Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Walk Through The Horror Halls

The exterior of the main building.
Produced and edited by: Austin Greene

"I can't go back there," Ashley Weselak told her friends. "I've been to Auschwitz and Birkenau before but Murambi is so much worse."

It had been two years since her last visit to the Murambi Genocide Memorial just outside of Nyamagabe, Rwanda, and she vowed not to return, never again.

"I had nightmares after I went," she said. "It's just an awful place."

Weselak and her friends from Huye had planned a hiking trip around the rolling hills of the Southern Province. At the last minute, Murambi was added to the itinerary. With that, the group that was seven was now six.

Of the six memorials commemorating the 1994 genocide, Murambi carries the reputation of being perhaps the most shocking. It was planned to be a technical school, but the civil war and subsequent massacre of over 800 thousand Rwandans halted its construction. Here, over 65 thousand of those people sought respite from the bloodshed under the guise of protection by French soldiers.

20 years later, a small group of European students and volunteers walks the same dirt road that the Tutsi refugees once walked. The atmosphere is certainly different; the sounds of a church choir and children laughing and playing can be heard from the hilltop where Murambi sits. The site is well-maintained, with rows of shrubs lining the dirt path that leads to the entrance.

The path leading to Murambi.
The group is greeted by a younger woman, perhaps the same age as the tourists. She appears to have a great amount of pride for her job, though it's obvious that working in such a somber place has left a lasting effect on her.

"More than 50 thousand people are buried here," she tells the group. "The bodies were uncovered from the original mass grave to receive a proper burial. Some of the bodies that were not claimed are kept preserved and are on display as a reminder of the terrible events that took place here."

The first part of the tour takes its visitors through a winding hallway that tells the history of Rwanda and the events that led to the genocide. The walls are adorned with pictures and text in English, French and Kinyarwanda to recount the grisly story of what happened to the tens of thousands of people who sought refuge here.

Soon after the refugees arrived to the still unfinished school building, the French soldiers abandoned their posts. Water and supplies were cut off. Those attempting to flee the grounds were immediately killed by the Interahamwe militia. On April 18, the surrounding Hutu forces began to attack the tired, starving Tutsis inside the building. The initial attack was repelled, but on April 21, a full assault was carried out. Some fell to gunfire, some died from grenade blasts. Most of the victims, however, succumbed to wounds from axes, clubs and machetes. Of the 65 thousand people trying to escape the violence, only 34 survived.

The guide leads a tour group through the memorial.
The tour group reads the stories from these survivors before coming to a room decorated by pictures of the deceased. A startling number are of children and babies. Much blame at the memorial is directed to the Western world for its failure to intervene. Promising "Never Again" after the Holocaust, the rest of the world turned a blind eye to Rwanda.

Behind the main building are smaller structures that were meant to be classrooms. In a way, they still are classrooms, teaching a much more profound lesson.

"In these buildings are the remains of several of the victims," the guide says sadly as she leads the visitors outside. "They were kept preserved in lime in the same positions they were in when they died."

848 bodies are on display at Murambi.
Nothing could prepare the group for the sights inside other than the smell. The scent from the preserved bodies dominates everything else, and it is incomparable to anything other than death itself. The buildings have open windows spaces and no doors. The only thing inside are several tables with corpses as white as snow.

Even in their state, the half skeletons, half bodies still show expressions of terror. One holds his hands over his eyes while another grabs at wounds that are no longer visible. Others wounds are still there, such as many cracked skulls and bullet holes.

The next room is more of the same. The one after is too, as is the next, and the next, and the next. Room after room is the final resting place for unidentified victims of an unspeakable crime. A few exhibits feature cases that showcase more skulls in one, stacks of femurs in another and shelves of clothes from the victims in the last.

The final part of the tour is the mass grave that was dug when the French soldiers returned.
Femurs inside display cases.

"When the French learned what happened, they told the Hutus to clean the blood off the walls so nobody would find out," the guide says. "Then they came in with bulldozers and buried the bodies."

After the bodies were covered, the French built a volleyball court on top of the grave as an extra measure. Today, the bodies have been moved near the front of the grounds. The volleyball court has been removed.

The group that had arrived talking and laughing left the museum in silence. After a short walk back to Nyamagabe, they met back up with Ashley Weselak. She didn't need words to see the effect on her friends.

"Told you so," she said.

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