The Murambi memorial site is located in Southern Province. Click on the image for a slideshow of photographs. All photographs © 2002-2008 Jens Meierhenrich except photographs 5-7 © Kigali Memorial Centre.

“The genocide must live on,” insists Tito Rutaremara, the éminence gris of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF. A founding father of the RPF and the Rwandan government‘s current Ombudsman, Rutaremara once dubbed himself the “resident philosopher” of the Tutsi organization on account of having spent much of his life as a “Left Bank intellectual” in French exile. Today, fifteen years after the 1994 genocide, the lanky, six-feet-tall Rutaremara, who is generally soft spoken and charming, vigorously defends the very graphic display of skulls and bones and hundreds of contorted skeletons at the partially completed Murambi Memorial Centre in southern Rwanda.

According to Rutaremara, the bodily remains—which nowhere else in the country are shown as graphically as in Murambi—are indispensable to the memorialization of the atrocities of 1994 because, as he puts it, the genocide must not be forgotten. On this view, absent the prominent display of artifacts of death, the countryside will see a resurgence of “genocidal ideology”—a fighting term recently introduced into the country‘s political discourse. Or, as one of the caretakers at the Murambi Memorial Centre puts it, “Sometimes, when you tell people that there was genocide in Rwanda, they don‘t want to accept it. It‘s better to be able to show the bones to those who are disbelievers.”

Of Rwanda‘s handful of “national” genocide memorials—memorials administered under the auspices of the National Museum of Rwanda in Butare—the Murambi Memorial Centre is, aside perhaps from the Kigali Memorial Centre, the most internationally minded. Judging by the layout and the (as of yet unopened) exhibition, its principal target audience is beyond doubt international. This outward orientation can be explained with reference to, among other things, the controversial role that the international community, as represented in this case by France, played during the genocide in the former préfecture of Gikongoro, where the Murambi Memorial Centre is located on a sprawling hillside.

What exactly happened at Murambi in 1994? When the genocidal campaign arrived in the region, and the killings began, Tutsi fled to the bishopric in Gikongoro. Once there, however, the local authorities as well as the Bishop insisted that they head to the unfinished technical school in Murambi. There, or so they were told, they would benefit from French protection. In the second week of the genocide, therefore, on April 16, 1994, an estimated 65,000 Tutsi fled from one ostensible safe haven to another, from church to school. Once there, their situation deteriorated, however. The water and electricity supply was cut off. And the thousands of internally displaced were also languishing without food. For a period of five days, the thousands of Tutsi holed up in the buildings of the technical school were repeatedly subject to scattered attacks by bands of roving thugs. Many died in this first wave of massacres, but the targeted Tutsi managed to defend their positions.

Apparently involved in the orchestration of the Murambi massacres of April 1994 was Emmanuel Nteziryayo, a former bourgmestre, or mayor, in the area (in what was then Mudasomwa commune). Nteziryayo reportedly ranks as Number 71 on the Rwandan government‘s list of the “100 most wanted” genocide suspects. Rakiya Omaar, of the London-based, non-governmental organization African Rights, observed that in over a decade‘s worth of research in post-genocide Rwanda her organization had not come across an individual “with as much blood on his hands.”

Although the exact circumstances of the planning and administration of the Murambi massacres remain somewhat nebulous, Nteziryayo, among other things, is said to have led, on the night of April 21, Interahamwe militia to the dozen or so buildings of the Murambi technical school with the intent to destroy the thousands of Tutsi who had come in the days prior from neighboring communities to seek refuge there. Here is one survivor‘s voice that is featured on Murambi memorial website: “My name is Emmanuel Mugenzira. I was born here in 1957 in Gikongoro, in the district of Nyamigabe. My family died here at the Murambi memorial site—my wife, my five kids, two boys and three girls—they all died here. The oldest was only 13. [...]

“On 8 April [1994], we ran to take refuge in the parish of Gikongoro where we lived. By 16 April, a lot of people had gathered there and some were outside, getting rained on. Mayor Laurent Ukibaruta of our province, Capt. Seduhura, Mayor Semakwavu of our district and the director of the tea plantation in Mata, Mr. Kamodoka, held a meeting with all the mayors and councilors and they told us to go to the school in Murambi. We did this and arrived on 16 April. Life there was hard because they had cut the water pipe. They gave us four gendarmes for protection, but from 17 April [onward] we never saw them again. Instead, we started getting attacked on 18 April.”

Continues Mr. Mugenzira: “We fought against the attackers using stones and many people died during the battle. We were using stones, they had guns, but eventually they left because they couldn‘t handle us. On 19 and 20 April, we were fighting against those who were trying to infiltrate. Then on 21 April, at 3 a.m., a truck arrived, full of militia and soldiers. They offloaded at the roadblock, surrounded the area and started shooting. Those who attempted to escape were shot. That continued. I got shot in the head; I was undressed and left there because they thought I was dead. After they left, I made my way to Nzega forest nearby. Next day, they brought tractors to bury the people and they killed whoever was not dead by then.”

How many Tutsi were killed in the Murambi complex is open to dispute. As the late Alison Des Forges wrote, “Current Rwanda government sources speak of 50,000 slain at Murambi, a toll difficult to reconcile with the numbers of bodies exhumed, even assuming that there are graves yet to be opened and that not all victims were buried.”

In 2005, on the eleventh anniversary of the genocide, President Paul Kagame attended a commemorative ceremony at Murambi together with several thousand Rwandans, most of them survivors, who had come to pay their respects. The memorialization of the Murambi site had already begun earlier, on the occasion of the second anniversary of the genocide, when the mass graves in the vicinity of the technical school were opened, the remains of some 5,000 victims exhumed, and hundreds of intact skeletons (many frozen in the positions in which they met their gruesome fates) laid out in dozens of the school‘s classrooms. The skeletons on display were part of bodily remains not claimed by relatives. In other words, the year 1996 marked the beginning of the “shock and awe” approach to memorialization at Murambi. At the time, then-Minister of Education Joseph Nsengimana put it thus, “We are refusing to bury our dead. Some people say the genocide never took place here, they say we exaggerate. These corpses will stay in this school as a testimony to the genocide.” Or, as Tito Rutaremara put it, “The genocide must live on.”

Copyright © 2010 Jens Meierhenrich. All rights reserved.