“They cut my brother with a machete. He was bleeding everywhere. He came to me, and said, ‘You are so very young,’ – I was eight – ‘I am going to die. Take my blood and put it on your face and all over your body so they will take you for dead. Lie underneath my dead body. Pretend you are dead.’ So I did.”
Charles spoke with little emotion as he stood in the church where all of his family and friends were murdered in the first few days of the 1994 genocide. When the genocide began, thousands of Tutsis took refuge in the church. In 1992, during some smaller scale killings, the Tutsis saved themselves by hiding in the church. They thought they would be safe there again.
Pointing to a small hole underneath a pew Charles said, “I hid my head in here, and the rest of my body under my brother. I also hid a small baby whose mother had been killed. Everything was very chaotic. There was so much killing and screaming and pain, but I remember his mother dying very clearly. She put the baby with me and when she walked away, an Interhamwe chopped off her head with one whack of his machete. Her head rolled on the floor. I have flashbacks to this very often.”
Charles’ story – and the Nyamata Church – was one of the most difficult and graphic stories I have heard since I arrived in Rwanda. While many survivors have shared their stories, none have done so with such vivid imagery, in the exact location where the killings took place.
Charles’ facial expressions did not change as he calmly explained that the Interhamwe began by killing everyone outside of the church first, and then started on those inside with grenades. When they blew open the doors, they chopped off arms and used them to wave goodbye to the other Tutsis, telling them that this was their fate as well. Children were separated from their parents and thrown against walls. Heads were tossed into the crowd as the Interhamwe instructed their captives to play soccer with their neighbor’s faces. Babies were ripped from their mother’s stomachs so that the mothers were forced to watch their unborn children be killed before they too met the same fate.
I couldn’t help but reflect on what I learned while working at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to be the “appropriate way to memorialize victims of genocide.” The Museum uses privacy walls to ensure that gruesome photos are only seen by those who choose to view them, and these scenes are quite limited in number. The emphasis is on the individual and his or her story, with the hope that people are remembered for who they were, not as simply another number in a calculated mass killing.
In Nyamata, the church benches are littered with victims’ clothing, decaying from blood and time. The ceiling is full of holes and bloodstains, remnants of the lives destroyed by the Interhamwe’s grenades. Below and behind the church, skulls and bones line the walls; coffins of the few identified bodies occupy the remaining space.
Charles survived because his dying brother shared his blood. “The blood smelled very bad. And after four days of hiding, the smell of decaying bodies was unbearable. But I had no choice.” He escaped into the swamps where he hid for four weeks until rescued by RPF soldiers. Five others (out of thousands) from the church survived, one of which is the baby Charles hid; today the two are very close friends. “While I don’t suffer from trauma, it is very difficult to have no family. I am most sad when I remember my brothers, my twin brother and my brother who used his blood to save me. I really miss them.”
I can’t help but wonder how and why Charles gives these tours through his family’s graveyard. “For me, I have no trauma,” he tells me. “I am lucky. I barely even cry. But I like to tell my story. I know you have come a long way to hear it and I hope that you will share it with everyone. Please tell them to visit to hear my story. This way, if we keep talking, and if we keep telling our story, it will not happen again.”
Posted By Lisa Rogoff
Posted Jul 16th, 2009