Rwanda Day 2: Murambi Genocide Memorial

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Murambi Genocide Memorial. They ask visitors not to take pictures at the site.

Reading this week:

  • Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein

My first major observation on my second full day in Rwanda was that if you don’t like passion fruit, you should just leave. They serve it for breakfast and dessert and all the time. After my passionate breakfast, it was some errands and souvenir shopping. I stopped by a Huye coffee to buy some souvenir coffee for friends, and as happened often to me in Africa there was a dude “sneakily” taking selfies where I just so happened to be in the background. After I said to him “you could just ask, you know” (I did a whole photoshoot with two dudes while I was at Great Zimbabwe because they asked) he sheepishly put away his phone and walked off.

The major destination for the day was the Murambi Genocide Memorial. I got a little turned around, but eventually came across it. I had the place to myself, tourist-wise. I could have parked closer but I didn’t know that and it felt more appropriate to walk up to the memorial. The memorial, which was going to be a technical school, is perched on top of a picturesque mountain surrounded by other picturesque mountains and farms. It’s really stunningly beautiful and the grounds and so peaceful and serene. I walked in the front door and the lady working there gave a short explanation and I was off into the exhibits.

The first part is an explanation of the history of the genocide. It’s really well done though a little abrupt (I feel like they skip some details), but then again they do it in three languages so every time you add anything you add triple. The biggest thing I learned I think was about the participation of the French. The French troops were supporting the government which was initiating the genocide. At Murambi specifically they repeatedly gang raped the girls there and played volleyball pretty much on top of a mass grave. They fought to repel the RPF, who are credited with ending the genocide. At the end of these exhibits there are two “burial chambers” where bodies were supposed to be on display. I knew they had bodies at Murambi and so I steeled myself but when you go into the rooms the chambers are empty. So I was somewhat relieved, frankly. That was the end of this part and for the next part the lady took you around the outside.

Outside, they have an uncovered (and empty) mass grave to give you a sense of the scale of the killing (as numbers go, approximately 50,000 people were murdered, which makes it 5% of the total victims of the genocide). Then you go back into the former dormitories. In the first few rooms they have clothing that was removed from some of the bodies and used for identification by the families. She took me to the location of the former volleyball court and where the French had installed rockets to repel the RPF.

Then she took me to the bodies. I thought I had “gotten out of” seeing the bodies, but before you know it she is showing you the rooms. It was not what I expected. I kinda figured they would be behind glass or something because I had glimpsed glass cases through some windows. But you turn the corner and you are just in the room with the bodies, with nothing between you and them. You can smell them. Some of the people still have hair and some still have clothes. They are laid out on platforms and are skeletal. On some the skin has broken and ribs are exposed. There are adults and children and babies. I went into all the rooms in the first block because I felt I had to. There were maybe 20 people per room. I think there were four or five rooms. After those rooms were the rooms I had seen with the glass cases. In the first two rooms the cases were filled with just femurs, sorted by age and sex. “Female over 30,” “Male under 30.” I tried counting but couldn’t. I think each case represented something like 30 people. Then the next few rooms had skulls, neatly laid out in rows and again sorted by age and sex. Some of the skulls were smashed or had whole chunks missing. Somehow to me the femurs were more impactful than the skulls because skulls are people but femurs are just kind of the anonymous tolling of death.

In that block I think there were the remains of 200 or so people, which is such a tiny fragment. There were two more blocks but I couldn’t bring myself to go look. The last stop was the mass grave where the people were re-interred. She said that there were 50,000 people in it. It’s just a white tiled platform on the top with flowers laid on it, but it’s where 50,000 people are. And then with that tour is over and you are walking down the driveway of the memorial looking at those picturesque mountains again.

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