A year ago today, I was in Rwanda on holiday from an internship in northern Uganda. One of the things I did that day was visit the memorial in Nyamata, a small town in Bugesera district. I thought today would be a good day to revisit what happened in Nyamata. Knowing full-well that I’ll have plenty of blog posts on the Rwandan genocide in the future, this post will concentrate on the specific event, with a little bit of background.
As far as background goes, Rwanda in the early 1990s was in the middle of the civil war with an ethnic conflict to boot. The Hutu majority ruled the government, often oppressing the Tutsi minority. A Tutsi army made up of Rwandans exiled to Uganda had invaded the country at the beginning of the decade. In 1994 the two sides came to an agreement with the Arusha Accords. However, when President Habyarimana was returning from signing the Accords in Tanzania his plane was shot down, sparking a genocide by Hutu extremists against Tutsi civilians across the country, in turn leading to mass atrocities committed by the Tutsi rebels soon after. One of the many tragedies related to this war was the massacre at the church in Nyamata.
According to the National Museum of Rwanda, ” In the beginning of the 1960s, Tutsi people from different areas of Rwanda were forced to leave their homes and go to live in this region which was considered very unhealthy at that time. Therefore, Bugesera became a region whose population was predominantly Tutsis.” And a prime target for genocidaires. Numbers vary for just how many in the region were killed, but the area was decimated by the genocide and could very well be the hardest hit in the country. When the genocide began on April 7th, 1994, many civilians fled to Catholic churches seeking sanctuary. Nyamata lies just a few kilometers south of the capitol, Kigali, and many Tutsis and moderate Hutus that fled ended up in the small town of Nyamata. When the genocide came to Nyamata just days later, thousands of people hid inside, packing the church. They padlocked the gate when Hutu soldiers and the extremist Interahamwe militias arrived, deterring them for the time being.
When the genocidaires finally broke through, they slaughtered those inside with machetes, guns, and grenades. Only a dozen survived by feigning death among the bodies inside the church. Outside the church, the town itself suffered even more in deaths. According to the National Museum of Rwanda 24,000 people were killed in the Nyamata parish. Today, the church houses a memorial to all of the victims of the genocide in Nyamata, with pews covered in victims’ blood-stained clothes and several mass graves underground behind the church. The sad thing about this moment in Nyamata’s history is that it’s not unique. With over 800,000 people killed in the course of 100 days, the Rwandan genocide has many tragedies.