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Kigali Travel

Ntarama Memorial

Here I am, seated next to a Burundian who is new on this route and only knows where he is getting off, a bus that is really moving, an undecided battle between the rain and sunshine outside, and a racing heart…

Raindrops on my phone’s screen. I’m trying to load GPS on Maps and get a hang of where I am. Seated in the half-past noon bus still waiting to fill up at Nyanza-Kicukiro Taxi Park, I’d pushed the window half-open due to the heat. Now the gap is letting in water, how fast nature shows its varying nature? 

Outside, the sun is still shining, making it harder to make out the discontinuous stream of water falling from above; plus, we are in motion. The road is mostly straight, which is quite strange, seeing as having spent six weeks touring this land, I can almost count on one hand the sections of road that I’ve been through which prove to be straight for more than a kilometer.

This here is a road heading to Nyamata in the Eastern Province, but surprisingly it is heading south out of Kigali, like we are running away to Burundi. And in a sense we are, because the bus is really hastily moving through the sparse raindrops, the engine revving, possibly maxed out at the 60km/h speed limit, and next to me is seated a Burundian.

There’s tension now building up inside me. I knew I’d be travelling to Ntarama to have a look at the Genocide Memorial, but unlike all my other escapades, I hadn’t bothered to check up on it on Maps. Seated here, now, I feel as though the bus is moving too fast and where I’m meant to get off isn’t the final stop, it’s probably closer. I decide to call my LCVP (Local Chapter Vice President) back in Musanze and halfway through our catching up, the connection begins to break. We try to get what each of us is trying to say, mine being a more urgent plea for direction, but the call coldly drops…

Here I am, seated next to a Burundian who is new on this route and only knows where he is getting off, a bus that is really moving, an undecided battle between the rain and sunshine outside, and a racing heart…

Maps saves me though. A road is mapped out heading west from this main road from a shopping centre a few kilometers ahead. But is there a bus stop there? I decide to tap the fellow seated in front of me, and I ask him about the memorial, and pleasantly smiling he says he is also getting off there. And there, is just fifty seconds away, something I gather when he taps the window with a RWF100 coin and stands, making to leave.

A moto taxi from Kayumba (the shopping centre) through a fine dusty road is RWF500, while a bicycle ride goes at RWF400. The helpful gentleman is surprised that I opt for the bicycle ride asking repeatedly:

“You sure is not a problem?”

“Yes I am sure. This will be interesting…”

Six weeks in and I had only once ridden on the comfortable-looking back seat of the ubiquitous small-town bicycles. I knew I wouldn’t be back to a small town here in Rwanda, with only a few days left on my project clock. So why not take it, and why not bargain while at it?

I hear him negotiate with the boyish-looking rider down to three hundred and orders me to get on. I seem to recall his name being similar to a Kenyan coastal community one, and I tell him as much. He acknowledges. Maybe he has Kenyan roots? I may never know because once I wave and the bicycle gets onto the road, he disappears into a shop.

The road to Ntarama is properly dusty at this time. The ‘rain’ does not seem to have fallen here. It’s the dry season in Rwanda, it has been since I got here, with Kigali sweltering at 25°C by 10:00 am. 

A truck filled with sugarcane zooms past, leaving us moving through dusty air, most of the brown particles finding their rest on my khaki pants and messenger bag. But save for the truck, it’s quiet. I can hear the cyclist breathing as he puts in extra effort on the ascent; the creaking of the bicycle parts probably a result of the numerous trips back and forth along this dusty path; village children playing a bit off the road, their mothers’ staring at the cyclist and myself (possibly because I am the only one wearing white among the people in this scene). 

The hills here are less steep, almost like a gentle slope. They span a long distance and are covered by fewer trees. I think that’s why long straight roads are possible here. They bring an almost plateau-like scene to the eye.

Ntarama is a tiny church standing along the slope of a gentle hill. It has quite an expansive compound that when I arrived was undergoing renovations. This is the only Memorial where they allow you to take pictures, which was honestly a welcome relief. The church, vestry, kitchen and Sunday school have now been covered by protective shades in an effort to preserve the site in perpetuity.

There’s much horror that’s spoken of here. The people who met with their end had been driven out of their homes by Ntarama interahamwe, holding out hope of a safe haven within the church premises because during previous violent episodes, religious sites had been respected by the attackers. This had worked to lure the Tutsi of Ntarama into the compound, where a census was undertaken. On completion of the count, they told the Tutsis that they wanted them to stay together so that the government could guarantee their security. This was a strategy consistent with actions taken in other places across Rwanda and was intended to draw out and bring together those in hiding.

Two days later machine guns and grenades were all that could be heard here. Children were flung onto walls, their heads bashed in (dried out blood smudges are still visible at the scene), some were cut up by machetes, some set ablaze in the kitchen, others raped with thick wooden logs…

It is like a moment frozen in time. 

Everything is still there, almost all in place. The wooden pews the community people would sit on during mass; the hymn books in the vestry with bookmarks of the last responsorial psalm still in place; the children’s writing on the Sunday school blackboards, their young minds learning the tenets; and the blood on the walls after their young skulls were bashed in; their tiny dirty clothes, clothes that clung onto their frames until there was nothing but bone they could hold on to.

A hymn book in the vestry.

Urumuri Rutazima (Kwibuka Flame) has its stand placed in front of the church. The flame symbolizes memories, courage and resilience of Rwandans and of victims of the genocide over the past twenty years. This single burning torch is carried around the country as it lights other lamps at each community stop, travelling through Rwanda’s thirty districts. 

The Church of Ntarama was turned into a genocide memorial site to remember the 5,000 people who lost their lives there. This site is of particular national significance and the human remains, clothing and artefacts taken by those killed in the church remain on display at the site.  I found a project to preserve the site in perpetuity being undertaken.

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