Archive for March, 2011

The boy at the gate, dressed in the maroon uniform of casual security guards and carrying a heavy wooden club appears disinterested at another visitor. He waves at some plastic chairs. A twenty minute wait and the summoned guide arrives by motorbike, an introduction to deliver – very fast and softly spoken ‘This is the memorial…10,000 people had locked themselves inside in at attempt to escape the Interhamwe soldiers…here [pointing at the buckled iron security doors] is where the soldiers broke into the church…they came and killed everyone inside. You will see there the clothing of 45,000 people, only 10,000 were killed here but…found many more….they have been brought here too. You will go downstairs in the Church, there is a symbolic coffin of a woman who was tortured here, she was attacked like many of the women…Around the back of the Church are mass graves where the people are buried….now you can go inside.’
I wonder into the Church gloom, only then realising that the ‘guide’ is not coming with me. Low wooden benches run a semi-circle, four or five rows deep facing an empty alter. The seating is barely visible beneath piles of filthy clothing all tangled and matted together by clumps of thick red soil. Shirts, trousers, skirts, shoes and the occasional painful glimpse of the recognisable – a soft pink printed blanket, a small striped tie.
I am quietly thankful that several years of exposure have faded out the tell-tale smell. Instead, there is a musty atmosphere…and the security-boy leaning and staring from the doorway. I can hear his companion, an older man in loose black trousers and an over-stretched vest, shouting jests from his side-room stool. A brief glance on the way past – next to the mops and anonymous cardboard boxes a large machete lies tucked under a pile of papers.
A hole in the Church floor is edged by steps, a route down into a bright white display room, my descending footsteps echoed by security boy’s. Fidgeting companion and I stand awkwardly together in front of a raised glass cabinet. Around twenty skulls are displayed in neat lines, on the shelf beneath the limbs are piled. Chalked across the forehead of one head, the words ‘PATRICIA’. As a novice in the examination of bones, I can’t tell where the signs of violence might be displayed – here and here gaping holes in a cranium are obvious but the bones are also crumbling apart. Fragments of white brittle are scattered about and at the back of the cabinet a skull lies on it’s side, eye sockets sunk below jaw line.
The display shelf is all glass, including the base. We peer underneath the skulls and legs, through the glass floor and another eight or nine foot drop into a crypt. Lying there a single large coffin is swathed in white and purple cloth, a crucifix weighting the lid. I ask the boy with the wooden club if he speaks English ‘No’, ‘Parlez-Vous Francais?’ ‘No’, mumbling ‘only Kinyarwanda’.
Out and behind the back of the Church, concrete slabs at ground level mark the top of the mass graves. Wooden steps are this time descending into the dark. I’m hesitant, it’s a little alien to me, to go into an underground burial place – a disturbing of the dead? The boy though is already heading down and indicating to come with. Inside there is just a little light from the ventilation grate 12 feet above us. Coffins are stacked from the top of the roof to the floor on both sides of a narrow walking space. It is extremely claustrophobic, the gap barely wide enough for one person and my shoulders brush up against the wooden boxes. Squeezing further along the room and towards the back wall the stacks are replaced by shelving and here there are more bones exposed, hundreds of skulls, piles of femurs, leg and arm bones.
It is silent and hot and strangely sterile. The boy is loitering at the foot of the steps, twisting in his fingers the trailing ends of the coffin shrouds and rocking on his heels. Light streams from the entrance and throws his profile into shade, a dark shadow with all of those bodies looming over him. He is blocking the exit and suddenly I really need to leave.

Laura Major, PhD student from the field


Read Full Post »