Rwanda's dead arise to shame the world

Genocide victims are being exhumed so that no one will forget one of the great crimes of the century, writes Mary Braid
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The Independent Online
ON A lush green hill with a breathtaking view they are busy digging up the dead. Six days a week, five survivors armed with spades, rubber gloves and toothbrushes exhume and clean the bones of thousands of Tutsis who perished four years ago during a frenzied attack by Hutu militiamen.

To outsiders, it is a gory act of commemoration for the local victims of the genocide which claimed 800,000 lives four years ago. For the mass graves at Gikongoro, south-west Rwanda, are not disturbed so that bodies can be blessed and then reburied. The exhumed have in fact been housed in more than 70 nearby rooms; laid out for public display. A boy, not more than 13, in flip-flops and cut-off jeans, casually flings open each door for visitors. Every room is an attack on the senses, restoring edge to bald statistics.

The skeletons, some still with hair and shrivelled skin, one with Y-fronts still hanging around his pelvis, lie on white trestles, the mark of the machete on many cracked skulls, adult and infant. In the corner, by the detached bones, stacked like firewood, are the remains of a butchered child, its jaw wide open as if in permanent tortured protest.

Immanuel Murangira, 40 but looking much older, is the hollow-cheeked custodian of the hill, one of the five responsible for the recovery so far of more than 27,000 victims. He lost 27 members of his family here, including his wife and children, and countless friends. Like many genocide witnesses, he damns the international community. French soldiers, he remembers, encouraged the Tutsis to lay down their pitiful weapons and then watched the slaughter by Hutus.

Mr Murangira managed to escape somehow, though he was "half-dead" by the time he reached the Burundian border, a Hutu bullet lodged in his head. A deep hole remains above his right eye. "There are still many more victims to come," he says, after three years of recovering bodies. "They were all murdered in just two days."

What makes him remain in a place of so much sorrow, when most Tutsis still refuse to return to the area and he is convinced that, without the protection of government troops, militant Hutus might return to finish him off? He is not paid for his labour. Does it ease a survivor's guilt to recover the dead? "It does not make me feel better," he says, looking at his feet. "But it is a thing that I must do."

Gikongoro takes the breath away, but it is not unique. At the bullet- ridden Nyamata church, just an hour south of Kigali, where 5,000 were slaughtered, the bones and skulls of victims still lie inside the building, tangled with the rotting clothes, belongings and spent bullets which completely carpet the floor.

The church's iron gate still swings on one hinge, evidence of the final charge by Hutus, and a skull looks down from the altar. In a room next door, more bones are entwined with ragged dirty clothes, and a table is neatly laid out with skulls. Outside, as in Gikongoro, it is all endless rolling hills and butterflies fluttering in the midday sun.

Nyamata also has its self-appointed guard. Marc Sibomana, 51, a tiny man in black wellingtons, witnessed the slaughter and says that now he can never leave. He lost almost all his family and friends. "I was here before, during and after," he says. "No one pays me, but it is my mission. God will reward me in heaven."

Mr Sibomana seems in a constant state of agitation. He becomes distressed when asked why the scene is kept so raw. He breaks into a tirade against the Catholic Church, not merely for failing to protect people but for even participating in massacres. Where was the local priest during the siege of Nyamata? "He never came," cries the survivor.

"It is a question of resources," says Colonel Frank Mugambage, the Rwandan presidential spokesman, when asked about the country's macabre memorials. He says Rwanda has been restrained: "If we preserved all we exhumed, you would be tiptoeing through bones."

But the official explanation rings hollow. The memorials are a reflection of much more than that: they grow out of deep collective trauma, unimaginable pain, bitter political disputes over who was responsible for one of the 20th century's greatest atrocities, and paralysis about the way forward.

Blame is a permanent preoccupation. The Tutsi-led government, formed from the old rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front, smarts at unjust suggestions that it is responsible because the RPF raised the political temperature by invading Rwanda in 1990.

The government lashes out at the UN for doing nothing to prevent the slaughter, despite being warned about it in advance. There are complaints of racism; that an African genocide was deemed one of those primitive tribal events, even though, like the Nazis' more clinical dispatch of the Jews, it was also a carefully-planned extermination for extremist political ends.

Rwanda feels aggrieved and angry that the international community has not apologised enough. A few weeks ago, the government as well as genocide survivors snubbed the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, during his visit to the country. The memorial sites seem to scream for belated recognition of pain and international acceptance of responsibility.

They are also part of Rwanda's confused reconciliation strategy. The RPF, which ended the genocide, now rules. Hutus are included in government, but there is no doubt the RPF is still in charge. Identity cards no longer label the holder as Tutsi or Hutu; the government discourages use of the terms, and preaches that everyone is Rwandese.

One moderate Hutu, a former government official, says there is no open discussion. "The Tutsis treated us like serfs long before the colonials came along," he insists, though at the time of the genocide the Tutsis were the group discriminated against. "To ignore the part that has played in our history is dangerous, and removes our own responsibility for what happened."

A young soldier who guards the Gikongoro site says it is central to the reconciliation process. "There are still people in this country who say the genocide never happened. The memorial forces doubters to believe." But few Rwandese seem to visit - the visitors' books are filled with the names of employees of international aid organisations and UN agencies.

And some Rwandese complain the sites hamper healing. "I can't bear the places," says another moderate Hutu, who was on the extremist Hutu government's hit list in 1994, and whose Tutsi brothers-in-law were victims of the slaughter. "They traumatise me all over again," he says. "I always wonder if the bones could be my brothers'."