It’s the Same Thing

Murambi is the site of a former technical school of some local repute just outside the small town of Gikongoro, in Rwanda. It sits alone on a rural hillside, surrounded in every direction by slightly higher hills. Behind a main building of classrooms and administrative offices is a row of barracks, the former dormitories of the boarding students. The academic building is starkly empty; in the dormitory rooms are hundreds of preserved corpses, victims of genocide.

I visited on Liberation Day, fifteen years to the day after the genocide officially ended on July 4, 1994. A group of mourners, presumably relatives of the deceased, were exiting the main building as I arrived. The women were all wearing purple sashes, the common color of genocide remembrance throughout the country. One woman detached herself from the group, approached me, and said only “You wait.” I did as I was told, standing alone outside on a cool, breezy, sunny day, watching her say goodbye to the group. When she returned, she took my wrist, pulled me along after her, and said “Come.”

Holding on to my wrist, she gently but resolutely dragged me around the outside of the main building, toward the barracks in back. She let go of me as we reached the first room and without saying a word gestured for me to enter. The room was square, just big enough to fit four wooden palettes, each about the size and height of a king bed. Dead bodies, covered in a coarse white dust of powdered lime, lay on the palettes, their heads at the far end and their feet nearer to me. I counted more than twenty bodies on one palette, nearly a hundred in the room.

All the corpses had been exhumed from a common mass grave and preserved exactly as they had been found. They were not mere skeletons, but actual bodies, cold, hard, and gaunt, but at the same time fleshy. Most still had skin, though bone was visible in many places. A number had patches of hair, even pubic hair. They had fingernails, and at least a few teeth. Eyes were sunken, but not hollow. Scraps of clothing still hung from decayed limbs.

Expressions were plainly visible on the faces of the deceased. Many looked afraid, presumably those who died quickly, just after the fatal blow. Some were clearly in agony, probably those who lived a little longer, who had to feel the pain of their wounds before dying from them. A few looked peaceful, perhaps relieved to finally being dying. Wounds were obvious: skulls with gaping holes, shoulders cracked, ribs snapped, arms bent and broken, and feet missing. As instructed, I touched one of the bodies; it felt like a lightweight plaster, like a hollow bust.

A tarp which had been white but which was now yellow with age hung over a large window on the back wall, facing west. It was late afternoon and the setting sun filled the room with a golden glow. Dust danced in the light, bringing the sunshine to life, each ray visible and distinct, and each one ending on the cheek, or foot, or outstretched hand of one of the dead bodies. A bouquet of plastic flowers sat on one of the palettes, perhaps a permanent display or perhaps a memorial gift brought by one of the mourners. Outside, I could hear my guide praying in a low, driven voice, rapidly and intently repeating the same short phrase.

I exited, she took my wrist, and we walked just a few feet to the next room before stopping again. She let go and pointed for me to enter, never pausing her prayer. I stepped inside, immediately wondering what the minimum amount of time is that one has to spend in a room full of murder victims in order to seem polite, or at least not to seem disrespectful. The scene was the same, sunbeams blessing the dead.

She led me to the next room, and then to the next room, and always it was the same. Every time I stepped from a room, I noticed, I inhaled deeply and looked immediately for the furthest hill on the horizon, always seeking a clean, open space, always seeking an escape. After a fourth, or a fifth, or a sixth room, I asked her to stop.

She nodded, took my wrist, and pulled me forward, my guide through the inferno. When we reached the next room she did not make me enter, but as we passed she pointed and quietly commented.

“C’est le meme chose…”

… I looked, and of course it was the same thing: a hundred more dead bodies, a hundred frozen faces, a hundred silent screams, more death dancing in the sunlight. A few feet further and again she spoke…

“…c’est le meme chose…”

…my palms were sweating now, always my body’s first reaction to discomfort…

“…c’est le meme chose…”

…my throat was dry and tight; I felt a cold sweat across my forehead…

“…c’est le meme chose…”

…tears pooled in the corners of my eyes…

“…c’est le meme chose…”

…and my stomach started to turn. I felt sick, ready to vomit.

We had reached the end of one of the barracks, providing a natural and welcome pause to our march. We spoke in French, hers as broken as mine. She explained that her husband and her three daughters had been killed at the school. She had survived, but I could not understand when she tried to explain how. Like other survivors, she does not know which bodies are those of her family.

She did not insist upon visiting all of the remaining rooms, though she did lead me to one in particular. At first I could not see why she had selected this room for special attention. Then I noticed that there seemed to more of everything, more feet, more hands, more skulls. The palettes were no larger, but there were clearly more bodies on each one. They were not piled higher or packed tighter, but they were smaller. There had been the odd broken child in the other rooms I had entered, but this was the one room which contained only children, all of them murdered.

A man was in the room, kneeling and praying. He had a divot in the middle of his forehead the size of a quarter, another survivor, another guide. His children were also killed there, and though he does not know their bodies are among those in the room he has chosen to consider it their grave.

Though literally full of death, Murambi is very much a living monument. The guides, all of them survivors of the massacre there, have given themselves a unique mission. They do not seek to guide you, they want to force you to bear witness. You are meant to feel genocide in your gut. And I did.

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