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Rwanda Massacre Sites Now Grim Memorials

But some say the past should stay buried

By Lara SantoroSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 4, 1997



GIKONGORO, RWANDA

In what was once a school gym, teams of forensic experts are working to preserve the remains of thousands of Rwandan Tutsis murdered by Hutus in April 1994.

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In a tribute to memory sharply reminiscent of the work done by Holocaust survivors after World War II, the Gikongoro school compound in southern Rwanda is being turned into a memorial to the estimated 25,000 ethnic Tutsis herded there by local Hutu authorities and systematically killed over the course of three days. The murders were part of the genocide perpetrated by radical Hutus, which resulted in the deaths of at least 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

With its thousands of bodies laid out in former classrooms, the compound is a jarring, even repulsive sight. And it is only one of many.

In a laborious, painstaking process, the Tutsi-dominated government in Rwanda currently is disinterring hundreds of thousands of bodies from mass graves around the country and laying them out in piles for the public to see - and remember.

"We needed to preserve the remains of genocide so that people would not forget. It is fair to those who died and to those who remain," Gen. Paul Kagame, Rwanda's vice president and defense minister, said during a press conference late last month in Kigali, the capital.

Such public displays have upset some relatives of the victims, who have repeatedly asked for the bodies of their loved ones to be returned for a proper burial. "Some feel that this is no way to respect the dead," says an aid worker with the United Nations refugee agency in Kigali.

Asked whether the exhumation of genocide victims could reasonably be viewed as a healthy process or one conducive to national reconciliation, General Kagame said, "We have to prevent this from happening again in the future. We want to teach a lesson explaining that what happened was not an accident of history; it was a premeditated, deliberate attempt at genocide."

Part of what the government is trying to do is obtain a head count of victims of the 1994 genocide. International organizations estimate their number at 500,000. The Rwandan government claims the real figure is at least twice that high.

What happened in Gikongoro three years ago provides a measure of the trauma Rwanda experienced. What is happening today gives a sense of how difficult it is for the country to move on.

According to Gilbert Rwampungu, the chief of police for the Gikongoro prefecture, the area's 50,000 Tutsis were advised to gather at the school "for their own protection" on April 7, 1994, the day after a plane carrying the Hutu presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down over Kigali.

"Those who followed the advice, about 25,000, were killed between April 20 and April 23 by the same people who were supposed to protect them," Mr. Rwampungu says. "The Hutus came in with guns, grenades, and machetes and killed them all."

Gikongoro is less than 8 miles from the border with Burundi. According to Rwampungu, those who made a run for the border survived. "The authorities at the time were afraid that many Tutsis would head for the border, and so they herded them into the school to kill them. Most of them were simple peasants who had no idea where to go," Rwampungu says.

Many of those who have visited the memorial in Gikongoro say they think the figures given by attendants are exaggerated.

"We think there can't be more than six or seven thousand bodies laid out in the classrooms," says Capt. Peter Sennett, a United States Marine who first visited the compound last year. Still, the undisputable truth is that most of the Tutsi population in the 13 districts around Gikongoro has been wiped out.

In the hills around the compound, Hutu refugees who returned to the area in November from the former Zaire after fleeing its Tutsi-dominated rebels - who have since taken over the country and renamed it Congo - refuse to talk about "the events," as Rwandans refer to the genocide.

Asked whether she was not afraid of coming back to live among Tutsis, a Hutu woman dropped her jaw in astonishment.

"What Tutsis?" she asked. "There are no more Tutsis left."