Killing your neighbour first—Murambi massacre remembered
In a little valley surrounded by hills outside of Butare, Rwanda’s second city, sits Murambi Technical School. But the only instruction taught inside nowadays is the chilling chapter of Rwanda’s history that played out on 21 April 1994 when between 40,000 and 50,000 people died in a massacre during the genocide.
Some who carried out the killings, those who admitted that they killed their neighbours, are still alive. Theonest Karamage, 41, an inmate in Rwanda’s Nyamagabe prison, remembers the call to murder the men, women and children.
“The people who carried out the genocide told us to take things to kill with. I took an axe, and a machete, and I went to Murambi.”
The mass graves and other evidence tell the story.
Inside the building, a concise history of modern Rwanda complete with photographs adorns the walls. The text spells out how French advisors helped then-president Juvénal Habyarimana build his army from 5,000 to 50,000 in the space of four years. Habyarimana was once the darling of the West, like President Paul Kagame is today.
An old Bakelite radio invites you to push the button. And hate in Kinyarwanda spews out, inciting Hutus to kill “Tutsi cockroaches”.
Photos of the dead and eyewitness statements from survivors loom large. This is a place to remember what happened. Tutsis from different areas had converged on a nearby church. Those sheltering inside were told to go to the Murambi Technical School, it was safer. This was where between 40,000 and 50,000 people died.
There is no complete list of the dead, or even of those who escaped, but the scale of destruction is evident in the photos of many faces looking out at the viewer; and actual faces, frozen in fear, in other parts of the memorial.
Gaspard Maquiere is a tour guide in Murambi. He is a rescapée, a politically-correct term for a Tutsi, although he is not from this area. He walks through the back rooms behind the memorial pointing out evidence that a massacre took place. In one room, piles of blood-stained clothes and shoes, including many pairs of children’s shoes, are stacked in bookcases.
At that particular moment a downpour starts. After all, this is the rainy season in Rwanda. The raindrops hit the tin roof like bullets.
In the second building, glass display cases contain skulls. Some have holes in the back of the cranium.
We walk to the row of rooms in the back of the school. A sickly sweet smell hits you as you walk in. Lying on white wooden racks are bodies. Actual bodies, covered in lime. These people died twenty years ago, and some still have tufts of hair. Maquiere says that they wanted to preserve bodies found in the mass graves that were not decomposed. The bodies still have clothes on, some wear rosaries around their necks.
“Tangible proof of genocide,” says Maquiere. “That one died asking for forgiveness,” he says, pointing to a body whose hands are clasped in prayer, mouth open. “No one can tell you Tutsis were fighting here.”
The metal door creaks as we enter the next room, filled with babies. “This baby died trying to hide its face. Look at this other one. This is the look of innocence.” The baby next to the ‘innocent’ has no head. All the baby bodies look flattened. Maquiere explains that all the babies were thrown into one mass grave. Their bones were soft and they became deformed in death with the weight of their other bodies on top.
The last door opens into the women’s room. He points out the body with her legs wide open, frozen in time. “See her? She was raped before she died.”
Mr. Budengere, the first fatality
Theonest Karamage sits in the warden’s office in Nyamagabe prison, one mile from the site of Murambi massacre. He is very skinny and missing his two front teeth. Dressed in pink polyester prison top and shorts, his black dress shoes with square toes look out of place.
He did not look out of place on 21 April, 20 years ago. It was dark outside, nearly midnight, but he does not forget what he did: “I killed, I killed.”
He murdered five people that night, and he remembers the first person he killed - Mr. Budengere.
“This man was the chief of the 10 houses in our neighbourhood. I knew him. I saw him in Murambi, and I killed him first.”
Although Budengere tried to fight him off, Karamage and his axe were no match for the chief. Karamage would go on to kill four more people that night in Murambi.
Karamage fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo, then Angola, until he returned to Rwanda in 1997 and landed promptly in jail.
He says that there are many more like him who participated. “There are many Murambi génocidaires who aren’t in prison, and they don’t talk about Murambi. But I want to speak the truth about Murambi.”
Karamage says he has been threatened by those who have not owned up to their crimes there. His three older brothers also killed people at Murambi, but two are in the Democratic Republic of Congo and one is free and in Rwanda.
“I want to say something to all Rwandans who committed genocide—to come, to tell the truth. To admit that they committed this crime, including my brothers,” he says.
On Monday night, the few who survived—some say 13 altogether—will come to Murambi for a vigil, to talk about what happened there. Those who committed genocide will come and talk about how they participated.
Karamage, the axe-wielding génocidaire, will not be present. He has been in prison for 17 years, and he still has not been before a judge. But he will be thinking about what he did on Monday night, 20 years ago.