After leaving Kampala last week, we headed to Mbarara in Western Uganda for two nights. While we were there we went to visit the Nakevale Refugee Camp, which is home to about 50,000 people from all over Africa and the world at large who have been displaced from their countries of origin. It was a strange situation to go into; I felt a little bit like we were going to a zoo, just to observe how people lived in such situations. Our program directors warned us that the people in the camp may very well be bitter and somewhat aggressive towards us for just this reason–I know I wouldn’t want 13 foreigners coming to see how ‘terrible’ my life is. However, while it was awkward at times, it actually ended up being a really valuable experience.
We were split into two discussion groups: one group spoke with Rwandan refugees, while the group I was in spoke with refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There ended up being about 25 people of all different ages speaking with us. For the most part, we had to use a translator because they spoke either Kinyrwanda, French, or Swahili, but we still managed to have a relatively productive conversation.
We learned about the various reasons why people were displaced from the DRC. Their stories were quite graphic and saddening at times, and the fact that they now were forced to spend their lives in the refugee camp only made it harder for us to hear. It was also difficult when they started asking us questions, because we had no way of answering them that would not sound ignorant or patronizing. One of the main issues that came up was why the U.S. had recently agreed to take 5,000 Somalian refugees, but was not extending the offer to any members of the other countries which were represented in the camp. We often get asked questions like this, where people seem to assume that we have some sort of huge pull over the U.S. government, or sometimes even over the Ugandan government.
We were also posed this question by a young man: “Many of us were in school when we were forced to leave the DRC, but now that we are in the camp, there are hardly any classes taught in French, and the ones that are are overcrowded and expensive once we get past primary school. What advice do you have to those of us who wish to continue our education?” There was really nothing we could offer.
The next day, we made our way to Rwanda: the land of a thousand hills. That might be an underestimation. It really is a beautiful country. We spent Sunday exploring kigali–which is HUGE by the way and incredibly clean and organized–and went on a hike up a eucalyptus-covered hill which had some spectacular views of the city and the valley.
It turned out to be good that we spent the weekend relaxing, because Monday was anything but that. We visited three genocide memorial sites which got increasingly more and more draining.
The first site we visited was the national memorial museum in Kigali. It was a walk-through type of exhibit with informational posters, photos, and video interviews with survivors telling stories of the genocide. There was also a room full of photos which family members had brought in to memorialize their loved ones.
The upper level of the exhibit was dedicated to the children who had been killed, which was heartbreaking. In the genocide, children were not merely seen as collateral damage, but rather they were specifically targeted by the Hutu militia in an attempt to wipe out all future generations of Tutsis. The exhibit consisted of large pictures of children who had been murdered, with placques beneath which gave small pieces of information about the child pictured such as: ‘name’, ‘age at death’, ‘favorite food’, ‘favorite toy’, and ’cause of death.’ As I’m sure you can imagine, it was incredibly difficult to get through the entire exhibit.
Unfortunately, walking outside did not offer the kind of relief I was hoping for afterwards, because the exhibit opens up into the gardens, which are actually the site of a mass grave. There were a few demarcations which indicated that the ground was actually a grave, not just a park, but I don’t think anything could have really conveyed the number of people which were buried there–I’m not sure the people in charge of the memorial even knew the exact number.
But the day wasn’t over yet, we still had two more sites to visit.
First, we went to the Nyamata memorial site, which was formerly a Catholic church. The building, and the surrounding area, was the place where 11,000 people made a final effort to fight back the Hutu militia, ultimately costing them their lives. We stood outside the church for a few minutes, listening to our guide tell us the history. I know people always talk about how, in places where such atrocities have occurred, the air feels heavier and there is just a general feeling of uneasiness. I always believed people when they told me that, but I still never expected to experience it so acutely. I felt lightheaded and anxious even just standing outside the building, and I think I would have been able to feel it even if I hadn’t known what had happened inside–there was a clear sadness present in the area.
After our guide showed us the marks in the gate and the ground where the Hutu militia had used grenades to blast into the building, he took us inside. There were several rows of low benches that used to serve as pews, which are now covered in heaps of clothing belonging to the people who died there. The clothes had clearly been undisturbed for years, with layers of dust and cobwebs covering them. The rest of the church remained untouched as well–the priest’s table still had a white cloth covering it, except the cloth is now stained with blood. There was a small display on the table which contained some personal items from the victims, as well as the instruments which had been used to kill them: machetes, hoes, bullets, etc. No one spoke except for our guide while we wandered through the pews.
Once again, walking outside offered little respite, in fact it was quite the opposite. As we walked around to the back of the church we found that here, too, like at the first site, there was a mass grave. The difference here being that it was actually more of a catacomb which you could walk down into, like a cellar. Once underground, we found ourselves in an extremely confined space, with barely enough room to turn around. If that wasn’t bad enough for the claustrophobes amongst us (luckily I’m not one of them, although this experience definitely challenged that) we were not surrounded merely by coffins or commemorative placques, but rather by shelves and shelves of skulls and bones. There were hundreds of them, and they weren’t behind any sort of protective glass, we were face to face with them. Our guide told us that the Rwandans had decided to leave it this way so that people like us could come and see the evidence of the genocide–so that no one could deny the fact that so many people had been killed. You could even tell by looking at the skulls if the person had died from a bullet, bludgeoning, or a machete.
After recovering slightly, we loaded onto the bus again to head to yet another site. This second church had a similar history, being the place where 5,000 people hid for shelter. Inside there were more piles of clothes, and also some supplies like mattresses and jerrycans which people had brought, hoping that they would be able to live out the attack. One of the most disturbing parts, for me at least, was seeing items like digital watches and ballpoint pens. It is a really stark reminder of how recently this tragedy occurred when you find yourself looking at items that could have belonged to you, and aren’t merely something of an era long gone. There were also more shelves of bones and a few coffins. At the front of the room there was a coffin draped in a cloth which had a phrase our guide translated for us sewn onto it: “If you really knew me, and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.”
We were brought to two small adjacent buildings. The first one had piles of school books which the children had brought, hoping to keep up with their studies while they waited out the attack. The second building was perhaps the most difficult out of any we visited that day. It was formerly used for Sunday school classes, but during the raid it is where all the small children were put in an attempt to keep them safe, since it is located behind the main building. However, these attempts were in vain, and the Hutu militia reached the building with little effort. Our guide directed our gaze to a far wall with a large, dark stain on it, and informed us that that is where the soldiers had flung the children one by one to kill them.
Of course, on top of all of this, yesterday was Halloween. We all obviously have a lot of processing to do (which is the main reason for why this post is so long), so I’m sorry to leave it on such a depressing note, but hopefully (if you’ve made it this far) you at least found this post somehow enlightening. I knew what I was getting myself into with this program, and I am glad that I get to have these experiences…they’re definitely things which I would never experience back home in New Hampshire, which makes them all the more valuable.