The Rutsiro site is located in Western Province. Click on the image for a slideshow of photographs. All photographs © 2002-2008 Jens Meierhenrich.

At the crossroads in the town of Rutsiro there is a statue of the Virgin Mary, hands in the classic position of prayer, sheltered by a little stucco overhang gleaming white in broad daylight. The presentation is so eye-catchingly assertive at this fork in the road that it is easy to assume the structure marks a genocide memorial. But it isn‘t. It is an ordinary devotional monument as might be seen anywhere beside any other road—in an Italian hill town, for instance, if this were Italy rather than Rwanda.

At this crossroads, cars turning right arrive within five minutes at a low brick building of some four empty rooms next to the police station. Neglected and doorless, this is the Rutsiro memorial, a former youth center and crafts school to which Tutsi fled in 1994 hoping to survive. As you walk toward the building from the main entrance, you pass on your right a mass grave. This particular mass grave consists of a headstone and six slabs of concrete arranged into a rectangular resting place. Buried beneath, in four coffins, are the remains of victims whose lives were extinguished in the genocide now fifteen years old. Most of these victims died elsewhere in the district, including in the parish nearby, but were brought to Rutsiro for a proper burial and safekeeping. Safekeeping is assured, according to a corporal who patrols the neighborhood and is clad in the blue uniform of Rwanda‘s police, because the district memorial was strategically erected not only right next to the police station, but also in the immediate vicinity of the local bank, the district office, and the courthouse.

The memorial is in questionable condition, though. “It is not like a memorial,” says one man flatly. The paint on the headstone is chipped and has evidently been peeling for a while. At least we can make out that this is the district memorial, which means that at some point, some money should have been poured into the construction of this formal site of remembrance. Most informal memorials receive no such offerings. And yet, the Rutsiro memorial has seen better days. The slabs of concrete sealing the crypt have multiple cracks, inviting water damage during Rwanda‘s two annual rainy seasons. Weeds have also sprung up and cobblestones once used to consolidate and beautify the perimeter around the grave lie undone and disheveled.

Victims who were massacred in the youth and craft center found their final resting place right where they were discovered. Bones and skulls and anything else that remained of relatives and loved ones were interred in the immediate aftermath of the genocide, in all of the building‘s four rooms and with no coffins to spare. Bare dirt indicates their graves. What exactly happened during the genocide, here at the heart of Rutsiro district?

As early as 1990, and particularly after 1992, Tutsi in the vicinity became victims of harassment and murder. In early April 1994, when the situation became considerably more urgent, people are said to have come here from two neighboring communes, Kayove and Mabanza, seeking protection. Instead of offering protection, the local burgomaster is believed to have called the préfet of what was then Kibuye prefecture on account of the fact that his own police force was too small—too small to kill all the Tutsi that had congregated in the former youth center and crafts school. The préfet, in turn, allegedly dispatched the gendarmerie, which, joined by local villagers armed with spears and other “traditional” weapons, came and attacked the people, using guns and machetes in the artisan house sometime between April 11 and 13, 1994.

“Whenever anyone fled from that building, villagers would sound an alarm,” one man recalls. Pepper spray was also utilized in an effort to torment the wounded; those who sneezed in response were immediately set upon. The roof was shelled so heavily that it crashed on top of the people trapped inside, crushing many. In the back, there is a man-size hole in the outer wall of the building that has been patched up with bricks. According to the corporal, the hole had been blasted with a grenade in 1994 so the Hutu perpetrators on the outside could continue the killing on the inside. Incidentally, this tactic was employed widely during the genocide and few churches or administrative buildings in the country remained intact. At this site, the number of dead is estimated at between 400 and 450. No one trapped inside the former youth center and crafts school survived.

Today, as for the sorry condition of the memorial, we are told by a local resident, “Normally donors are not interested in the past, but rather rush to put money into the environment, women‘s issues, water—these things are all good, but they don‘t help survivors. The people who would be raising their voices are all dead. The intelligent and the educated were all killed.”

Cars turning left at the Virgin Mary travel a smooth, paved road into pleasant-seeming countryside, all vibrant lime-green and steep rolling hills. Any car electing to turn off onto a dirt road at a wooden sign for Nyamagumba is soon slowed to the pace of a stagger, however, as the driver navigates forward despite deep ruts, and as the car is scraped from above and on its flanks by sharp overhanging branches. A car wash without the wash. For fifteen minutes of this tunnel of foliage, it is already dusk.

Jean (not his real name), who has told us about Rutsiro and is guiding us to Nyamagumba, a hillside memorial in the countryside, says the Virgin Mary monument we noticed earlier used to be the site of a roadblock. “That roadblock was erected in 1990 to get people who were thought to be Inkotanyi [members of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front]. In 1994 they [Hutu perpetrators] stopped all Tutsis, and would check our IDs.” Eighty people were killed there, he estimates. These days, “survivors always glance below the road because that is where people were thrown.” Survivors don‘t like to go by there at night, he adds.

It sounds like a mistranslation, this glancing below the road, but we do not press it. He could mean that survivors glance into the nearby ditches. That would make sense. Or, that they glance down onto the road itself, as if new, smooth pavement is covering some terrible happenings of the past. Both meanings could be true.

Then the car halts: a large tree is sprawled across our path. The tree trunk‘s angle, perpendicular, seems unnatural, as if the tree had been deliberately felled in order to discourage further passage on this way. Our group disembarks and stands around the tree staring, not yet in gear to muster a team effort, intimidated by the thorns and shiny congealed sap, not sure in which direction to move the tree or even confident it can be budged at all. We yank helplessly at a thick branch. Before anyone forms a coherent sentence, Jean, unsmiling, reaches down with both hands and grabs the top of the fallen tree, hoisting it up and then shoving the entire obstruction aside as if opening a stubborn gate. The rest of our group can only briskly step away and let him do it.

Onward, we enter a quiet field on a hillside and realize there is still daylight left. This memorial site, Nyamagumba, now surrounded by a chain link fence, was a battle scene on April 13, 1994. (Then called Gutura, it has subsequently been renamed Nyamagumba in homage to a battle site of the RPF near Ruhengeri, in the far north of Rwanda.) According to Jean, around 15,000 people were killed, though some tried in vain to defend themselves by hurling rocks at their attackers. “All the Tutsi” from Rutsiro, Kayove, and Mabanza converged on this hill, within sight of the parish Paroisse Zaire-Nil on the other side of the valley.

“So here you see where the foundation of a small school used to be.” We wander along the perimeter. “These are graves. [...] This is where people were buried. [...] You can see on this grave that there is a hole next to it, so probably dogs were trying to get at the bodies. [...] We have to repair this fence on a regular basis because cows force their way through in order to graze. [...] You can see some of the original trees here. The flowers are new.” There is nobody around.

Asked how he survived the genocide, Jean explains that he swam across Lake Kivu from island to island before arriving at Ijwi Island and fleeing by boat to the mainland of Zaire today‘s Democratic Republic of Congo. Though the journey sounds extraordinary, fantastical, he says that actually 470 people escaped in this way by swimming. “We got the lake by accident. We thought, let‘s go die by drowning rather than be killed. Women and children also swam.”

“I swam on April 14th. My wife was Hutu. Our eight children were killed. My wife lived.” It is better not to ask how and where the children were killed. Instead we ask, “Do you have any photographs of them?” “No,” Jean answers, “everything was burned. Nothing remained. I have no photos left.”

Back on the main, paved road, night has truly fallen and everything is pitch black except for the beams cast by the Isuzu‘s headlights. Still accompanying our group, Jean urges us to continue back to the Virgin Mary crossroads, to the former roadblock invisible except in memory. As we get out of our car we hear voices in the darkness, and some random laughter. A few lights are weakly visible further ahead, and all around are the sounds of busyness: people crossing paths, biding time, chatting, on their way to or from somewhere in Rutsiro town, probably laden down with bags and foodstuffs. They know their way in the dark. Jean does, too.

There is nothing to see at this place. The Virgin Mary monument, so vivid in daytime, is just a wall of darkness, and in any case Jean walks rapidly to the other side of the road, on this left-hand stem that goes to Nyamagumba. He tells our colleague George to get out our camera and turn on the flash to take a picture of him—Jean—and I standing side by side here. George obliges, though we all must know this little flash camera puncturing the darkness can‘t possibly be recording any viable images. Jean faces it straight on anyway. We can‘t see his expression. Then George is directed to hurry over beside us and our interpreter takes more photos with the flash.

It is impossible to look below the road for what survivors see: in daylight there is nothing, and at night there is really nothing. People continue talking, laughing, surely noticing the flashbulb lighting up the pitch-blackness for some brief seconds. But it‘s hopeless— it‘s just too dark. The photos have been snapped and Jean‘s return here captured, but even so there is nothing to see.

Copyright © 2010 Jens Meierhenrich. All rights reserved.