It felt wrong to take pictures. I quickly put away my camera as we walked through the mass grave to the Peace Garden in the Kigali Memorial Center. Others still took pictures, but with little enthusiasm as we looked at the names on the wall, many more names than we could count.
“How many people are buried here?” someone asked.
“Over 258,000 at this site. These are just the bodies recovered from Kigali and the surrounding area. Other places have their own memorials.”
We walked around some more in the African heat, not even a full day into our time in Rwanda and already feeling the strain of the topic we’d come halfway across the world to learn. I know I wasn’t the only one questioning why.
“There are a lot of people named Marie listed here,” Marie whispered to me as she walked past. Though she had her camera out, but she too has stopped taking pictures.
The Kigali Memorial Center is more than a tragically huge mass grave. In addition to the burial site there is also a museum. The only experience I have to compare it to is going to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, but only if the Holocaust Museum had been transplanted to Germany and I’d visited only sixteen years after World War II had ended. Like in Gulu, the violence and death is very fresh.
The museum started out with a history of Rwanda prior to the genocide and the factors leading up to the genocide. Even before the mass killings started in April of 1994, there was terrible violence in Rwanda. Placards in Kinyarwanda, French, and English spelled out the events that unfolded. The pictures and videos depicting the violence and the aftermath were hard to face. One of the videos was the only known footage of an actual killing during the genocide. If I hadn’t just read it in a book about the media’s role in the genocide earlier that day, I’m not sure I would have realized that the video was of a woman pleading for her life before she was hit so hard she was nearly decapitated. Other clips showed mutilated bodies, masses of corpses in a church, and a bloated body washed up on a rock by the river.
Although we started as a group, the fourteen of us solemnly walking through the exhibit, we soon became spread out in the museum as some moved quickly, wanting to view the images in isolation, while others hung back, taking in every word and every horror. Jenny and I went through the exhibits at the same pace, never talking as we viewed the images and photos, but keenly aware of each other’s reactions.
Like the Holocaust Museum had the room of shoes, the Kigali Memorial Center has a room of pictures. It is by no means complete, but as the faces of those brutally murdered stare at you, it is nonetheless overwhelming. I wanted to look at each picture, take in each face so that, if only for one moment, they would be remembered by someone other than those who had lost them. In the same room, a video was playing of survivors telling of the last times they saw their loved ones. After only a few minutes and having seen only a handful of the pictures it became too much and I left the room just as Jenny was entering.
The next room had bones, mostly skulls. There weren’t many, at least compared to the number of people who died. I don’t think the skulls were there to make a point of how many people died, but rather, how they died. Although some of the skulls were intact, others had places bashed in. Another skull had a bullet hole. Several of the skulls seemed small for the average adult, and one particularly small skull was nearly smashed to bits. After even less time, that room also began to feel oppressive and I left once again just as Jenny was leaving the picture room. We mutually ignored each other’s blotchy red faces as we me in the center.
“Did you see Lee’s quote?” I asked her.
“Yeah. I keep thinking, ‘how weird is it that we know someone quoted here?’ and then I remember just how many people, just random people from the street, that they all have stories that could go here.”
The last room is wasted potential and the lost future. Beautiful illuminated photographs of children lined the walls along with placards with things such as their favorite color. The last thing mentioned on each placard was how the child had been killed. 10-year-old boy, favorite sport: football, tortured to death.
I rushed through the last room, feeling physically sick and unable to look at the pictures any longer. I heard Jenny sniffing back tears, then ultimately failing, as she entered the room behind me. Outside, on the balcony, I had a clear view of the graves that only two hours ago had seemed somewhat abstract and emotionally inaccessible. I made myself go back and walk through the room a second time, slowly. An 8-year-old girl who loved chocolate hacked to death by machete. A 4-year-old girl who loved singing and dancing, stabbed in the eyes and head. Two sisters killed by a grenade, a 2-year-old burned alive in a church and another 2-year-old smashed into a wall. An infant hacked to death in his mother’s arms. Their pictures loomed over me as I read every word and I wondered if I’d ever forget their faces.
After the big pictures with the stories were a bunch of regular photographs of other children who had been killed, but with no added descriptions. This time, as I really did look at every single picture, I noticed a familiar face. In a picture with two young boys who were indicated as killed during the genocide was another boy with a sweet smile. He looked like our program assistant, Lee. Lee, whom only earlier that day had sat next to me during Kinyarwanda lessons, gently correcting my terrible pronunciation and giving me helpful hints. It might not have been Lee, it probably wasn’t. I don’t know his story, I just know that he has a story. Most people do.
It is tempting to use words like ‘inhuman’ cruelty when describing the genocide, but the truth is it was too human. People did this. People imagined the unimaginable and teachers killed students, ministers killed congregations, and neighbors killed neighbors. And as horrifying as that truth is, life goes on. That’s pretty much the motto here. In Uganda it was ‘Forgive and Remember’ and here it seems to be ‘Forgive, Remember, and Live’. Horrible, terrible, things happened here, but it is as important to see and appreciate the beautiful green hills and smell the fresh air filled with the scent of growing tea as it is to remember the genocide. Because as much as people shouldn’t forget and can’t forget, they also can’t stop. Life goes on and we must too.