Editor’s note: The Rwanda Project USVI enables local high school students to travel to the Central African nation of Rwanda to learn, engage in community service projects and promote cultural and educational ties with the people of Rwanda. VI Source Publisher Shaun Pennington, a co-founder of the project, is accompanying students this year for the second time.
Sixteen years later, the scent of death still hangs heavily on the air at Murambi Genocide Memorial, where 24 rooms shelter the bleached, contorted remains of 50,000 people who died in the rolling hillsides of the town just a few miles from Butare, once Rwanda’s capital.
The skeletons that lie on wooden slated tables were exhumed in 1995, one year after they were dropped into a pit, covered with dirt and left.
Cows moan in unison in the background echoing the mournful emotions on the faces of the 10 students who drift from room to room as if in a trance.
The poses of the remains of human beings of all ages speak graphically of how they died. A mother clutches a baby; a tiny baby lies in repose, probably not understanding what was coming. Others, arms twisted upward to protect themselves, knew what was coming.
“Did they fight back,” asks Landon of our guide, Francois Rusanganwa.
Francois crosses his arms across his chest in gesture of passivity, then quickly chops at each side of his neck as he explains there was nothing the nearly one million Tutsis and Tutsi sympathizers could do with the police and military populated completely with Hutus. “The police, the military were all Hutus.”
Francois explained that the area was touted as a safe haven. He says the French militiamen told the Tutsi refugees coming from surrounding villages to bring their arms: hammers, machetes and any other weapons and turn them in as the entered the safety zone. Francois then tells us the Tutsis were completely helpless and betrayed.
“It was planned.”
Francois lost four brothers, four sisters and his mother in the slaughter. He was in Burundi in school when it happened, having seen what was coming. He came back in August 1994. His entire family was gone.
“The former government divided the people,” he explains, a mix of resignation and worn out rage in his voice.
Little children dot the hillside behind Francois, their shrieks of laughter rolling across the valley, providing a reminder that life does go on and joy will always find its way back from death.
“Now there are only Rwandese,” says Francois, explaining in five words the philosophy that is bringing the tiny country in the heart of Africa back to life.
The half dozen brick buildings that lie on the slopes behind the main three-story white building that oversees the property were meant to be a technical school.
It had not been completed when the genocide stopped progress in its tracks. It will likely never be completed now.
It is a sacred place.
It is hard to bring young adults to this place that is the living, breathing evidence of what hatred and divisiveness can do.
They are not unfazed by it, but not undone either.
One young woman hangs back, wiping tears from her eyes as we approach the first skeleton-packed room. Later, sitting on a curb in the parking lot sharing a cheese sandwich, she cries again.
How could this have happened?
Murambi is the most visceral of all the memorials I have visited. The smells and bones, the skulls and the clothing remind us in a way that forbids denial what hideous acts human beings are capable of.
But the laugher of the children, the courage of our V.I. young people who have made this trip, suggests the possibilities for change and love and joy.
Jonte asks, “How does he do it every day. How does he (Francois) take people through here after what he lost?”
“My heart hurts every day,” Francois says.