Our day trip to Butare on Thursday [the 23rd] began with a museum visit. It was essentially African natural history plus some pre-colonial and colonial Rwandan culture. We had lunch at the best buffet we’ve eaten at yet [Rwandans are all about buffets] and met Jackson’s sister, Providence. We had long-anticipated soft serve at Inzozi Nziza, a women’s co-op started by the first Rwandan all-female drumming group and Brooklyn’s Blue Marble Ice Cream, then made the bumpy, dusty, 45-minute trip to Murambi.
The former technical school that stands now as the country’s most powerful genocide memorial is located on the very top of a tall, open hill. There are no trees, and we walked the empty expanse in silence, through the gate, passing a nearly-gone brick shell of a building. It was chilly, with wind, and every hill within earshot was totally quiet.
After a moment of silence at a mass grave, we headed to the back yard after reading a small sign informing us that the state of the grounds has not been changed since 1994.
The yard is full of dark brick buildings, clearly abandoned because our group was the only living, breathing population left on the planet as far as we were concerned. We were directed into the farthest building by our guide. They were classrooms, eight of them in a row, I think. We walked in.
The rooms smell like honey, not death, and I probably would have preferred to smell rot. Sweetness was so unexpected, and my gag reflex attempted multiple times to deal with the shock.
These rooms are filled with bodies, preserved in part by the heat created by the mass graves they were thrown into and in part as a result of the limestone deposits found all over the hill. Many are crushed flat, especially the children, others have holes in their skulls, missing limbs, mummified tissues pulling away from bones, and some mouths are held open and contorted in rigor mortis. There are no glass display cases at Murambi.
I walked to the back of every last room, feeling the importance of being faced by every person in every space, abandoning the safety of proximity to the open door. I remember noting that the hair, still patchy across some of the skulls, looked like steel wool. That thought made it harder to fathom that these people were once very much alive, so I tried to put it out of my head.
In some rooms, bodies laid on their sides [or so broken that arms just twisted this way] there were fingers reaching into the walkway toward my skirt. One extended digit met mine, swinging at my side, and thanks to my God-damned OCD, I rubbed the side of my right pointer finger raw trying to get rid of the acute sense of exactly which nerves of my body felt the dead nothingness of the other.
After two narrow buildings, entering and exiting, twice crying with my face to the back wall, we were shown the place where the French flag stood during Operation Turquoise. More than 50,000 people died at Murambi because they were told it would be a safe place. Instead, between 3 and 11 a.m., with a weak but determined resistance having mounted and failed, they were slaughtered. Now we are brought there to remember and to be shown the place where French soldiers played volleyball during the massacre.
[I worry that there is similar complacency happening elsewhere, anywhere, where people with power stand by and ignore bodies being piled around them. I can’t imagine being able to stand it. Murambi is a horror movie.]