Friday, June 13, 2008

Standing in the School of the Dead

From the front, the building looks new and modern. A new school built in 1994, waiting for its first students. Standing outside is an old man. You can see the indentation on his skull from a bullet wound. His eyes are hollow and he doesn’t smile. He has come here every day for 14 years. This is where his family rests. This is home. This is Murambi.

Murambi is a hill that is about a 30 minute drive from Butare, in Rwanda near the Burundi border. On April 6, 1994 began 100 days of hell. The plane crash of President Juvenal Habyarimana sparked a violent action aimed at eliminating the existence of the Tutsi minority by the Hutu majority. The violence came fast and furious. The order came over the State run radio – Kill the cockroaches. (Cockroaches was the slang term for the Tutsis.) Make it look like they never existed.

On April 16th 50,000 people gathered at the then new school. They were told they would be safe here. They were told to stay inside and wait. They were set up. The electricity was cut off, they could not leave, and there was no food or water. On April 21st the Hutu militia came in and began the slaughter. They had been trained by the French Army to hack the ankles with machetes so the people could not run. This way the soldiers could move through the masses quickly and return later to kill those who were maimed.

The old, the young, men and women, children and infants – they all had to die. You see them at the school. Skeletons laid out on display for all to know and remember. You see the hacked ankles. Women died holding their babies in their arms as they were hacked to death. Nearly all were killed in a day’s time. The old man’s name is Emmanuel and he lost his wife, children and all other family that night at Murambi. A bullet hit him in the head and he fell down, covered in blood and the bodies of people shot after him. When he came to the next day, he crawled out from under the dead and crawled into the nearby banana fields to hide. Eventually he made it the Burundi border and the bullet was removed from his forehead. He is 50 years old but he looks 70.

The French army supposedly secured this area to stop the killing. Yet the French troops mysteriously disappeared in the days preceding the massacre. The soldiers returned with earth moving machines to dig the mass graves. The bodies were dumped in pits and covered over. The soldiers erected a volleyball court on top of the grave sites. Nothing happened here. There are 7 known survivors.

The site is now a museum. The corpses have been treated with lime to preserve them in a mummified state. Each classroom is filled with the bodies. There are 1800 exhumed bodies on display. The smell of death permeates everything. Room after room, bodies are everywhere. It is a surreal scene. How do you react to this? What mental gymnastics are happening in your mind? How can this happen? The curators of the museum, who are survivors of the massacre, encourage you to take pictures—to wade into those rooms and smell the astringent odor of lime and decay, so that you won’t ever forget what happened here. They ask you to bring the story inside your camera to others.

What does this Emmanuel think as a group of mzungu (white) foreigners sit under a tree and sing and pray. Does he wonder why we are here? Does his soul receive some solace because of the reaction of strangers? He sits in our circle. He stands and observes our meditations. He accepts our hugs and words of amahoro (peace). A dark cloud forms over the memorial site. As we leave on our bus the rain begins. God cried.

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