Murder most foul touched thousands and tainted even more

At the Kigalia memorial, a tour guide, some of whose family were genocide victims, talks at the grave for 250,000 people. At the Kigalia memorial, a tour guide, some of whose family were genocide victims, talks at the grave for 250,000 people. (Bella English/Globe Staff)
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May 11, 2008

KIGALI, Rwanda - Though tourists generally come to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas, there's another attraction that is both incredibly gruesome and incredibly moving: memorials to the 1994 genocide in which at least 800,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days. The radical Hutu government targeted the minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus, literally decimating the country's population with machetes and clubs, guns and grenades, while the world turned its back.

The main genocide site is the Kigali Memorial Centre, which opened on the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the genocide. Shaped like a cross and perched on one of the city's numerous hills, the museum offers a panoramic view of Kigali - and a close-up view of the genocide. Its grounds are home to a mass grave containing 258,000 victims. Opposite is a wall of names. It is a work in progress and will be completed name by name, as money allows.

Many of the guides are survivors who have lost family and friends. The genocide is never far from the surface of any conversation, and it has been said that everyone over age 14 in the country was either a victim or a perpetrator. Even those younger are victims, since so many of their mothers have died from rape-induced AIDS, and in many cases passed the disease to their children.

You can follow a guide or wander on your own. Downstairs, the first exhibit documents the events of the genocide and puts it in historical context. It is divided into three sections: before, during, and after, and some of the photos are so painful to look at that visitors avert their eyes. On video screens, survivors give gripping testimony.

There's also a section that details the world's indifference: Despite repeated pleas, the United Nations refused to intervene - refused, even, to use the word "genocide" until it was over. Another room contains a "clothesline" of photos that show victims at family outings.

But the most wrenching room is upstairs. The children's section greets visitors with the words: "In memory of our beautiful and beloved children who should have been our future." Several large posters bear images of children slaughtered by neighbors, classmates, priests, teachers, or strangers. Under each photo is personal information such as "favorite food," "favorite song," "last words."

One 12-year-old boy loved chips with mayo and a song called "The Beauty of Woman." His last words: "Mum, where can I run to?" A girl loved swimming, her best friend was her older sister Claudette and her cause of death: "hacked by machete." Fabrice, 8, loved chocolate. In the photo, he's smiling and holding up eight fingers. His best friend was "his mum." Cause of death: bludgeoned with club.

Toward the end of the room is 9-month-old Thierry. His favorite drink was "mother's milk." His cause of death? "Machete while in his mother's arms."

Outside the room, there's a simple sculpture of a lone child with the words in Kinyarwanda: "I didn't make myself an orphan." Genocide orphans make T-shirts that are sold in the gift shop. They say: "You are the loss that cannot be replaced."

Smaller memorial sites dot the countryside, many at mass killing sites. Nyamata, about 40 minutes from Kigali, was one of the hardest-hit areas because so many Tutsis lived there. When word of the killings spread to the village, Tutsis headed to the church for sanctuary. But the priest turned his back on his parishioners and the génocidaires moved in.

A banner that hangs over the church entrance says in Kinyarwanda: "If you knew me, and you knew yourself, you would not have killed me." Bullet holes remain in the roof, and in the basement, rows of skulls and bones are lined up. There's a single grave of a woman who died a particularly gruesome death with her baby on her breast. "She is symbolic of the genocide," says Musonera Gaspard, the village's mayor, whose parents were victims.

Upstairs, visitors walk around slowly, as if in a daze, perhaps trying to avoid the ghosts, for their presence is palpable. Some 3,000 people died here and most are buried in a mass grave behind the church. Many are women and children "because they couldn't run into the hills," says Gaspard.

Visitors sit on the same benches that the victims sat on for worship and later, tried to hide beneath. Dull-red coffins are stacked up near the back of the church. In the front, there's a statue of the Virgin Mary with her head bowed, holding a rosary. A glass box contains rosaries collected from bodies, and next to it is a machete.

Back in Kigali, a small memorial recalls the 10 Belgian soldiers, members of the UN Peacekeeping Force, who were tortured and killed in the early hours of the genocide while trying to protect the moderate Hutu prime minister, who was also murdered. The building, a former army barracks, is pocked with bullet holes. "Pour qui? Pour quois?" asks a sign.

For who? For what? The questions, of course, are unanswerable.


If You Go

For more information about the Kigali Memorial Centre, go to Admission is free, but donations are suggested.

Camp Kigali, the military compound where 10 UN peacekeepers from Belgium were killed, is a genocide memorial in downtown Kigali. Admission is free, but tip the guide.

A City Bus Tour includes both stops and many others. Book through hotel or through $20.

Other memorial sites are scattered throughout the country and can be seen by hiring a driver through your hotel.

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