Most of our pre-departure briefings occurred the day before the event, or even hours before. We had our pre-departure briefing for the Murambi Memorial a week before we left.
“We’re trying to prepare you” Lee said, “but you can’t really prepare for this. People say it is the hardest memorial to see and I think they’re right. But even knowing this you won’t be ready. You will be shocked. The smell, when you walk in and see, you might not even want to enter the room.”
In April 1994, after President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down and the genocide began, Tutsis from several neighboring districts fled to Murambi, a nearly completed vocational school. They went to the school because they heard they’d be safe there. With only the food they could carry and water cut off, 50,000 people crammed into the buildings and waited. Two weeks later the interahamwe arrived and surrounded Murambi, trapping the people with no way out. Within two days, the interahamwe slaughtered nearly everyone; they were too weak from hunger and thirst to fight back. Only a handful of people survived.
We pulled up to the main building, modern and new, looking like it could be seamlessly transplanted onto any American college campus. We shifted restlessly in the vans, radiating nervous energy. In the week preceding the visit we’d speculated on what we’d see, imagined the worst we could think of, trying to prepare ourselves in some way.
“Is it bad if I don’t even want to get out of the van?” Donna asked to no one in particular.
None of us wanted to be there. Never in my life had I felt such a strong desire to flee from a situation, close my eyes to the reality of what had happened and run all the way back to Juniata. But at the same time, we were all acutely aware that experiences like this one were why we’d come on the program. I saw Lee get out of the car, Lee, who’d never had the luxury of not seeing the full horrors of 1994.
“No one has to go in.” Stephanie, our academic director, reminded us. “This isn’t required. You don’t have to go in and you can leave any time you want to.”
As much as we didn’t want to go, as terrified as we were of what we’d see and how it would change us, there was no chance any one of us was would opt out of seeing the memorial. We got out of the van, visibly braced ourselves, and walked into the building. It was only the reception area. Everyone let out a nervous little breath of relief.
Inside the main building met a man, a survivor of Murambi, who was going to be leading us around. I couldn’t guess his age, probably in his late 50’s, but he looked like he could be in his 70’s. He was tall and extremely thin, and a little hunched over. I could see a deep dent on the top right side of his forehead.
“That’s from where he was shot in the head,” Lee explained, “before the interahamwe left him for dead.”
I thought the school was supposed to be a near perfect preservation of the slaughter. I was expecting skeletons laid out where they died and rooms stained with blood. Maybe if the French Army hadn’t arrived first, cleaned everything up in order to make it their base for Operation Turquoise, it would have been. Operation Turquiose, publicized as a humanitarian intervention, in actuality created an area of safe passage for those who orchestrated and took part in the genocide to flee Rwanda. A year after the French tossed the bodies into shallow mass graves and built a volleyball court on top, survivors dug them up and preserved 800 bodies using lime while the rest were prepared for a proper and respectful burial.
We left the main building and went around back to where the classrooms were located. Rows of about 10 classrooms were grouped in each building, with a covered outdoor walkway connecting the unit. A security guard walked ahead of us and started unlocking the rooms. Somehow I found myself near the front of the group, though I could feel my body slow down in nervous anticipation the closer we got to the rooms, and was among the first to see the bodies.
The bodies were shriveled and bleached white from the lime and were laid out on crudely constructed wooden tables. One body had a little tuff of black hair clinging to the top of the head. The room smelled sickly sweet, too sweet, like very fragrant flowers that had been sitting in a vase for too long and had begun to decay. Lacing that scent was the tangy, bitter smell of mothballs, an attempt to keep bugs away from the preserved, but slowly decomposing bodies. I started towards the door and heard Sasha whisper, “Jesus, it’s a baby” and sure enough, the white lump in front of her was a tiny little body. No one spoke after that. We entered our own little worlds as we went from room to room.
It was overwhelming. On the whole, we’ve become imprecise in our language and some of our most powerful words lost to hyperbole. When we say ‘overwhelming’ we normally mean intense or difficult. We rarely mean that we were confronted with an experience that literally overwhelmed every sense. My skin was buzzing and prickling uncomfortably, my ears ringing with the sound of my own blood sloshing through my head, and the smell of the room invaded my being down to my taste buds. My body didn’t know what to do with the sensory overload and started to run on automatic. My brain was stuffed full with thoughts: simultaneous, overlapping, and incomplete, none of them coherent or useful.
The third room had lots of small bodies, not babies, but kids. I didn’t want to be in the room, looking at the contorted bodies and smashed in skulls, but it was as if my mind and my body had completely disconnected. I couldn’t really process what I was seeing and I couldn’t get myself to leave.
“My cousin is that big. They were probably my host-brother’s age. Had they lived, they’d be my age now. They were just kids. How can you kill kids? How could this happen? How? How? Fuck.”
I imagined, for a moment, that they were just frozen in time, that they could wake up. Their skin would regain color, their flesh plump back out, and all these little bodies would be alive and laughing again. Each child had my host-brother’s infectious smile and my host-sister’s mischievous eyes. But they didn’t wake up and now each body, each face, had their faces too.
I felt a steady weight come to rest on my shoulder, pulling me out of my head and putting me back into my body. I don’t know how long I’d stood in that room, but sometime while I’d been lost in my thoughts Lee had walked in. He kept his hand on my shoulder, gently checking in on me.
“How’re you doing?”
He didn’t expect me to be fine and my silent nod probably did little to convince him otherwise as he kept his hand resting on my shoulder a little longer. With a comforting pat he was off again and checking in on Donna. I walked out of the room and breathed.
It was disconcerting leaving each room and walking outside to some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. All of Rwanda is gorgeous and green, full of rolling hills, but the memorial seemed to be perched on the most picturesque hill-top of them all. The grass was long and untamed and wild flowers grew everywhere. It truly looked like its nickname, the Switzerland of Africa. Even though it was past noon, a light mist hung between the trees as the sun burned bright and high in the sky.
About the time I began to get desensitized to the sight of the bodies, the smell became too much. Somewhere around the 12th room I left after being inside for less than ten seconds because I forgot to breathe shallowly and ended up gagging over the side of the railing outside. Even outside, in the fresh air, the smell of death and decay seemed to cling to my skin and clothes. As a group, we’ve talked a lot about what we’ve taken for granted: running water, electricity, toilet paper, and control over what we eat, but I’m not used to taking air for granted. Because the air in the rooms was so nauseating, it meant that no one could do more than silently leak out tears; sobbing, even sniffling, would have made us vomit. Only one room, a classroom filled with skulls and femurs instead of slowly decomposing bodies, provided the space for a full reaction.
Bobbie left the room as I walked in and Marie stood somberly over the skulls. I wasn’t anything but numb until Lee walked in and once again placed his hand on my shoulder. I was so angry that he was there, that after everything he had lived through and survived he had to not only see this again, but also felt the need to comfort me. I was angry at everything but him, whom I was filled with such contrasting appreciation and tenderness for. He didn’t ask if I was ok, but just stood with me, his hand grounding me in the moment, and felt every shuddering breath and aborted, bit back sob. He stood there, in that room, and breathed with me. Lee squeezed my shoulder one more time and moved on to help someone else, a healer and rebuilder to all of us.
When I left the room I could see Bobbie resting her arms on the rail, staring at nothing. Donna was sitting in the grass, looking off into the distance, and a survivor cradled Jasmine as she fought back tears. At the Kigali Memorial Center most people had cried freely, but in Muramib we fought our emotions each step of the way. As deeply touched as we were, it was difficult to feel like we had a right to our emotions when three survivors of the massacre milled around the group, making sure we were ok. It occurred to me for the first time that this wasn’t just going to be shocking, but that we were might actually come out of the experience slightly traumatized. By the end of the day we’d seen walked through nearly three-dozen rooms and seen about 800 preserved bodies or parts of bodies.
“It didn’t make any sense. I tired to make it makes sense and I couldn’t.” Jasmine shared during the processing session the next day. “Then it didn’t seem real. How could what I was seeing be real if it didn’t makes sense?”
We all felt that way. For the next few days I could feel my mind twisting in on itself, trying to make sense of what I’d seen in any way it could. An odd sort of internal moral bargaining took place until I could trick myself into thinking that I could understand people killing people and even people killing people in the most brutal ways possible. But no matter how much processing, no matter how many mental concessions I make, killing children in horrendously painful ways will never be anything but senseless. We want to make sense of the world around us, but some things never will make sense and never should make sense.
The next day, Lee caught up with me as we were walking to a women’s association meeting. I hadn’t talked at the processing session and once again he was checking in on me. Had it been anyone else, I probably would have been annoyed at the intrusion. Each moment I had alone during our busy schedule was precious, another moment to try to make sense of the day before.
“You know, I worked on setting up the Murambi Memorial. The first week there, I couldn’t eat anything. I lost so much weight, but I just couldn’t eat. The smell followed me everywhere. You can come talk to me, if you need to. Call me or find me, you can always talk and I’ll listen. Because I know.”
I’ve heard people say that after viewing something disturbing it’s all they can see when they close their eyes. Days later, those frozen distorted faces are what I see when my eyes are open. It’s like the images burned into me and are now laid on top of everything else. When I got back to my homestay family and my little sister grinned at me and slipped her sticky little hand into mine, the image of the little bodies surfaced again. I played with her for hours and held her close, listened to her giggle and laugh, but felt the weight of Murambi the entire time. Every moment that I’m not 100% occupied, my mind goes back to Murambi. It doesn’t make any more sense today than it did yesterday, than it did when I stood in the rooms with the slowly decomposing corpses. All the historical background and theoretical material in the world can tell me how genocide can happen and does happen, but I will never understand it.
I’m not nearly done processing the Murambi Memorial and I’m not nearly ready to say that I’m ok with the experience. But I firmly believe that memorials like Murambi are vital to rebuilding a community and a country after unimaginable violence and that memorials only work if people go to see them. The Rwanda genocide was so short and violent that it was like the entire country went mad for 100 days, but then came to their senses when the RPF fought the interahamwe back. But that isn’t true. The genocide wasn’t spontaneous or random, but carefully planned, and people still hold onto that genocide ideology today. That’s why memorials are so important. We say ‘never again’, but we don’t really know what we’re saying that about. We have the luxury of not seeing and not living with the consequences, so ‘never again’ means ‘it will happen again, and we’ll feel really bad about it, but we won’t do anything to stop it.’ But I think if everyone could see what I saw and experience what I experienced; it really would be ‘never again’. It is too horrible to let happen again.