Friday, October 9, 2009

Murambi Part Two

The main building at Murambi.

The Murambi Memorial Centre

This woman was the keeper of the keys at the centre. She would unlock all the doors to the rooms housing the bodies as we approached.

Laurette, Tara and Lili walk together back towards the main building.

Monday Oct. 5, later the same day...

1) After the drive from Butare through hills and villages, past people out walking on the roads, pushing bicycles laden with goods, walking with backpacks, and baskets and bundles of sticks balanced on heads, we arrive at the village of Murambi, and the genocide memorial site.

We climb out of our packed van, and mill around in front of a large building. High elevation. Stunning scenery. A place where 50,000 people were murdered.

We meet our guide, Francois, and he tells us the story of the place. We then walk through rooms full of corpses preserved in lime. Room after room after room. One room was entirely children. I remember one baby in particular. Chubby legs. The smell. Emaciated, sculptural corpses, all white, due to the lime. Little pellets scattered on the bodies to keep the smell somewhat in check. Many rooms, but still only a small fraction of the tens of thousands murdered here. It is almost too much to bear.

And outside, children playing and laughing in the nearby farms.

It's hard to know whether to post photos of the corpses. Francois encouraged us to take pictures - he wants the world to take note. This is perhaps the most manageable image of the very few i took. It was difficult to point a camera at these bodies.

Some boys who followed us around the site, and wanted us to give them "Bics". I had a spare pen i gave to one. The others had to make do with 100 franc coins. There were many children playing close by.

This trip is enormous. I am hearing now from the Rwandans we are working with about their own family histories. Gloria, the festival organizer, walked to Uganda with her grandmother during the genocide as a ten year old. Laurette, our translator, moved back from Burundi weeks after the genocide ended and, as an eleven year old, discovered corpses in buildings, on the streets. Eleven years old, surrounded by corpses.

And yet the country is beautiful and vibrant and full of people with spirit and energy - like Gloria and Laurette. I may be imagining it, but there is a feeling of damage, of deadness, buried somewhere alongside the forward momentum. The inescapable awareness of what has happened, coupled with the collective striding forward, the undeniable energy, beauty in the people. It is extraordinary, and contradictory, and entirely outside my experience.

The guide at the genocide memorial, Francois, had lost his entire family here. Many thousands of corpses had been exhumed from the mass graves the murderers threw them in, but, given their condition, Francois could not identify any of his own family. Is THIS skull his mother's? His child's? Is that the body of a loved one? He doesn't know. He never will. He said this is a hard job, yet it also gives him some peace to be working here. The place is remote and unkempt - they have so little money for upkeep. It is raw, and, as such, is a step closer to the reality of genocide than even Auschwitz - the only other place i've been that has a similar feeling.

Because there are so many bodies here. With bits of hair, and clothing, twisted in death, and mutilated by machetes and bullets. One doesn't need much imagination to know what happened here. You can smell the death.

Francois said to us that we must all tell those we are closest with about this place.

And so. Murambi. One of the most beautiful places i've been. An unfinished technical school to which Tutsis were lured with the promise of shelter, so as better to kill them. 50,000 murdered - killed by paratroopers with guns, by militias, and then - for those who ran - by ordinary citizens with machetes and hoes and axes. A site occupied by French troops (Operation Turquoise) as the Hutu extremists began their escape from the RPF. The French came at the end of June, 1994. The genocide ran through April. This is a site where French troops played volleyball beside the mass graves. Did the soldiers know? France asserts they were preventing further violence. Rwanda asserts that France actively armed the Hutus, and then provided the killers safe passage out of the country. Francois's condemnation of France's complicity with the murderers is complete. He, for one, has reached his conclusion. So has Rwanda - the teaching of French has been removed from the school curriculum, and Rwanda has severed all ties with France.

A room with clothing taken from the exhumed corpses. Most of the corpses have been reinterred elsewhere on the site, with proper burial rites.

Laurette walks by herself near the memorial site. Soon after i took this picture, she would tell Lili and I her own family's story. Her grandparents were from very close to Murambi. They left Rwanda after the killings in 1959. She and her mother were born in Burundi, and moved back weeks after the 1994 genocide. This was her first visit to this site.

2) While still at Murambi, I get a phone call from As it Happens, the CBC radio program. They want to interview me later today. Oddly, it is while talking to the producer in Toronto that I begin to cry.

3) Back on Butare that evening, i am interviewed by Carol Off. The show is broadcast the next day, Tuesday, Oct 6. To listen to what i said, go to My bit begins about 5 minutes in.