Monday, 2 February 2009

Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre, and Tiga & Joe's birthday party

January 31st

A tricky day today in terms of logistics. Its umuganda, and buses won’t be running after about 7.30 in the morning, so I get up early as if it’s a work day and by seven I’m on a little matata chugging down the main road to Butare. I reach Butare by nine, and book into the Ineza hotel. (I need to make sure I’ve got a room for tonight because if there are loads of people coming down for the party, rooms will get taken quickly, so that’s another good reason for getting down here as fast as possible).

By half past nine I’m sorted, and have the rest of the day to kill before Tiga’s party. Umuganda has started; the shops are shut and the roads are emptying fast. I drift up to the corner where the road to Gikongoro road leaves the main road and have to wait quite a while until a driver is willing to brave the enforcing police and take a busful up to Gikongoro. While loading, the bus is sneaked down the museum entrance drive so that it’s half hidden from the main road. The driver is adamant he’s not going to leave without a full load, and the bus is getting rank with everyone’s BO under a blazing hot sun.

Eventually we get to Gikongoro and I walk a mile or so down a leafy, shady lane to Murambi.

Murambi is one of a handful of most awful genocide sites in Rwanda. Around 50,000 people were slaughtered at one go in a frenzy of senseless murder. It took four days to kill them all. This was no senseless spontaneous act of recklessness, but calculated genocide.

Murambi was a brand new technical school, still under construction in 1994. It stands isolated on a hilltop with beautiful views in all directions. It seems an odd place to put a school – more than a mile from the town it serves and in the middle of nowhere. There were blocks of classrooms ready to use, and dormitory accommodation for the students.

In 1994 anywhere between 40,000 and 60,000 people - mainly Tutsis but also some Hutus – were assembled at the school site, supposedly for their own protection. But the interahamwe militia had other ideas and attacked them. Murambi is on a bare hilltop. If you attack it, there are no woods to hide in; no cover of any sort to help your escape. These people were caught like rats in a trap. Hand grenades were thrown through the windows, and the slaughter went on. And on, and on.

Now the school is an empty, eerie shell. Many blocks are roofless and windows gape empty. Part of it reminds me of the brick buildings at Auschwitz. At the entrance there is a shiny white reception centre with conference rooms and dormitory space for visiting school parties to sleep. The guide welcomes me and shows me round personally. One solitary Israeli youth is just finishing his visit; we exchange a few words, and then the whole place is mine.

The guide takes me to a classroom block. These rooms are roofed, windowed, and with locks on the doors. But nothing – nothing – prepares you for what’s behind the doors.

The classrooms are bare; walls are in grey plaster. Any traces of bloodstains, or shrapnel marks from grenades or bullets have been smoothed out. Inside the room, to the left and right of a central passageway, are white wooden benches about two feet high. These benches are covered with mummified bodies. Some are stacked on top of each other like firewood, but most are laid out singly. Each room has a small bouquet of flowers; again there are parallels to those in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

The bodies were covered in lime immediately after the event. While the flesh has rotted away, the skin is preserved. In some cases there are tufts of hair visible. Most have been buried naked, but except in very few cases it is impossible to tell whether they are male or female. About 60% of the bodies are children; some of them very young children. The skin is bleached white; the same colour as bone. A few bodies still have their clothes on them. One young boy is wearing his school shorts, exactly the same kind as I saw on the children at Kivumu yesterday. One woman has a long skirt. Someone else has a woollen sweater with the colours almost faded to oblivion but just about recognisable.

Most bodies have enormous gashes on their skulls. These people were killed with machete blows. It would have taken several hard blows to be sure of killing a fully grown adult. The ribs have sunken down to rest on the top of the spine giving each body a curious, comma-like shape. Many, many bodies, adults and children, have their arms raised in gestures of protection against the deadly rain of machete blows. Whether this is rigor mortis from the moment of death or an effect of the liming of the corpses, I don’t know. One or two adults are protecting their modesty; these were certainly naked when they were killed and very probably adult young women; you can draw your own conclusions as to why. Some skulls are cleaved entire in half; others have huge portions gone.

There is no smell of death or decay, just a curious musty odour. Scattered over the bodies are what appear to be huge mothballs; whether these are dehumidifiers or something to scare away vermin, I cannot say.

The whole thing is just unbelievable. It looks like the kind of scary set you’d expect from a sci-fi film or horror video. You have to remind yourself that this is for real.

I didn’t take any pictures.

At Auschwitz all you see are empty rooms. You know the statistics, and there are rooms with hair, clothes, suitcases etc, but the dead themselves are gone. You have to try to use your imagination. Here at Murambi the dead are still present. The whole experience is just so stark, so immediate, so close that it’s difficult to know how to react.

My guide takes me into four rooms, all similar, all covered in bodies. These are only a tiny fraction of the numbers who died here. After four rooms he asks me if I’ve seen enough. I have; and few people venture beyond these four rooms.

There is no attempt to sanitise the bodies; the effect is as if they have just been pulled from the ground in the last few days. There is nothing in writing; no display panels of information – nothing. The bodies do the talking themselves. Everybody who comes here knows what they’re coming to see, and the sheer starkness of the remains is amazingly powerful.

The guide leads me away across the school grounds, past birds singing and the rustle of wind through the grass, and into another building. Here they have preserved the clothes from bodies. Racks and racks and racks of clothes, of every colour. The clothes are rags – old, faded, filthy. They were worn by people who had been on the move for days, running from one unsafe temporary place of shelter to the next. Probably unable to wash or relax; always fearful that the next hour would bring their betrayal and death.

Then we move on to the second aspect of Murambi, and one which helps explain the terrible tenseness of French/Rwandan relations. Towards the end of the three month genocide the French intervened with a military force in an exercise called “Operation Turquoise”. The idea was to separate the warring sides; in particular to separate the Hutu army and militia from Kagame’s liberating forces. The French presumably came in with good intentions, but the effects were disastrous. By holding Kagame’s forces at bay for weeks, they allowed the interahamwe free reign to kill Tutsis inside the French held region; many thousands of people died who would almost certainly have been spared if Kagame’s army had been allowed to advance unchecked. The French were in effect supporting the existing Rwandan government, which became the losing side. History is written by the winners, so France became – and still is – the villain whose blundering intervention cost Rwandans dearly.

The French used Murami as a barracks. It is easy to see why. It is easily defendable by a group of soldiers, and a sneak attack on them would be extremely difficult. They used classrooms as dormitories; erected the tricolour in the middle of the school site, and used a level patch of ground as a volleyball court.

Except that the volleyball court is at very least adjacent to, if not actually on top of, enormous trenches filled with thousands of bodies. This act of using a mass grave as a recreation site continues to incense Rwandan feelings; they see it as deliberately insulting and insensitive, and proof that the French were biased in favour of the murderers and against the victims.

At the end of my visit I sign the visitors’ book and write a comment. What is there to say about such a place? I think of pictures of Palestinian bodies - especially children – in Gaza after the latest Israeli rampage and wonder if people will ever learn.

Few people visit Murambi; Hayley and her mum were here last week and there have only been about ten people since then.

I’m glad of a stiff walk uphill back to Gikongoro to distance myself from Murambi and come back to the land of the living. The sun is exceptionally strong. I’m feeling hungry, and in the middle of Gikongoro there’s a place which does brilliant brochettes and ibirayi. Umuganda has just finished, so I go in and enjoy a cold beer and listen to my iPod for an hour while they cook me some lunch. Unfortunately I underestimate the strength of the sun and get seriously burned before I think to get under cover.

Back in Butare I do some shopping, then go to the hotel and have a long siesta. The combination of beer and sun has given me a throbbing headache, not helped by a pounding bass line from the ubiquitous sound system in the hotel garden.

Soon there’s a collection of VSOs gathering up ready for the party, and we descend on Matar. Matar is Butare’s Lebanese supermarket with a café attached. It’s very popular with all the VSOs and we are on first name terms with the three brothers who run it. It’s rather like having your birthday party in Tesco’s canteen while the shop’s open for business, but funnily enough it works really well. There ends up over thirty of us, and we bring a lot of trade to the shop. You can imagine how bemused the Rwandans are to see such a massive number of muzungus all gathered in one shop; for the non-VSO whites who come in to do some shopping there’s simply amazement. (“Where the hell has this gang of muzungus descended from?” is written on their faces).

The party is a huge success. There are balloons on the walls, table decorations; cards to sign; Tiga and Joe have ordered jelly and ice cream for everyone and the shop has made an enormous birthday cake, complete with Roman candle fireworks. Ruairi is taking loads of pictures; I’ll try to get copies from him and post some.

After the party we cross the street to the Hotel Faucon and wait an hour or so until clubbing time. The nightclub is really for students at the national university, but after half an hour’s negotiation they agree to let us in, and at a student rate. I’m by far the oldest person with stamina to go clubbing (the sensible ones have all gone to bed); I’m not sure whether to say I’m a (very) mature student or that I’m one of the lecturers and the others are my class of students.

When we get inside, after all that haggling, there’s a distinct lack of music. There’s u/v light; there’s a disco ball; the bar’s in full swing. But no music (and very few other people besides ourselves). We give the manager more grief and he tells us the DJ has got problems with a virus on his computer which is preventing him from playing music. Ha ha – the dreaded Rwandan laxity with virus checkers has come home to roost. We say we’ll give him five minutes and then demand a refund and go somewhere else. Four minutes and fifty nine seconds later the sound system burst into life. We dance like crazy until half past one, when we decide we’ve all had enough. Now at Cadillac in Kigali you seem some pretty good dancing, but these young students are just out of this world. The men as well as the women. We gradually move away from the centre of the dance floor and keep to a dark-ish corner, boogying away but with one eye on the impressive contortions these Rwanda are doing in time to the music.

After the heat of the day, the night air is cool. My room seems free of mosquitoes so I dispense with a net and keep a can of Deet by my bed, just in case.

Best thing about today - ???? It’s not been an experience that you could describe in terms of good or bad. But both parts of the day – Murambi and the party – have been thoroughly worthwhile.

No comments: