Note: Due to the emotional impact this day had on us we wanted to give people time to gather their thoughts and put them into writing. We apologize for the delay.
March 18, we started off our day by introducing our kavanah, or intention. We decided that the word ‘progression.’ We chose this word to represent our day since even though we would be visiting the Murambi Genocide Memorial, we wanted to be able to leave appreciative of all of the progress Rwanda has made since 1994.
Our first stop of the day was in Butari, a city approximately 4 hours west of ASYV. We began our time there with a celebration of Rwandan life by visiting a traditional Rwandan arts shop in Butari. Crafts included masks, vases, drums, fabric paintings, baskets, basket weavings, jewelry, and other carvings. This opportunity gave us the chance to purchase a piece of Rwandan culture to bring home with us. Next we went to lunch at a restaurant with traditional Rwandan food. We stacked our plates as we helped ourselves to rice, fried potatoes and yams, fish, beef, pea soup, zucchini, avocado salad, and fresh pineapple. One fun fact that we learned today when ordering drinks is that in Rwanda, as in many other countries, they reuse and sterilize the glass bottles that Fanta and coke come in.
As we departed Butari we took a surprise detour to an ice cream shop created and run by a women’s co-op. Here they were serving two flavors of ice cream- coffee and passion fruit. Surprisingly the two were delicious together. The co-op was created by an American woman who wanted to give Rwandan women the chance to be involved with a business venture. Women in the co-op are involved in every part of the business, from milking the cows to selling the ice cream in the store front.
Leaving the ice cream shop, several of us began singing a traditional Kinyarwanda song which we had learned from students in the village. The lyrics were as follows:
Amahoro Nibyishimo Munezero
Behora Biti Umutimauanje
Peace Happiness Joy
Always in my heart
As we sang we were pleasantly surprised to hear the bus driver, Claude, join in. Despite our language barrier with him, we were still able to share this cultural experience.
While we continued our drive to Murambi we began to prepare for the memorial that we would soon be visiting. We had been warned that the memorial preserved 848 bodies of men, women, children, and babies in order to avoid the controversy of people denying the genocide, however we didn’t really know what to expect. When we arrived we immediately viewed images that left us feeling conflicted. While in front of us was a building that was meant to be a technical school opening in September of 1994, surrounding the school were the beautiful views that appeared to be very much alive.
When the genocide began many Tutsis fled to local churches because they believed they would be safe there since it was a place of worship. Each church was approached by a group of Hutus claiming that their goal was to protect the Tutsis in order to lure them to the vacant technical school. They believed they were protected and safe, especially due to the presence of French soldiers. By April 20, 1994, three weeks after the start of the genocide, 55,000 people had arrived at the school in search of refuge– this number does not include the children. By this time, the water and electricity had been cut off and the people inside were growing hungry and weak. At 4 am on April 21, 1994 the Hutus began massacring the Tutsis. The Hutus, who were planning on moving on to other local churches and did not have enough time to finish killing every person, threw live bodies into mass graves. In order to remember the more than 50,000 victims murdered, the Murambi Genocide Memorial was created.
Each of us had a different experience at the memorial. Some were hit so deeply by the presence of bodies that we could not enter the rooms. Those who entered emerged in tears. It is too difficult to describe what we saw and maybe, out of respect, it is better not to. Instead, some of us have offered to share some of our thoughts before, during, and after seeing the memorial.
One in a Thousand
A land of a thousand hills. Hills that glisten in the sun; hills that are hidden by the deep midst of fog; hills alive with the soul of Rwanda.
But on one hill is Murimbi, a place that does not glisten; a place that is desolate; a place that fog cannot even cover us what was done there; a place that is dead with the souls of men, women, and children, while their bodies still rest uncovered.
These are the friends, parents, and siblings of the people of Rwanda.
The sister to the boy playing basketball with his friends, the mother to the girl gossiping at lunch, and the child that was never given a chance.
This is the broken heart of Rwanda.
The spirits of this hill are who we give honor and memory to today.
The twisted limbs and broken skulls will live in my mind forever alongside the vibrant culture that I have befriended in Rwanda.
Long live all Rwandans, may one day these bodies find a final resting place.
Among a unified heart of Rwanda.
– By: Sarah Neibart
This was supposed to be a place of life. Of learning, understanding, of a future. Instead it is a place of death. Of people forever paralyzed in time. We are about to enter the first room. I don’t know how this can be. Life does not make sense because death does not make sense.
Bent, misshapen, missing limbs
with faces contorted screaming in pain
wishing for life
Where does evil come from
and where does it go
They lay there not in peace but in pain and distress
A reminder that evil will always remain
A reminder of the lives they never had
the love they never gave
The rain sprinkles on us, the world around is gray
We continue on into the depths of grief
– Naomi Gamoran
Walking through the museum, I didn’t feel the intense rush of emotion that I expected to. While I stood amongst skeletons, I couldn’t focus on anything enough to formulate any strong emotions. When the strength of the museum hit me was at the end of the tour when we looked into a mass grave. After looking into an enormous pit in the ground where hundreds of genocide victims were buried, I raised my head six inches and saw maybe the most beautiful mountain I’ve ever seen. There were homes scattered throughout, with the sounds of cattle, chirping birds and innocent children giving the infecting the scene. The feel was incredibly pulsating and vibrant. Then, six inches back down, and I was staring into a mass grave again.
After nodding my head a couple of times, I became confused. In such a beautiful country, I couldn’t understand how such atrocities could be so committed while the rest of the world stood by and watched.
This trip has answered a lot of questions for me, but I don’t ever think I’ll ever understand how this genocide took place. I can learn the history and study the exhibits, but it will never make sense. It is scary because after spending time here and interacting with the people, you see that they are genuinely good. If genocide can happen here under the blind eye of the international community, I’m scared that it can happen anyway.
I’m angry. I’m angry at the genocaidaires who claimed the lives of Rwanda’s fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers, and children too young to understand. Innocent victims whose twisted bodies, screaming in agony I witnessed at Murambi. Who were their murderers? Why did they kill? Did they feel sorry? Did they know what they were doing was wrong? These were their neighbors and their friends; they spoke the same languages and worshiped the same God. Where was God? I’m angry that I can’t understand. I’m angry at the world for standing silent. I’m angry at all those who told the Tutsis, ‘flee to Murambi!’ And they walked for miles and miles up steep hills and down winding valleys, past roadblocks, past other shelters, because Murambi would be safe. 55,000 took shelter in the vacant school. There are only 11 known survivors. I’m angry that I cant adequately put into words how angry I am. Never again, never again, never again. They’re just words. And I’m so, so, so angry that even though the world knows what happened in Murambi, what happened atop countless other hills in this land, what happened in Armenia, Poland, Cambodia, Bosnia, Darfur, the world has not learned its lesson. I don’t want to see any more skeletons like those I witnessed in Murambi. And I’m angry because I don’t know what to do about it.
848 Nameless Rwandans
When I walked through the rooms of the dead, I felt emotionless. Room after room, step after step, I felt nothing.
Nothing…until our memorial service began.
A space that was Rwandan became Jewish. A space that was dominated by 848 anonymous bodies was overtaken by mourning friends. A space that was foreign became familiar.
At that moment, in my mind’s eye, I saw my youngest brother amongst the dead. Fear, frustration and sadness forced their way in.
Why did it happen at that moment? Why did it not happen when I saw the first, or last, of the 848 nameless faces?
It can only be because of their namelessness. It can only be because I cannot love 848 dead Rwandans whom I have never known in life. I can feel compassion for them, but I cannot love them. And it is because I cannot love them, or anyone else, living or dead, who remains anonymous to me, that I cannot promise “never again” to the entire world and truly mean it.
But I can love my brother, and I can love my family and friends. And to them I can promise “never again.” I can promise to never again take them for granted because 848 nameless Rwandans have shown me just how short-lived all of our lives can be.
To culminate our experiences at the memorial, we all came together to participate in a memorial service. We lit a candle in memory of the one million who were murdered during the genocide and stood in a circle as members of our group read interfaith prayers and passages commemorating those lives lost. Our tour guide joined our service, following along as we expressed our grief. At one point, our candle blew out. Before everyone had realized it, our guide left and came back with matches, relit the candle, and set up a barrier to block the wind from blowing it out again. This was an incredibly powerful moment. At the end of the service he asked to say a few words. He told us that when most people come to the memorial he didn’t know if they actually understand the magnitude of the genocide, but he could tell that “we got it”. He explained that we as Jews have a shared history and he knows that we will make sure that people know what happened. He left us wondering, what does it really mean when we say NEVER AGAIN?
Before we left, each of us took a moment to place a stone we had carried with us from Madison on top of a covered mass grave. Rather than placing flowers, which soon die, the stones, a Jewish tradition, will remain forever atop the graves.
As we drove out of the memorial site, our van was quickly greeted by at least 40 smiling local children. We were suddenly reminded of the word that we had chosen to represent our day, “progression.” Through some of us questioned our own abilities to have the strength to move on, we saw in the children, that life in Rwanda must move on and that the only direction for the country is progression.
Having come from such a difficult day, our bus ride back was solemn as people took time to process and reflect what we had seen. As we approached Kigali, we began to take what we had learned and turn it into thoughts of the future. We reached the ASYV Kigali apartment, and after a somewhat quiet dinner of delicious Indian food, we gathered together to speak about the day, what we had seen, and what the future would hold. Our discussion continued even after we had left the apartment, lasting right up until we finally arrived back at ASYV.
While this day was our hardest, we all felt empowered by the memorial to put extra effort into our interactions with the teens at ASYV, our service work, and ultimately, our devotion to contribute to the progression of Rwanda.
-Naomi, Jordan and Ali U.