"Mzungu! Mzungu!” As our car drove past groups of children, they waved and shouted. I’ve learned this term means something along the lines of “foreigner” in Kinyarwanda, and I’ve already heard it more times than I can count.
Three friends and I were on our way to Nyarubuye, a rural village located east of Kigali. We had spent several hours driving through the lush countryside, past rice paddies, countless people walking to and from church, and even a monkey crossing the road.
Finally, we pulled up to the sign “Nyarubuye Urwibutso Rwa Jenocide,” or Nyarubuye Genocide Memorial, marking the entrance to a large Catholic church. During the genocide, many people sought refuge in public places they regarded as safe, including churches. But, even churches were not safe from genocide. At Nyarubuye, an estimated 20,000 people who had sought refuge were killed on April 15 and April 16, 1994.
As we pulled up to the church, it was almost hard to believe that anything terrible had happened there. A service was taking place, and the congregation was singing. The sun was shining and bright flowers and plants filled the scene with color.
I turned to Placide, who was gracious enough to be acting as our tour guide. Placide is a dear friend of the family I am staying with, and he had offered to take us to Nyrarubuye and share his story (and also gave me permission to briefly share some of it here).
He explained that he was 6 years old in April 1994, and he and his family had gone to the church to take refuge. His mother was killed, but against all odds, he and his sister were able to survive the massacre. His sister’s story is actually the subject of the PBS Frontline Special Valentina’s Nightmare, as she survived amidst corpses on the church property for 43 days. Placide was badly wounded by a grenade but managed to crawl away from the church in order to escape the massacre.
As he spoke, we walked around the nunnery, where much of the killing had taken place. He pointed out the last place he saw his mom and where he was hit with shrapnel from a grenade. When the killing started, the army first threw grenades at the church. Then, the Interahamwe (a paramilitary organization) came with machetes and other tools.
We stopped at a small museum, where piles of clothes and shoes from the victims are displayed on tables. There are also piles of bones and skulls, as well as tools from the genocide.
We also stopped to pay our respects to the mass graves. They are covered in purple flowers, the symbolic color of mourning in Rwanda. While they are small, it is said that there are 52,000 people buried there (people from the church massacre as well as massacres from surrounding areas).
Placide shared that he likes to tell his story because it keeps the memory alive. He still doesn’t know what happened to his mom, and he hopes that one day his story, and the stories of others, will help prevent genocide.