of the many minibuses that roam the city’s streets. These Toyota minivans have about 12 official seats but miraculously transport about 20 persons. The passengers sit on improvised seats in the aisles and on each other’s laps.

The Memorial is a large site not far from the center of Kigali. We got off the bus in a curve of the main road near some small roadside shops. They advertised soft drinks and SIM cards. From the road, we walked up the hill among many impeccably dressed Rwandans on their way to work. A little bit ahead, a mother and her small daughter with Down Syndrome walked towards us. The girl, maybe five years old, broke free from her mother’s hand. With a large grin on her face she ran towards us and started hugging us. It was a heartwarming and very human moment in an otherwise distressing morning that brought us to tears. The Memorial is not only an informative museum about the 1994 genocide. It is also a mass grave, that carries the bodies of about 250,000 people.

A little bit of history on the Rwandan genocide

The Rwandan genocide started on April 7, when Hutu militia started slaughtering Tutsis in response to the assassination of the Hutu president. But in reality, the lead-up to the genocide started decades earlier. It found its roots in colonialism, when Belgian rulers created an administrative divide between Hutus and Tutsis.

The distinction of the two groups was not so much an ethnic one. The colonists based it on livelihood: Tutsis were cattle herders and Hutus worked as farmers. Until the colonisation, the classification had always been fluid. Hutus could become Tutsis by acquiring wealth and livestock. Tutsis could become Hutus if they reverted to farming. The colonialist rulers however fixated the labels by issuing identification cards that stated a person’s identity. From now on, a Rwandan was either Hutu or Tutsi. They further amplified the juxtaposition by appointing members of minority Tutsi clans to the higher ranked jobs in the country’s administration. This caused Hutus to develop a grudge against their fellow countrymen.

Over the years following independence, smaller bursts of violence foreshadowed the culmination of increasing hatred and the rise of organised militias. The assassination of the president on that April evening in 1994 was the spark that set fire to a country that had built up a figurative stockpile of dynamite over the past couple of decades. It exploded with a force so brutal and cruel that it stretches beyond the comprehension of most.

The memorial: a museum and a mass grave

The Kigal Genocide Memorial does a fine job in attempting to explain the events leading up to the genocide. Its museum has solemn displays and informative timelines, footage and radio recordings. Radio broadcasts played an important role in the riling up of Hutus against their neighbours. In the broadcasts, Tutsis were frequently referred to as inyenzi, cockroaches that needed to be crushed. The most chilling part of the exhibition is probably the Children’s Room. This space is dedicated to the thousands of children who were mercilessly beaten or butchered to death. To see their bright eyes and wide smiles beaming at you from those early ’90s family photographs is unbearable when you realise their fate. I thought of the small girl who had ran up to us that morning to hug us. So many souls like hers, lost in the most horrifying way imaginable.

Outside the museum building are the gardens where the bodies of a quarter million people have been laid to rest. More are being added on a weekly basis, as new victims are still uncovered in mass graves throughout the country. Again, the reality of the place is incomprehensible. The gardens are quiet and shaded. Slabs of concrete cover the burial sites. Single roses are dropped here and there by mourners. Many of the graves are without names.

Hotel des Mille Collines

Back in downtown Kigali, the swimming pool area of Hotel Des Mille Collines does not remind at all of the atrocities of 1994. Children take a swim, local businessmen have loosened their ties a bit, and waiters serve cocktails to expat women.

In 1994, desparate people were drinking water from this very same pool. The Hutu militias had thrown up road blocks and started their killing spree. They dragged their Tutsi former friends, teachers, doctors, neighbours onto the street. There they bludgeoned them to death with clubs and machetes. Thousands tried to flee or hide. The manager of Hotel Des Milles Collines saved many lives by sheltering Tutsis from the murdering militias. He was able to keep the genocidal masses outside the gate for months, but when supplies ran out the hotel’s “guests” had to resort to drinking water from the pool.

Pool at Hotel des Mille Collines
Today the pool looks like any other hotel swimming pool

The hotel was the famous protagonist in the 2004 Hollywood movie Hotel Rwanda. It is exemplary for the many places around the country where brave people sheltered Tutsis. Not seldom, the heroes were moderate Hutus who were brave enough to defy the militia’s by keeping the fleeing Tutsis safe.

Just across the street from the hotel is the Saint-Famille church. Thousands had fled to the church, hoping it would serve as a sanctuary from the bloodshed on the streets. They did not know that the church’s vicar colluded with the militia and willingly led his congregation to the slaughter. The refugees were loaded on trucks and driven away, never to be seen again.

Nyamata church

The painful irony of the butchering of people who hoped they would be safe in the house of God is not limited to the Église de la Saint-Famille. All over the country, people perished on church benches, at altars, and in church yards.

About 40 kilometer south of Kigali, the small town of Nyamata emits a provincial buzz. Its small bus station has minibuses coming and going. Lean young men paddle around on taxi-bicycles, with padded seats above the back wheel. Creative wall paintings indicate the offerings of the local businesses. This here is a barber shop, and next-door a seamstress offers her services.

Nyamata streets

From the bus station we walked the main street for a while in the general direction of where we thought we would see the Nyamata Genocide Memorial Center. We couldn’t find it. There were no signs, and we were the only foreigners around. We resorted to asking a passerby of about our age for directions. Admittedly, it felt awkward to reveal the reason for our visit, not knowing this young man’s history. He must have been a child in 1994. What were his memories? What did he see? Was he Hutu or Tutsi, and should I feel ashamed for even going over these questions in my mind?

“I know where that is,” the man said with a smile. “It is close to my uncle’s house. I’ll walk you there.” He introduced himself as Gilbert, and he told us that he worked as a teacher. This was his afternoon off. “Actually, I have never visited the Memorial myself. I will join you on your visit.” The situation became more awkward. Visiting this site by ourselves was already a sensitive undertaking. But now we had the company of a Rwandan of whom we had no idea what traumatic memories he harboured inside. Or what might be triggered by what we were about to see.

Gilbert took us down a side street and through a courtyard. The ground was red with dust but the vegetation was impeccably cared for. A red brick building with a corrugated iron roof. A facade with dozens of open squares to provide ventilation. A woman of about thirty years old came out to meet us. “Her mother was killed here,” shares Gilbert after they exchanged some words. “She will be our guide.”

Visiting genocide memorials in Rwanda - Nyamata church

The story shared by our guide is eerily similar to that of many other churches throughout the country. Some 10,000 people had fled here and had padlocked the gates.

They hoped that the sacredness of the church would protect them from the rage of the Hutus. But instead of a sanctity, they found a death trap. Even the gaze of Maria, perched on the church’s interior wall, could do nothing to save them from their murderers. On April 10, their attackers threw grenades into the building. They finished anyone still alive off with machetes, knives and clubs. They smashed babies to death against the church walls. The bricks still display the blood stains.

Visiting genocide memorials in Rwanda - Nyamata church interior
Murdered under Maria’s gaze

Inside the church, thousands of rags covered the pews. Row after row after row of faded jeans, t-shirts once bright blue and red, now grey with dirt and old blood, all the way up until the altar – equally bloodstained. The sight was defeating. The thought that each of these clothes represent a human life brutally extinguished is crushing.

Our guide then took us down through a narrow staircase into a basement below the church. On display are recovered identity cards stating TUTSI, the defining factor between life and demise. Also, an array of the crude weapons of choice that the militias used to dismember their victims. Or to bash their skulls in. Simple farming tools turned into instruments of death. Also in the cellar was a coffin. It holds the corpse of a woman who had met her end in an especially unimaginable way.

One of the many absurdities here: every death here was pure horror, yet somehow, some were even more gruesome than others.

Visiting genocide memorials in Rwanda - Nyamata church genocide memorial
Nyamata clothes in genocide memorial church

Most murdered Tutsis did not end up in a coffin. Their corpses were simply left to rot between the benches. It was only after the genocide, in July, that bodies were laid to rest in mass graves. The undertakers left the clothes in the church as a testament to their fate. In Nyamata, many were interred in catacombs behind the church. Descending underground into the narrow and dark staircase, we shuffled past rows of bones and skulls. Many bore signs of the brutal force used against them. They were bashed in, broken, some had iron sticks still protruding from a hole.

Strangely, these skulls of actual humans appeared to be more abstract than the lifeless piles of clothes draped over the church benches above. The skulls are uniform representations of death. They ironically demonstrate how underneath our skin, we are all the same. But the trousers, dresses and shirts represent each individual among the 10,000 men, women and children. I imagined how after they sighed or screamed their final breaths, their souls soared up, leaving a pile of shapeless clothes behind on the floor.

Our guide had stayed outside in the garden. She was clearly upset. “It must be so difficult for you to do this,” we said. “It is. But it is important that this history is not forgotten.” She solemnly said goodbye to us and left to lock the church doors back up again. Gilbert had not spoken much during our visit. We were afraid to ask him about his thoughts or emotions. Analysing the visit with him felt too precarious. Besides, what was there to say? We were all lost for words.

On our way back to the bus station we sat down in a little shack. It had a bare concrete floor and plastic chairs. We bought Gilbert a beer and got ourselves some Coca Colas. We talked about mundane things like work and study and even laughed at some jokes. He saw us off and made sure we got on the right minibus back to Kigali.

Église St Pierre

Our final stop on this trip through Rwanda was Kibuye. The town sits beautifully along the shores of Lake Kivu at the country’s eastern border. Our hostel was a former nun’s home that sat high on a hill and featured panoramic views over the lake. Black-and-white pied crows surveyed the area from the air, and down below, three-hulled wooden fishing boats slit across the water. The fishermen were singing. Their harmonies billowed all the way up to the windows of our rooms. It was a peaceful scene, but there was still an eerie quality to the area. Just down the road from here was another church harbouring another ten thousand souls.

Here, death’s display was more modest than in Nyamata, but no less chilling. Approaching the church main doors through an impeccably kept garden, two rows of skulls stared at us from a glass cabinet. NEVER AGAIN, commanded purple letters above the bones. Christ hung indefinitely on his cross on the wall behind.

The church’s interior doesn’t remind visitors of its past horrors like the church in Nyamata does. Stained glass windows let in colourful light, and the shiny wooden pews look brand new. The villagers have renovated the building. It offers a calm and peaceful retreat and its physical appearance does not remind the casual visitor of its history. At the same time, for those who know what has happened here, the church leaves no room to forget about the horrors that took place here. With this knowledge in the back of your mind, the atmosphere is as poignant as it is in Rwanda’s other genocide memorial sites.

Visiting genocide memorials in Rwanda - Eglise St Pierre in Kibuye
Visiting genocide memorials in Rwanda - Kibuye church interior

We concluded our visit with a walk through Kibuye town. The shores of the lake were beautiful and serene. In the town’s center the streets were alive with small businesses. Kids ran around in their school uniforms. Today, Rwanda is also known as the Switzerland of Africa. That is not just due to its thousand hills, which to be fair are more reminiscent of Middle Earth than of the Swiss Alps, but due to its economic recovery and flourishing. The country is safe, clean and organised, its capital more polished than many of its European counterparts.

Anyone visiting Rwanda today would not be able to imagine the atrocities that took place here just two decades ago, if it were not for the country’s many genocide memorials. They serve as a solemn and almost surreal reminder of that which may never be forgotten.

Visiting the genocide memorials of Rwanda

Kigali Genocide Memorial is not far from the center of Kigali. Take a taxi or ask around which bus to take. Everybody in Kigali knows where it is and can point you in the right direction.

The Hotel des Mille Collines still operates as a hotel today, and is one of Kigali’s premium establishments. It stands on a hill in the center of town. If, like us, you feel a bit strange about staying there overnight, you can also just have a drink at the poolside bar.

Saint-Famille Church is just around the corner from the hotel and can easily be reached on foot.

You can visit the Genocide Memorial in Nyamata on a half-day trip from Kigali. We went on a public minibus from Nyabugogo station, that took us there in about 40 minutes. From the Nyamata bus station it is probably a 10-minute walk to the church. Ask around, locals can guide you to the right bus and in the right direction.

In Kigali we stayed at Discover Rwanda Youth Hostel. This was a pleasant place offering dorms, private rooms and places to pitch a tent.

Eglise St. Pierre in Kibuye deserves at least an overnight trip. It takes about three hours to get there from Kigali on public transport (again, go to Nyabugogo and ask for a matatu minibus to Kibuye. The city’s new name is Karongi, but most people still use its old denominator). Besides the time it takes to travel there, Kibuye is in itself a destination worthy of a few days of your time. Lake Kivu is gorgeous and a nice place to relax. We stayed at Home Saint Jean which has beautiful views of the lake. It is within walking distance of both the town and the church.

There is another impressive memorial site in Murambi in the south of Rwanda that we did not visit. Here too, ten thousands were slaughtered in a church. What is haunting about the site in Murambi is that it has mummified bodies on display – possibly even more moving than the piles of clothes that are a testament to the dead in Nyamata.

Practical info – visiting genocide memorials in Rwanda

Rwanda as a country is a very organised and safe. Traveling there is quite easy. The public transport may seem a little overwhelming at first but you’ll find that there is order in the chaos. Rwandans are always happy to help and point you in the right direction.

It is free to visit the memorial sites in Rwanda, but it is appreciated if you leave a donation. This is particularly true if you are lucky to receive a guided tour. Dress modestly to show your respect.

Generally the sites are open every day of the week except for public holidays and the last Saturday of every month. This is when the entire country performs Umuganda: community work as part of the country’s reconciliation following the genocide.

If you want to learn more about the history of the Rwandan genocide, I recommend the book Shake Hands with the Devil by Romeo Dallaire. He served as a general in Rwanda for the UN in 1994. He has written this first-hand account of how the international community failed to recognise and adequately respond to the genocide. Another useful resource is the Genocide Archive Rwanda.

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