Rwanda 25 years ago

Lest we forget: 25 years ago a genocidal massacre in Rwanda started. Nearly a million killed in 100 days. Here is what it was like, a couple months after it ended, at one killing site. A church and school in Zaza in south-east Rwanda.

arriving zaza 25-sep-1994 photo d stewartI know that we’re going to see a well…

We get to the wells, They’re side by side. You can stand right on the lip of the well, if you’re brave enough.

‘Please remember, don’t cross over the slab. And don’t fall in! Please!’

We have some soldiers with us. Airborne guys from one Grizzly that was travelling with us. So when I’m coming up to the well, there’s already ten or fifteen people already milling around. Some are retching. I realize that this is the well. This is the well lip. These are the bodies.

They’re not right on the surface, they’re maybe ten feet below and there’s water in there and there’s probably five bodies that we can see. I don’t know what’s underneath, I don’t want to know.

bodies-in-well-25-sep-1994 photo d stewartI see a woman sprawled out, face up. She has – I don’t notice it at first – but she’s got a silver bracelet on. It’s hard to see. It was kind in the shadows. Her hand was at the side of the well. I couldn’t really make it out but it was a close-fitting silver bracelet.

‘Why do you remark on the bracelet?’

Because it wasn’t a naked dehumanized corpse. She had something that obviously she found pretty or that had meaning for her. Something that she used to dress herself up with. She was a human who had, you know, probably had liked pretty dresses, and pretty cloth and jewellery. And it was still on her. Nothing else was. It showed that she’d been alive.

The well was at a school in Zaza…

We’re stepping over four or five inches of broken glass, of wood, of nails. The bodies had all been destroyed one way or another. The place had been burned, I guess to try to get rid of the evidence.

burned-school-25-sep-1994 photo d stewart‘The room over there was somewhat of a torture chamber.’

‘It must have been rooms for students. Look at this book. This is children’s writing. In Kinyarwanda, English, French. They were learning to cook. This one – how the flowers grow, with drawings of flowers. These are children’s books that they used to study with.’

‘How many were killed?’

‘Some estimate over a thousand people. In here there must have been lots of murders because you can still smell the smell but you can’t see any bodies.’

We go into these rooms…

They’re dark and there’s black stuff stuck to the floors and the walls. If you had a wall with chewing gum stuck on it and then burned, that’s what it would look like.

‘All of this on the walls, from the experts that have been with us, this stuff here is human tissue, bone matter, skin. And then it was burned.’

‘There’s bullet holes right up the wall.’

‘I wonder what this tool is. Well, it’s a farming tool but I bet you they used it to hack people with. So these people here obviously suffered. Jesus, it was not an easy death. That, there, must be bone matter too.’

‘There’s a pile over there – there’s a chapel with a pile of bones, human bones, children’s bones. And it was burned. So they made kind of a camp fire to stay warm at night.’

bones-campfire-zaza-church-25-sep-1994 photo d stewartAs you walk in, on the wall that’s on your left, there’s a big dark brown stain, low on the wall. And then coming up from it, going up in an arc, a splattered arc, curving to the left above this blob, there’s dark splatters of blood. And also curving to the right there’s another arc of splatters.

‘Look at this arc, how high it is. And it’s in kind of a v-shape, eh? So the person who was standing here. It’s like somebody was with a paintbrush, whipping it.’

Somebody was macheted here…

Where their body was is the large stain. You can see where they would have been chopped in one side of the neck and that would have produced that arc. And they would have been chopped on the other side and that would have produced that arc.

I can imagine this, I can look at what’s the indicators of this death. A kid or an adult crouched there. With their head down, trying to protect themselves. And I can see a hand with a machete. Hacking, hacking, hacking. But I can’t attach that arm to anything.

‘Can you put a face on the person that did this?’

No, I can’t. No, I can’t put a face on the people that did that. I don’t think that I could put a face of a monster on. It would be the face of anybody, I think.

zaza outside school 25-sep-1994 photo d stewartI took no pictures of the room described here. It was too dark, too hideous. There was nothing left except trace evidence. That was almost worse.

Tap or click the pictures to enlarge them. The “voices” in the text are mine, the documentary producer, and Canadian Forces officers in the room in Zaza. It is from Rwanda Maps, for CBC Radio Newfoundland. I took the photographs for myself, to remember.

Also see my post Rwanda. You can listen to Lt.-Gen. (Retd) Roméo Dallaire on today’s CBC Sunday Edition.