The above photo is one of several mass graves behind Kigali’s Genocide Memorial Center. Over 200,000 bodies are buried here. And the concrete vats look more like septic tanks than traditionally peaceful cemeteries built to instill calm in survivors.
I tried to get a vantage point from where I could see them all, but the terraced layout makes that difficult. I tried to imagine just the required density of 200,000 people buried in this backyard plot. But like everything about the Rwandan genocide, it’s inconceivable to me—as I imagine it is for most people. Which makes it more difficult to just feel sad about, cross yourself, and move on.
Right now is the middle of the 100-day commemorative period when the atrocities took place, and you can’t walk half a mile without seeing a banner referencing this. At the memorial, flowers in various stages of decay remain on the edge of the graves, most of them emblazoned with the eerily impotent, necessarily ambitious, and inevitably inaccurate mantra of all those affected by incomprehensible inhumanity: “Never Again.”
The museum is a vast and stretched study in metaphors. In front is an eternal flame above a small fountain. The flame represents the violence, the water the tranquility below. But when I arrived, the flame was out and the fountain was empty. The elephant statues symbolizing never forgetting were still there though.
A Garden of Unity flows into the Garden of Division, with a palm tree that represents the Rwandan beauty despite the horrors. But the water flow from one garden to the other was disrupted during my visit—asserting no logical connection between the two.
The Garden of Reconciliation has a mountain of stones representing the rebuilding of the country, but to me it looked like a volcano that could blow at any time.
I would need to do more research to assess comprehensively the accuracy of the information as presented in the museum, so I’ll leave any summary to your own research (I’ve linked a few good sources at the bottom of this entry), but the museum makes an effort to explain the history behind the genocide, which is more interesting than just vast scapegoating and overwhelming visitors with evocative evidence that pushes people toward dangerously regionalized sympathy and a distanced sense of horrified awe.
One floor of the museum is dedicated to Rwanda, and another is dedicated to other genocides: Armenia, Namibia, the Holocaust, the Balkans… And the whole museum ends with a heartbreaking dedication to children.
As you enter the final rooms, a plaque and poster announce, “For our beautiful and beloved children who should’ve been our future.” Which for some reason was one of the most powerful moments of the tour for me. It had a very parental feel to it.
Throughout the adjoining rooms there were then large, back-lit photos of children who died, with their names, ages, how they died, and often their last words or favorite toy. Below are a couple examples.
Favorite Food: Cake
Cause of Death: Stabbed in the Eyes and Head
Francine Murengezi Ingabire
Favorite Drink: Milk and Fanta Tropical
Cause of Death: Hacked by Machete
There are a lot of “hacked by machete.” I also saw a two-year old “smashed against a wall.”
Additionally are small plaques with just quotes from children.
In my search for a hideout, I found Jerome, his legs cut off. I could not leave him in this state. I tried to lift up Jerome so that we could leave together, but the car of the commune stopped near me. It was full of machetes and other instruments of death. I lay Jerome down on the ground and ran because a man got out of the burgomaster’s car to kill me. He finished Jerome off. I saw this when I looked back to see if anyone had followed me. I will never forget the way Jerome’s face was filled with desperation. Whenever I think about it, I cry all day long.
–Eric, Age 13
Sometimes, I get terribly sad because I can’t imagine what my life will be like. I’ll never see my parents again, and yet I’ll see the people who killed them, and those people’s children, for the rest of my life. I can’t bear the thought of it.
–Donata, Age 11
At least 800,000 deaths in 100 days.
- Extensive multimedia on the genocide
- BBC News: How the Genocide Happened
- PBS Frontline: The Triumph of Evils
- United Human Rights Council: Genocide in Rwanda