As an intern at the USC Shoah Foundation and a student on the Problems Without Passports trip to Rwanda this summer, I’m more than familiar with the phrases “Never Forget” and “Never Again.” Sometimes the two seem like tired mottos. They’re valid and true, but oftentimes I think I miss the full impact of those few words.
I don’t emotionally engage with my work every day; I do my best to honor those who have died and to work towards a better future for those who live on, but I can’t afford to feel every loss every day. But now, in Rwanda for over two weeks, I have time to let the events of 1994 wash over me without too much concern for my work performance later on.
Last week, we visited a memorial site at Nyamata. It’s a small church outside of Kigali that probably held around 400 people before it became the site of a massacre, and then a memorial. Standing in Nyamata church, I tried to picture it before the genocide. Even something as typical as a church service: I tried to picture a pastor standing in the front, behind the altar, or people standing in the rows, singing or reading together. I couldn’t picture it.
It’s hard to imagine the singing masses at Nyamata when there are mounds of the victims’ clothing lying on all of the pews today. It is difficult to picture the altar with a pastor behind it when it’s covered with machetes, clubs, and the ID cards that held the victims’ fate in a single word: Tutsi.
I tried to picture the building filling with ten thousand people. The only barometers I could use to picture that number was almost four times the population of my high school or half my hometown. That’s the number of people who were slaughtered there on a single day in April during the 1994 genocide.
What’s difficult about what I was trying to picture is that both of the things I was picturing happened at the same time. Some of the testimonies I’ve seen from the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive describes the scene: While pregnant women were parted from their babies with machetes, or young children were killed, smashed against the wall, many of the people in the churches where these massacres happened were crying out for a savior, singing, worshipping, or praying.
It’s hard to picture in my mind’s eye.
Behind the church are the mass graves of all the victims from the site. The two tiled graves look unimpressive at first. It is hard to picture 10,000 bodies in the ground, just under the grey tile. But as we went into one of the open tombs, I understood how all of the victims had been interred. There were shelves and shelves of skulls lining the walls of the grave; a rough count of one shelf and I realized each held about 150.
It’s hard to picture, even a few days later.
The executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation, Stephen Smith, often says that one million people were not killed during the genocide, it was one person, then a second, then a third, and somehow, later, the count got to one million. Standing at Nyamata, I grasped that concept in a new way. Even though the sheer number of skulls in this grave seemed like more of a statistic than thousands of individual tragedies, the longer I looked at each skull, the more I realized each had their own individual story.
It made me think about how strange it is that we have a word for this kind of atrocity, genocide. Nyamata is a part to a whole; it’s ten thousand of one million deaths of the genocide. By that count, it’s one percent of the genocide. But Rwanda – all of those million deaths – is also a part to a whole. This tragedy in Rwanda isn’t unique, at least in the sense of its particular definition of violence. It’s classifiable. It’s one of those things that happen so frequently that we have a word for it.
It’s hard to picture. But that doesn’t mean we don’t try.
Each of those skulls are, in turn, a part to their whole of Nyamata, of Rwanda, of the term genocide. And each have their own story. Even looking at them today, each one has discernible cheekbones. Some skulls are skinnier, some are round-faced. Some seem to smile, some seem angry in death. Each one of their owners had differently shaped cheekbones, face shapes and brow bones.
Some skulls are burned. Some have long cracks from machetes. Some have bullet holes. Some are missing whole sections, maybe taken by a club. Each of these people lost their lives in one way or another, but all have at least one thing in common: their final resting place. This is their legacy. To sit here, day and night, each one continuing to insist what now seems a tired motto: Never Forget. Never Again.