It hits you instantaneously. Death was everywhere, from the blasted out iron doors to the neatly cleaned yard. I have never visited Auschwitz or any concentration camp for that matter. It was an experience I could not truly prepare myself for, yet there I was, standing inside a building that saw 45,000 innocent lives extinguished by hatred and malice. The feelings were too many and too much all at once to distinguish what came first, but it is safe to say that if there was an emotion I felt it there. It was almost too perfect of a day, the sun shone through rain clouds and faintly in the background one could here a neighboring church singing out Catholic hymns. The singing was eerie, straight out of a movie almost. Then there was the movie one of the security guards was watching while on duty, an action film at a particular moment of screaming and chaos. The sounds amplified and continued to direct us tourists every which way. How do prepare for something like this? The real answer is you can’t, but you don’t realize this until you are inside staring out at the pews full of dusty clothes meant to warn. Thousands, upon thousands of shirts, pants, blouses, socks, shoes, undergarments, jackets, and belts. There were artifacts placed on the altar. Many normal things found in the pockets of normal people. A pocketwatch, a pipe, jewelry, identification cards. I got stopped instantly by one of these cards. All that really could be made out was the circle around tutsi as “race” identifier and a birth year, 1970. This meant he was 24 when he died in the church surrounded by strangers and possibly family. It was a horrible thought to place myself among the screaming and chaos.
There was an orange belt that has borrowed itself into my memory forever. It has been 20 years since the genocide and most the artifacts are dusty and the clothes deteriorating except this orange belt. There it sat on top of one of the hundreds of undiffering piles, pristine. As if a woman had worn it that morning, quickly thrown it on as she ran out the door to take her family to the church to seek shelter from another violent machete storm. Only this time, protection would not come as the door blew open with a bang and shots rang out from the exterior. So much fear. And there it sat, her orange belt as if it were only yesterday.
There was a blessed mother mary statue staring down at these piles as if begging for forgiveness while simultaneously weeping for her children. She could not and certainly did not protect that day and it was almost too much to stand in the product of her failure while listening to the Catholic hymns next door. Mother Mary seemed to constantly be praying for the victims, and for the visitors I think. Eventually all of these clothes will disintegrate (except for maybe the belt made of neon orange plastic) and at first a visitor might panic and plead with the church to maintain these clothes so future generations may witness what happened here. But the thing is there are several other places in Rwanda to do your remembering and to pay your respects. The clothes at Nyamata will fade as Rwandan consciousness moves forward. Nyamata’s bullet scarred structure may forever stand, but the clothes shall leave. As if to symbolize the scars from healing.
45,000 people gone after trusting in an institution to protect them as it always had in years prior, like 1992. An outsider and tourist should ask how can a church and beliefs that betrayed so many be able to endure to this day. But as the hymns stopped and the people of the church next door flowed out the doors and walked directly by the Nyamata site no tears were being shed. No blank stares. No grieving, just resiliency in the faces of every church member. Resiliency has kept the faith alive and well in Rwanda and it will never go away.
I am because we are.