Mass graves, deep wounds of the genocide

Kabgayi (Rwanda)

From our special correspondent

At first, we don’t pay attention to Issa, 35, a thick beard hidden under a scarf, a large cap protecting him from the sun. At the beginning, we are absorbed by the site, the earth turned over, the excavator in the background, workers discussing in a circle, a forest below, the overhanging Kabgayi Catholic hospital, the white tent where we vaccinate. of patients against Covid. Here will be the next maternity hospital. In the meantime, the site is stopped. ” 1er May, the excavator fell on a body ”, explains Jean-Claude Nshimiyimana, the manager of the Nyamabuye sector. Then on May 2, 26 bodies were found. Considering the history of the hill, we thought there could be more.

In 1994, 50,000 Tutsis had taken refuge in religious institutions and in the Kabgayi hospital. “15,000 escaped death“, breath Issa, now responsible for Ibuka, the association of survivors of the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsis, in the Nyamabuye sector. Since 1994, we have found 11,014 bodies. We don’t know where the remaining 23,986 are! Nobody in Kabgayi tells us about it ”, specifies Jean-Claude.

To dig the earth in Rwanda is to plunge into the deep wounds of the genocide. Not a year, not a month, not a week in 27 years, without it being found at random on a construction site, an expanding house, a new building or a new road, bodies buried in the overturned earth. The higher the new Rwanda rises, the more the dead emerge from the abyss where they were thrown by the silent killers.

Those who know where they were buried in 1994 are silent. “A few spoke during their trial, thus obtaining a reduced sentence. But today, there is no more reason to say it, there is no longer any direct benefit to be drawn from it for the one who lifts the veil on these kept secrets. They don’t risk anything, however. But they prefer to be silent ”, regrets Jean Ruzindaza, the head of advocacy for assistance to survivors of the National Commission against the Genocide. Five days before Emmanuel Macron’s visit to the Kigali national genocide memorial, 2,500 genocide victims were buried at the Rukumberi memorial, in the east of the country: they had been found between January and February, on the banks of the lake. Kabgayi is no exception to the rule. Issa looks at her feet saying: “We know that many victims were thrown into the river, so we will not find them again.

On the maternity ward, the first excavations revealed a mass grave. Then, a second. And a third. “From ten bodies, we went to a hundred. At the start of the following week, we crossed the two hundred mark, then three hundred. We turned the earth for three weeks ”, he remembers. We couldn’t raise a motherhood over the dead. We had to find them all.

They ended up exhuming 961 of them, reduced to bones, tibias and thighbones, skulls and shreds of clothing. All these remains were stored in rooms provided for this purpose at the Kabgayi memorial. Bones are stacked in large blue and white tarps, clothes and items put aside. “We’re going to clean them up. Then we will call the families. They will be able to meditate on these bones and check if they do not recognize the objects that we have unearthed: glasses, pipes, bracelets, rosaries… sometimes, very rarely, a letter, a photo.This is the only way to identify them. “

Outside the memorial, a lady in her sixties waits in a chair. Her name is Muporeze, her first name is Espérance, she was born in 1959. She is convinced that her husband, who died 27 years ago, is among these bones. “He was a veterinarian. With our seven children, we were refugees in Kabgayi Cathedral. But my husband was injured, he ended up going for treatment at the hospital which was run by a major of the Rwandan army: she had all the Tutsis who went to the hospital killed. It was a nephew who accompanied him. Two days later, the child came home to tell me that my husband had died on the night of May 10 to 11, the major had forbidden him to seek treatment. And he had been buried behind the hospital. No one knew how to tell me where.

During the genocide, she said, the bishop of Kabgayi asked his parishioners to “Clean up all the dirt so that he can celebrate mass. The dirt was us! First of all, our dead. And so, they were thrown into mass graves like the ones we just found here. They weren’t digging very deep, about thirty centimeters underground. We lived for a long time in the scent of the dead. In 1997, it still stank here ”, she asserts. She pulls out a photo from her bag: a portrait of a relaxed man, 1980s figure, white shirt slightly open and large glasses on his face. It’s him, it’s Louis de Gonzague, he was 42 years old in 1994.

Issa, too, sat down. He listens to this woman without saying anything, takes off his cap the better to breathe. The left side of his skull is plowed with large scars, impressive crevices. In April 1994, he was 9 years old, he took refuge in Bisesero. The French of Operation Turquoise found him on June 30, his head smashed with a club and a machete. He was operated on by the Goma medical service and one of the French doctors befriended him: His name was Jean-Christophe, he saved me ”, he said. Once recovered, he returned to Rwanda, found his father, converted to Islam: My name was Daniel, I became Issa. Muslims protected us during the genocide. Installed in Kabgayi, he looked for volunteers to search the site: “There were about twenty of us, young people; the others were looking at us, the vast majority of the inhabitants ignored us. His cap put back on his head, no trace of his terrible past can be guessed. “Understanding the genocide is impossible. We live with it, it is always present, only its manifestations change ”, notes Jean Ruzindaza. Issa, Jean-Claude and Espérance nod their heads.

To illustrate this last point, Jean-Claude tells what has just happened to the new bishop of Kabgayi. Originally from here, he was at the major seminary in the city in 1994. He himself did not know where those killed during the genocide had been buried. When he learned of the discovery of hundreds of bodies on the site of the future Catholic maternity hospital, he came to meditate. And he found out there was some of his family lying there. “No one had told him about it, testifies Jean-Claude. Now, among his priests, his deacons, his catechism leaders, his faithful… people knew. I heard him say and repeat, stunned by what he had just understood: “But why didn’t you tell me? Why ?” ”


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