On Prayer at Nyamata and Ntarama

An hour outside of Kigali are the towns of Nyamata and Ntarama. Both are the sites of massacres that took place at Catholic churches. The events that occurred there are very disturbing and very graphic, and I think I can only do justice to the plight of memory by retelling them here. Please be warned, this is a very heavy post.

On April 15th, 1994, 10,800 Rwandans locked themselves inside the St. Francois-Xavier Catholic church in Nyamata as the Hutu rebels neared. When they arrived, the rebels threw grenades at the doors. You can still see the holes in the roof where the shrapnel exploded through.

It is important to note that these memorial sites are not anything like the genocide memorial museum in Kigali. These sites are not professionally preserved in any way. They are not museums where you can learn facts or study artifacts. They are the literal sites where acts of genocide have occurred, and they are as they stood then, just with twenty years more wear.

Walking into the church at Nyamata, the first things you see are clothes. Piles of clothes, covered in twenty years of dust. The bones of all 10,800 people have since been moved, but the clothes have not. Inside the church, underneath the ceiling starred with shrapnel holes, are the clothes of the 10,800 people who perished there.

The clothes are covered in dirt and bugs. They are not protected from the elements, from nature, from time. They might disintegrate in twenty more years. The fact that the memorials might not be permanently preserved was upsetting to me. The Never Again mantra only works if people never forget. People will forget without things like this to force them to remember.

It was shocking to see the sheer magnitude. Imagine the inside of a room filled with enough clothes to cover almost 11,000 people. The clothes are piled on the pews, stacked on the altar, rolled up on the floor.

On the altar were several personal belongings: a watch, an identity card, a machete. And hundreds of rosaries.

When I was younger, whenever I had a terrible nightmare, I would recite the rosary until I went to sleep. Ten Hail Marys. An Our Father. Repeat. The rhythm was calming and monotonous enough to lull me into comfort.

I imagined thousands of people sitting in this church, reciting the rosary together, waiting for their inevitable deaths.

Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you.

Underneath the church, after the genocide, the town built a glass room to house the bones. There is a shelf with several hundred skulls on it. The purpose is so you can see how each person died. Some skulls have a single bullet hole. Some have a large machete dent. Some are shattered beyond recognition.

There is one casket inside the glass room, covered in a silk blanket adorned with a cross. This woman was 28 years old when she died. This woman was kept alive while the 10,799 people she grew up with were slaughtered. This woman was repeatedly raped by gangs of rebels.

This woman was the last person in the village to die. She was raped with a sharpened stick. The rebels then impaled her with the stick, shoving it from her vagina, through her body, and into her brain.

Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

Outside, there is a mass burial site that houses 45,302 people. These people were the rest of the village killed outside the church. The number continues to grow, because, as our tour guide told us, they keep finding remains.

The burial site is underground. It is stacks and stacks of coffins, skulls, femurs. It is a cement room with barred windows. Even in death, these people are not free.

Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

On April 7th, at the Catholic church in Ntarama, 5,000 people were slaughtered. The church is barely standing, as most of the walls were weakened in the grenade attack. This church is smaller than the one in Nyamata. There are too many clothes to fit on the pews, so clothes hang from the rafters, covered in spider webs.

The altar is covered in a purple cloth that says the same words in white letters as are immortalized in the glass at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum: Iyo umenya nawe ukimenya ntuba waranyishe. If you knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.

Our father, who is in heaven. Hallowed be your name.

There is a sack of beans in the corner that someone brought when they went into hiding. I found it weird that the beans were still there. But I guess I wouldn’t want to eat a dead man’s beans either. There is also a stack of machetes, a pile of shoes, and a Tutsi identity card with a woman’s picture on it.

The stations of the cross are still on the walls. There is a row of long sticks with sharpened points that were used in mass rapes against women. The stained glass windows were smashed with a crucifix that still stands in the window, half inside the church, half outside.

Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Behind the church is the Sunday school building. There were 100 children who survived the massacre here.

The Sunday school is empty of artifacts except for signs on the wall that commemorate the atrocities here, and celebrate the 100 lucky lives. I’m not sure how I define lucky.

On the back wall, there is a darkened spot about six feet tall and six feet wide. It has become black with dirt and age. This spot is where most of the children died. The rebels picked up the children by their feet, and smashed their heads against the wall. The spot is the blood of hundred of babies and children that were bludgeoned to death at their Sunday school.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

There is a wall out back with a few hundred names on it of the people who died here. Most of the family names have been lost because there were no survivors. There is a stone bench in front of the wall where visitors are supposed to sit and meditate. The view is of the hills around the village, the rolling expansion of green. I can’t look at these trees without wondering who hid in them, where they died, and how.

I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with these stories except tell them. I’m not sure what Rwanda is supposed to do with these stories either. These are two in the novel of countless experiences of everyone who lived and died during these 100 days.

I’m not sure how people continue to live their lives in these towns, walking by the church on their way to the market. I’m not sure how they sleep with the ghosts of memory that must haunt the corners of every street. I’m not sure how a country learns to trust again after your neighbors killed your parents, your father killed your mother, your sister killed your best friend.

I’m not sure what genocides say about humanity. I’m not sure what the piles of clothes say about memory. I’m not sure what the knotted rosaries say about faith.

I’m not sure how anyone forgets, forgives, or functions. On the reverse, I’m not sure how anyone can bear to remember, could keep that weight inside, or could dwell in the horror every day. Within those complexities is some sort of answer.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen. 

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