Twenty Years Ago Today: Nyarubuye

nyarubuyeTwenty years ago today, the genocidaires of Rwanda were learning their trade with a sickening efficiency. They'd realised that going house to house was a slow way to kill people. But if you could get all your victims in one place and trap them there, then you could deal with hundreds or thousands all at once. That's exactly what was happening, all over the country: Tutsis and moderate Hutus fled their homes and went to a place they hoped would be safe, only to be betrayed, penned in, and then massacred by the Interahamwe, working their way through screaming crowds with clubs, machetes, hoes, or whatever else came to hand. At Nyarubuye, it happened in a church.

This was far from unusual. In fact, it was common. There were houses of worship all over Rwanda to which people fled, and where the priests often betrayed them to the killers. Nyarubuye is just one where we know a reasonable amount about what happened, thanks to a handful of survivors who fell under the bodies of their family members while they were being hacked to bits by their friends and neighbours.

Their money was taken from them first. Then grenades were thrown as the killers shouted that snakes must have their heads chopped off. Children and infants had their heads smashed in with stones and hammers. Pregnant women were hacked open so their unborn children could be finished off. It began at 3 in the afternoon, and went on until the next day.

The survivors were battered and wounded, and did not dare leave the church for weeks on end, even as the bodies of their loved ones rotted around them. They drank rainwater and helped the weaker ones to survive with what little food they had. Wild dogs came to feed on the corpses, and were made to leave by thrown stones. Eventually, they were rescued, and some even survived the infections in their wounds. Other survivors were less fortunate. Some women were taken away to be used as sex slaves and raped hundreds of times, enduring unwanted pregnancies and AIDS infections - if they weren't killed later during the genocide.

Nyarubuye church still stands. The corpses have been removed to a mass grave. The buildings are used as a memorial and museum for those who perished: 1,500 victims who died in terror and agony.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Genocide, Day Three

Rwandan ChildTwenty years ago today, the world finally sat up and took notice of the killings spreading throughout Rwanda. Planes departed France, Belgium and the US with troops on board, heading for Kigali with one overriding mission: getting their own people out. Civilians from these nations were shepherded to their planes and whisked away to safety, but hardly any Rwandans were permitted to escape by this means - not even those who had worked at foreign companies and embassies. Convoys heading out by road towards Burundi were specifically prohibited from carrying any Rwandans, lest the whole column be stopped and trapped in the country. In Gikondo, the Pallottine Missionary Catholic Church was being used as a shelter by hundreds of Tutsis - but to no avail. Gendarmes were informed that inyenzi (cockroaches) were sheltering there, and entered to check ID cards despite the pleas of the priest that they were all regular worshippers. The Gendarmes did nothing else - they did not need to. Soon, a hundred members of the Interahamwe militia arrived with clubs and machetes, and the killing began. Children were not spared. Pews were ripped up so they could have no hiding place. They were hacked to pieces wherever they were found.

The church was Polish, and two Polish officers from UNAMIR witnessed the massacre. They radioed their command for help, but were told that none could be sent - similar reports were coming in from all over the city, far too many for the UN to be able to help. And in any case, they had orders to shoot only in self defence. They tried the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front as well, but either couldn't get through or found that the Kigali contingent were trapped in their barracks.

In the afternoon, an ambulance from the Red Cross arrived to assist the officers and church staff who had been desperately trying to treat the wounded. They were able to take two survivors away to hospital - the only ones who escaped the massacre. Though whether they escaped the hospital is another question...