Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Remembering the Rwanda Genocide

April marks 19 years since the genocide. Although I was not there for the terrible events, I was there afterwards. I knew what happened intellectually, but during my first week in country I came face to face with the facts.  Following is an excerpt from my memoir entitled In the Aftermath of Genocide - the U.S. Role in Rwanda.

That afternoon, Senator Kassebaum and I, accompanied by a government

protocol officer, flew in a United Nations helicopter to the church at Nyarubuye

in eastern Rwanda, near the Tanzanian border. Nyarubuye was as far off the

beaten track as one could get in Rwanda. Set in a copse of towering eucalyptus

trees, the brick church and surrounding buildings sat on the crest of a hill looking

out over the lakes and lowlands of the Akagera Park. We landed in a field of high

grass just outside the church compound, where we were received by a small delegation

composed of the new prefect, the local military commander, and a survivor

of the genocide. A dozen soldiers stood on discreet guard in a ring several

hundred yards around the church. The first thing I noticed was the complete

absence of other people. In Africa in general and in Rwanda in particular, there

are almost always crowds of people, especially at any event that draws a helicopter,

but at Nyarubuye there were none. The delegation said that the local population

had all fled to neighboring Tanzania two years earlier and had not yet


The wind whistled softly through the trees, accentuating the eerie silence. Our

guides explained that Nyarubuye had been the scene of vicious killing during the

genocide. Tutsi from the surrounding region had sought refuge in the church.
They were penned in and imprisoned there for several days until Interahamw


squads arrived. After that the massacre was methodical. Persons were led from the

church to the courtyard, where they were simply slaughtered. According to the

survivor we met, the foyer of the church was set aside as a rape room. He said

there was a lot of noise and confusion during the killings, during which he and

several others managed to climb over the compound wall and run miles down to

the swamps of Akagera.

The church itself was completely empty when we visited, and having been desecrated

by the deaths, no longer used. To the side of the church was a courtyard

enclosed by a brick wall at one end, and lined by buildings on the other two sides

whose doors and windows opened into the courtyard. Obviously, they had served

as Sunday school rooms, church offices, and the like. However, the rooms were

stacked to the ceilings with the mummifying corpses of thousands of human

beings. Near skeletal faces of men, women, and children stared blankly. A moldering

stench of death hovered in the air. The horror of what had happened there

was overwhelming, yet the quiet lent dignity to the repose of the dead. I was


In respectful tones, our guides explained how the murders occurred. They

showed us a large smoothly polished stone in the courtyard, worn down by

repeated sharpening of machete blades. We saw a bloodstained log where legs had

been chopped off, “to make the tall ones short.” The prefect said that not all bodies

had been pushed into the rooms by the killers. The courtyard and the church

itself had been waist deep in death as well. Those bodies had later been moved by

RPA soldiers, including the local commander who was present, into the nearby

rooms. A crunch underfoot in the knee-high grass revealed a human jawbone,

which we reverently added to the collection in the nearest room.

You cannot talk much on a helicopter, but on the return trip, the senator and

I were each lost in our own thoughts. Nyarubuye was to be the first of a dozen or

so preserved genocide sites that I would visit over the next three years. I never

became indifferent to them. Each one affected me deeply, but after Nyarubuye I

knew what to expect. I believe the government of Rwanda is wise to preserve

these sites, not so much for the edification of foreigners like the senator and

myself, but more for the education of Rwandans. As the genocide fades into history,

such sites will become permanent markers of the tragedy and stark reminders

that such inhumanity must never be repeated.