My time in Ethiopia and Rwanda came to an end a few days ago. After an extra day in Johannesburg, due to the airline heavily overbooking my flight, I made it home to Perth. Sometimes it seems like so long ago, yet at other times a memory will put me right back on the streets of Africa.
My mind keeps returning to the Rwandan Genocide Memorial I visited in the hills outside Kigali. There are many thousands of people buried beneath the church and surrounding area. I walked into the church and saw some of the belongings left behind by victims of the genocide including the blood stained clothing they were wearing when the murderers took their lives. I then walked down steps into the area below the church where I was surrounded by coffins stacked five or six high.
In 100 days more than 1 million people were murdered. But the genocidaires did not kill a million people. They killed one, then another, then another…. day after day, hour after hour, minute by minute.
Every minute of the day, someone, somewhere was being murdered, screaming for mercy.
And the killing went on and on and on….
10,000 each day,
400 each hour,
7 each minute. – History Speaks
When the trip to Rwanda was planned I knew that I’d meet people who still carried the emotional scars of the genocide, but meeting a woman my own age who carries very obvious physical scars gave me a glimpse of what some people faced twenty years ago. Even before she was introduced to us we knew that she had suffered. She carries a very long, deep scar down the left side of her face with other deep marks to the right side of her face and the back of her head. She now only has sight in her left eye.
Esther (not her real name) was a wife and mother. She had five children, the youngest just a baby. Life as Esther knew it instantly disappeared on the 15th of April 1994. Thousands of locals sought refuge in their church but that only made their murder easier when the killers that arrived on that day threw grenades into the assembled crowds. Esther’s husband and three of her children died that day. She was injured and dazed lying among the dead. It wasn’t until the 18th of April that she finally made it out of the church building. She’d been left for dead but somehow survived. That was just the start of her horror.
After crawling out of the church Esther found an empty home where she went to hide. The genociders returned and killed the rest her children in front of her in ways too graphic to describe here. They then took their machetes to her and again left her for dead. Although she was suffering horrific injuries she survived and found another hiding place. Some days later more killers arrived. This time it was people she knew. People from her own area. Neighbours. They told her to go away and die somewhere else. It took all her energies but she made it out, eventually finding another home in which to hide.
The next time her hiding place was discovered was in June. She was barely alive and weighed only 19 kilograms. She couldn’t walk because she had been hiding in a cramped position for so long. Thankfully this time it was members of the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front), the group which was seeking to halt the genocide. They rescued Esther and took her to hospital where she stayed recovering for around six months.
Esther told her story with far more detail and while it was hard for us to hear her story, it was obvious that remembering the details was even harder for her.
The genocide resulted in the deaths of over a million people.
But death was not its only outcome.
Tens of thousands of people had been tortured, mutilated and raped; tens of thousands more suffered machete cuts, bullet wounds, infection and starvation.
There was rampant lawlessness, looting and chaos. The infrastructure had been destroyed, the ability to govern dismantled. Homes had been demolished, belongings stolen.
There were over 300,000 orphans and over 85,000 children who were heads of their household, with younger siblings and/or relatives.
There were thousands of widows. Many had been the victims of rape and sexual abuse or had seen their own children murdered.- History Speaks
Another place I visited in Rwanda was the Kigali Memorial Centre. It tells the story of genocide in Rwanda as well as other genocides through history. If you’d like to know more about what happened over those 100 days in 1994 you can visit the website for the Kigali Memorial Centre.
Thankfully Compassion was working in Rwanda before the genocide and continues working there. In fact, it was just after the genocide that the church where Esther’s family was killed called on Compassion for help. They were there within a few short months, ready to walk the the journey of recovery with local people.
Following the genocide Esther had another child, a daughter. Her daughter is in her final years of sponsorship with Compassion.