Visiting New Life Church this morning and being surrounded by such great joy and many happy children was quite an opposite emotional experience in contrast to what I experienced that afternoon. I was not at all prepared for this. T
Old clothes from victims.
he Nyamata Genocide Memorial Church was a Catholic church where 2,500 people were killed during the Rwanda Genocide. My heart and eyes were not prepared for what I was about to see. Before I walked into the actual church, I stood outside and looked up at all of the gun wholes in the ceiling of the church. I noticed how the black iron doors had been badly deformed because of the bullets that penetrated them.
As I moved further into the church, I took a sharp left into the first door I saw, leading into a quite and cool room. I could feel my heart pounding a bit as I looked down and saw babies clothes. As I moved into the room just a bit more, I could see the leg of a baby hanging outside of the cloth that wrapped her body. I freaked out thinking that was a dead baby; however, I found out that child belonged to a worker and that she was resting in that room.
Nevertheless, I left that room puzzled and I looked at the walls, they were tired looking and its deep red colour carried a deep sadness in it. I saw some sun piercing through the side of the church, so I moved toward that direction and noticed a wall with a pattern of empty squares which allowed some sunlight to creep in. In the square holes, there were old shoes and black boots. As I continued looking at the wall, I began to wonder who’s shoes those were. I moved further into the church and I looked up at the ceiling again, but this time there were even more bullet marks than on the outside. I walked on the far left side of the church, passing pews where huge mounds of clothes laid on top of each other. The closer I went to the front, the more and more clothes I saw stacked on top of each other. I wondered about the lives of these people whose clothes laid on the floor. Questions like were they married? What did they do for fun? What kinds of talent did they have? Was anyone here the next inventor? I kept moving along and I noticed a pair of cast for someone’s legs. I saw old bracelets, shoes, necklaces, and watches layered on top of each other on these pews. These were the clothes and jewelry of a total of approximately 2,500 men and women, both Hutu and Tutsi.
As I continued toward the front of the church, I saw that there was a table with machetes, spears, wallets, ID cards, a broken pipe, money, and a watch sat. The weapons were used by Tutsi persecutors while the other merchandise were taken from Hutu’s before death. Behind that table stood a cabinet where the body and blood of Jesus Christ would be kept for communion; however, this had been shot up and pieces of the cabinet were left in shambles. Now, as I thought about how devastating this experience was becoming, I thought, How could the Belgians just leave these Rwandans by themselves when they were sent to be Peacekeepers during the genocide? Then it dawned on me that the Belgians wanted to stay and protect Rwanda, but once Tutsi persecutors continued to murder the Belgians, the Belgium government ordered their solders out. It was very beneficial on the Tutsi’s side to kill these Belgians for the world may see that if Peacekeepers were sent in to help stop the genocide, they would all be killed; not many governments trusted that their troops would return safe so the world stayed out!
I began to leave the front of the church and began to walk toward the back. I saw my friend Tie and she explained to me that in the back were where all the children were killed. The Tutsi persecutors did not have a surplus of ammunition, therefore, the picked up the children and slammed their heads against the walls which caused them to die a slow and painful death. Many of these children sat in the backs watching their parents and family die just a few minutes away, waiting for their turn. Their clothes were also stacked up in the back on top of each other. I noticed that the white walls looked stained with a deep reddish-brown colour, which had been residue of blood. I moved down into the lower level of the church, it was about the size of an average Western living room. There were glass cabinets that displayed skulls, other body parts, and materials of survivors such as ID cards and jewelry. The skulls had wholes in them from gun wounds. Some had cracks in their skulls from the force of machetes. If that wasn’t hard enough to look at, beneath that exhibit was a tomb with a white cloth on top of it. The woman who laid in that casket was brutally killed. Tutsi soldiers were in total control of how they wanted you to die. They could rape you to death, or they could kill you in a very slow and painful way, just as they had with this woman. The Tutsi persecutors drove a spear up from the woman’s vagina into her skull. Her body was displayed at Nyamata for a while until many expressed their dissatisfaction and disturbance from such a graphic event. When I arrived upstairs again, I stood near the place where the children had been murdered observing their clothes. Soon after, I could hear shouts of children playing just a few feet from the church. I felt both remorse and joy at hearing those children shout for joy enjoying life while standing in the presence of death.
I went outside to the see the other grave sites and it got even more disturbing. I first entered the beautiful garden space with beautiful flowers, then I walked onto the grave sights. The graveyard was designed very differently than I what I was accustomed to. The caskets were displayed underground and you had to take steps to view the caskets. I proceeded near the steps and began to feel my heart beat faster and anxiety run through me. My relationship to dead people has always been quite scary to think about for some reason, yet, I felt like I needed to go down there. I pondered about it for a while. There was hardly any light down there and the steps were deep into the earth. My friends Chris and Tie came by me and I asked if they wanted to go down. We all eventually agreed and proceeded cautiously. I got down the to the last stair case and almost turned back. There were caskets stacked on top of each other in rows, leaving a very thin aisle to walk through. As I continued through the tomb sites, I saw the skulls and bones of dead babies. I began to quote Psalm 23 The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures… As I said this scripture out loud I could feel my heart slowing down. Chris asked me if I was okay and I told him that I was just quoting the Bible. When I asked if he was okay, he told me that his anxiety level had risen causing a tingle in his ears.
This experience made me think about the purpose of a church in the first place. A church is supposed to be a place where you can go and find peace from war, get closer to God, and have fellowship with other spiritually-minded individuals. My friend Alison describes it as “a place where you can close your eyes and open them again and know that everything is fine; where you could be vulnerable.”Churches during the genocide, however, were far from a place of peace and comfort.
I picked a spot outside to think and write and here are some things I wrote in my journal:
As I sit at the edge of this platform, I can scent the smell of old clothing and beautiful flowers behind me. I am questioning how I live my life. Do I live in a state of appreciation and gratitude, or a place of complaining, strife, anger, bitterness, and resentment….
Today at church, the Pastor talked about the time you are born and the time you die. He mentioned very clearly that those two dates are already fixed; however, it is what you do with that line (—-) in between those two fixed dates that determines the kind of life I have lived. I must always make good use of that line.
As a participant in both the Anne Frank Project and as a Rwanda 2013 study-abroad, I feel compelled and charged to promote justice in whatever form that may be–food justice, equal rights, social justice, etc…. We kill others and ourselves when we hate, or judge… May there never be hate, prejudice, injustice, in my heart… its equal to murder!
In the midst of this dark and depressing memorial, there are beautiful flowers and trees which have lived to see this day… They have many stories to tell about what happened 18 years ago; exactly my lifetime.
After moments of writing in my journal, I heard the rain singing outside. I ran outside, lifted my hands in the air and surrendered to the rain. It was a refresher to me both physically and spiritually. We left short after with the memory of those who had died and hope for those who survived.