If you really knew me, and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.
This phrase in Kinyarwanda is elegantly written on a white banner that drapes over the church alter. Across the room is a red-brick wall, stacked with shelves of skulls and bones. Shredded clothes caked in dirt and dry blood hang from the rafters. A dim light illuminates the many rows of coffins, some with offerings of fresh flowers.
There is no mass grave here yet.
Ntarama church was once a Catholic place of worship but now it’s a memorial site. The tiny building, scarred by grenade blasts and gunfire, houses the memory of a brutal massacre. On April 15, 1994, 5,000 Tutsis who had sought refuge inside the church compound were slaughtered by Hutu paramilitaries.
One wall of the church is stained with the blood of babies, who were thrown against the brick and killed.
It’s horrific in every possible sense.
I decided to travel to Ntarama to see the memorial, as well as a similar site in the nearby town of Nyamata. These two memorials are stark reminders of the unimaginable violence that occurred in Rwanda almost two decades ago.
Despite visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre a week earlier, and finding it a chilling experience, nothing prepared me for the horrors of Ntarama and Nyamata.
After walking along a red dirt road, and passing Nyamata’s main elementary school, you find an unassuming building. One part of the front wall is shrouded in gray cloth.
Nyamata is currently the resting place for more than 40,000 people, killed on April 11, 1994.
Inside the church, light streams through bullet holes in the tin ceiling and victims’ clothing piles over every pew.
A rosary and machete are placed side by side on the alter.
Behind the building, you find two large crypts. I entered the first, a narrow concrete space that is filled wall-to-wall with coffins. My guide told me when possible, a family’s remains were placed together.
In the second crypt, skulls are stored on four long shelves, overwhelming the room. Many of the skulls bare the slash-mark of a machete, or a puncture hole so circular that it can only be from a bullet. A few feet from the crypt lies the dirt plot where Tutsis were buried alive. It’s nauseating.
Both memorial sites are eerie, as though the walls themselves contain the memories of gruesome murders. When I went to Nyamata and Ntarama I hoped to grasp in some small way what Rwandans mean when they say “Never forget.”
I won’t forget what atrocities were committed here. But mainly I left Ntarama and Nyamata in a sense of shock, thinking about how much Rwanda has changed in only two decades.
On the doorstep of these memorial sites are burgeoning towns surrounded by farmland. After visiting the memorials, I wandered around lazily, checking out the markets and coffee shops. On the bus back to Kigali, my fellow passengers kindly spoke to me with hand gestures and a mixture of broken English and French.
It was a typical travel day here, where helpful strangers and relaxing settings are easy to find. After all, the haunting stories of the genocide are a far cry from the Rwanda that I am privileged to know.