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Nyamata Church - Powerful Memorial for Rwanda's Victims

Nyamata Church - Powerful Memorial for Rwanda's Victims

Rwanda immediately after the genocide in 1994 will always be a special part of my life. Not for what I saw, but for what I experienced and felt. The people. The recovery. Nowhere was that feeling more poignant than at Nyamata Church. 

Jesus looked like a Tutsi and that’s why he had to die. He was hacked to pieces and there is nothing left of him. The Virgin Mary fared somewhat better, escaping completely unscathed. Were I religious, I might attribute her wholesome state to a miracle, for there she stands today, hands held together in prayer, face towards the floor, her expression one of, what? Before the killing, I would have described it as serene, but now only sadness.

It really is incredible that her statue was not damaged at all - she reminded me of the glamorous lady in the knife-throwing act at the circus - completely unharmed while the knives flew all around her. There are no knives at Nyamata church, a short drive from Kigali, but there is precious little left intact. The blood has dried with the years, but it still lines the walls, bullet holes and grenade shrapnel give the simple brick walls an acned look, the sun shines through the shrapnel holes in the corrugated iron roof, the benches are thick with dust, the tabernacle has been vandalised. You can still smell the fear.

If you know me and you know yourself, how can you kill me?

As far as genocide memorials go, it has the power to shock. Nyamata is a simple rural community, no different to so many others in Rwanda. Some ten thousand people took refuge in the church and surrounding compound as the killing began in April 1994. Within five days, all but a handful had been butchered in cold blood. The government decided to preserve the site with its dark past. There are a couple of simple banners as you enter the church: “Non aux revisionistes, non aux negativistes” and, in Kinyarwanda, a more potent one for me: “If you know me and you know yourself, how can you kill me?” - a clear reference to the hundreds of thousands killed by neighbours and family. The padlock is still intact on the iron door, but the door was forced. There was no protection here.

As with most museums, there is a guided tour, this one in French. In the middle of the church, a large hole has been dug, steps constructed and pristine white tiles line the descending walls. I felt like I was visiting a public toilet as I descended. Below, there was a central glass case on three levels: the top shelf contained bones - arms, legs and so on; the second shelf contained skulls, dozens of them, staring blankly forward, many with visible cracks where the machetes had sliced through - they should have made an impression on me but they didn’t, I don't know why; the bottom tier was below our feet and contained a simple coffin, that of a twenty-five year old woman and her child. Apparently, her body did not decompose for months, nobody knows why. What we do know is that she met a vicious end, a branch being inserted into her and forced through until it came out of her head. Her baby was clinging to her breast all the while.

The bravery of Tonia Locatelli

My solemn guide took me outside and showed me another coffin. The body of Tonia Locatelli is contained therein. Some two years before the genocide, in 1992, the local authorities in Nyamata decided to kill all the Tutsis in the area. There were rounded up and locked in the church without food or water and simply left to die. Tonia, an Italian volunteer, managed to get word to the international press and the ensuing uproar ensured that the Tutsis were freed without any casualties. Tonia’s reward for her courageous act was the full vengeance of the local authorities. She was the only victim.

Behind the church is another hole in the ground. The musty smell of a cellar hit me as I descended - it reminded me of many a customer's wine cellar in my previous job. No vintage claret here, but it was certainly fully stocked - coffins on the top shelf, skulls just below, and bones, so many bones at the bottom. Someone told me recently that you cannot detect terror in a bare skull, so I decided to look deeper to see if he was right. Looking at most of the skulls, I was detached, they seemed almost like the skulls you play with in biology classes, but there was one which caught my eye. The jaw was wide open, all the front teeth missing, except for an improbably long wisdom tooth protruding out of the bottom left hand side. I could almost see the pain and the terror of the face, could almost hear the scream. Just along was the top half of a small skull, from the eye sockets up, perched on top of another random head - were baby and parent reunited in death? I doubt it.

There was a visitor’s book at the end of the tour. What struck me was that all the comments were almost the same - monosyllabic or single word entries - speechless, tears, shocked. I don't think it is possible to put into words the whole experience. The church has not been used for service since the tragic events, although there was a move to clean things up and get back to normal, but the surviving locals refused and a new church was constructed.


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Paul Bradbury

About Paul Bradbury

Author of Lebanese Nuns Don't SkiLavender, Dormice and a Donkey Named Mercedes and the Hvar's first comprehensive guidebook, Hvar: An Insider's Guide to Croatia's Premier Island, I have lived in Dalmatia full time since 2003 and run various tourism information websites about Hvar, Split and Zagora, and am co-author of Split: An Insider's Guide with Mila Hvilshoj.

I also have various blogging clients, including the Central Dalmatia Tourist Board, Restaurant Gariful, Hvar Adventure, Villas Hvar and Andro Tomic Wines, and print clients include Qatar Airways inflight magazine, Out! magazine from New York, and Croatian Hotspots. 

I also provide website content services, including Agroturizam Pharos, Toto's Restaurant, European Coastal Airlines, Restaurant Gariful and Divota Aparthotel. Please contact me if you would like help with your website content.

I also write for Google News via Digital Journal - see my range of articles here

Ongoing writing projects:

A History of Hajduk Split, co-author with Frane Grgurevic

Around the World in 80 Disasters

Total Hvar in the Media:

Interview of the Month, Croatian Embassy in Washington (May 2013)

Special Feature in Globus Magazine (May 2013)

Featured on Croatian TV show, More (2012) - watch the report here

4-page special in Nedjelji Jutarnji, Croatia's leading paper (August 2014)

Interviews in Slobodna Dalmacija, Dalmacijanews, Radio Split

I am available for writing services. Please contact me on [email protected] 

Other websites:

Total Hvar - www.total-hvar.com 

Total Split - www.croatia-split.com

Total Inland Dalamtia - www.total-inland-dalmatia.com 

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