Kwibuka29-Murambi: Where the dead can be heard

Being in Rwanda might trick one into thinking they know everything there is to know about the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

Graphic recollections, survivors’ testimonies, and songs of remembrance, during the annual commemoration period that starts on April 7 stir an array of emotions.

But nothing could have prepared me for what I saw in Murambi, a town in Nyamagabe District, formerly Gikongoro.

The first time I thought of visiting the memorial site was in 2022 when I attended a book signing by renowned Senegalese author Boubacar Boris Diop of his novel ‘Murambi: The Book of Bones.’

“Those cruel days were like nothing that had ever been seen […] a genocide is not just any kind of story with a beginning and an end, between which more or less ordinary events take place. There are no words to speak to the dead. They won’t get up to answer you. What you learn from there is that everything is quite over for the dead of Murambi, and maybe then, you respect human life more. The dead of Murambi too, had dreams…” read a paragraph from the novel that was read at the event.


I had never heard anyone describe a memorial site like that. I had seen bones at the Kigali Genocide Memorial and in pictures and videos, but I had to visit Murambi.

You might find all the green you see during the four-hour drive fascinating but there is a strong chance you may not have the same zeal on your way back. Memorial sites have a way of giving a clearer picture, and while one can’t even begin to imagine what the victims went through, thinking about it alone is daunting.

Right at the entrance is a very large building that could have been a hall; this is where prominent Tutsi families were gathered. And when the French troops arrived in June 1994, they picked out Tutsi women and girls to rape.

Just like in some parts of southern Rwanda, mass killings of the Tutsi didn’t start until April 21 in Gikongoro. When the Genocide started, the Tutsi sought refuge at the Murambi Technical School which was under construction. There were hundreds of Tutsi from Mudasomwa, Kinyamakara, Musebeya, Muko, and other communes.

The school, which is at the hilltop, was strategic for the militia and the army to easily access the surrounding hills and kill all the Tutsi without anyone escaping.

When the genocidal campaign reached the then Gikongoro and the widespread killings began, the Tutsi ran to the area’s Catholic bishop, hoping he would use his powerful status to save them. But he, together with local authorities, sent them to the technical school.

They promised them protection from the French troops that were expected to set camp there.

Those who had fled to various communal and church offices and others who had hidden elsewhere were all rounded up and taken to Murambi.

When they arrived in Murambi, Interahamwe immediately cut off all water pipes supplying Murambi so that they would be weakened by thirst before they could be killed. The Tutsi decided to slaughter their cows after realizing that they were starving to death.

The refugees managed to protect themselves from swarms of killers for a couple of days, until April 21, at 3 am, when gendarmes started throwing grenades and shooting at them. Interahamwe and other militia together with their supporters carrying clubs, machetes, spears, and axes started to finish off those who were not killed by bullets.

More than 50,000 Tutsi were killed that morning.

Only a few, suspected to be around 34, survived.

On the walls of the main building are photos, testimonies, and quotes. One of the most unforgettable quotes was that of Felicien Ntabengwa: “If you knew me, and if you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.”

Right below the building is a giant hole that was kept to represent all other countless mass graves the bodies of the massacred were thrown in.

When the French troops finally arrived, a volleyball pitch was developed near a 15-meter long and 10-meter wide mass grave where Tutsi bodies were thrown. When the ball fell out of the court, they would walk on Tutsi bodies to pick it up.

They gang-raped Tutsi women in their dormitories. Victims testified that sometimes more than 10 soldiers would gang rape one victim in a violent, bestial, and humiliating way, taking turns.

The bones

Now a memorial site, Murambi is home to at least 10,000 bodies. Some of the classrooms contain about 850 preserved corpses laying on display on wooden tables.

It is a beyond-belief sight. Bodies of young children and adults, some who clearly died with their arms raised, shielding their heads, or asking for forgiveness for being Tutsi, cannot be forgotten.

Others are without limbs, or their skulls are shattered, if they have them at all because some do not. Some still have tufts of hair. The most unforgettable sight for me was a skeleton, clearly of a baby, whose legs had been cut right from their knees. The baby’s skull was also half. Their faces were frozen in fear. Some still have their clothes on, and rosaries.

What could have been bookshelves were also filled with blood-stained clothes and shoes, including baby shoes.

The guide showed me around until I wished she would stop. I could not go into some rooms because I couldn’t muster the courage. In the meditation garden nearby, some visitors were weeping.

Before leaving the memorial site, visitors take a moment to bow in respect of the victims and lay wreaths, mostly roses.

Their silence and remains linger. They are a reminder that each of the 50,000 people killed had fought for their lives as much as they could and that we should make sure that the Genocide doesn’t happen again.

The dead of Murambi may not speak but they are heard perfectly clearly. And as Diop put it, genocide is not just any kind of story. So many people were killed in what could have been avoidable if the world had given value to human life.

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