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Ntarama Genocide Memorial Site

  
  - darkometer rating: 8 -
 
Site of one of the many massacres at churches that were so typical of the Rwandan genocide. It's one of the six National Museum sites of this type and has seen a lot of developments over the years. Yet, it is not as dramatic a site as the one in nearby Nyamata – let alone the truly shocking Murambi. Ntarama is more "intermediate" on that scale, though still grim in its own right.  

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

   
More background info: For information about the overall historical background see Rwandan genocide; cf. also under Rwanda in general.
 
Ntarama was and still is a very rural location, way off any larger roads or conurbations. Tutsis also formed a much larger proportion of the population here than in other parts of the country. In April 1994 this sleepy quiet parish became the site of the raw brutality that characterized the genocide, when the Hutu militias of the Interahamwe and Rwandan Government Forces arrived on the scene. As in similar locations, terrified Tutsis had come to seek refuge in the parish church … but it did not provide the safe haven they had expected it to be. The killers broke into the church – even literally breaking through the brick wall bit by bit in a couple of places – and proceeded to massacre everyone they found inside. People hiding in adjacent buildings were likewise butchered. Some were apparently dumped into a latrine on the premises, possibly even while still alive (as it was done elsewhere). All in all, some 5000 are believed to have been murdered here.
 
In earlier post-genocide years, this site remained quite raw, with blood-stained clothes and personal effects strewn all over the church's floor and bones piled in crude heaps. As parts of the building's walls were broken open, it was, however, exposed to the elements too much. To reduce the risk of deterioration of the structures, large protective metal roofs on stilts have been built over the old edifices. These roofs are quite oversized too – covering at least twice the area than that of the floor space of the buildings they "hover" over. While this is surely a sensible move with a view to preservation, it does make the site look strangely unreal too.
 
The inside of the church has also been cleaned up. Clothes are now hung from the walls, personal effects stowed away, and only a selection of skulls and bones are neatly stacked on a couple of shelves. The church pews are empty and clean again, though. One of the side buildings still shows more of the post-genocide disorder – but human remains have been removed here too.
 
The greatest change of all has been the transformation of the open-air area of the memorial site into a kind of dignified memorial garden. The flowerbeds may be a bit oversized and the colour schemes a tad on the heavy-handed side, but the addition of a memorial wall of names certainly lends proper commemoration to the site.
 
The site is said to be one of the most popular with foreign visitors (after the main memorial museum at Gisozi in Kigali, of course), which may partly explain the extra efforts that have been made here. But as in all the other genocide memorials outside Kigali that I visited in December 2010, there were no other tourists to be seen. So it still is hardly overrun by tourism …
 
 
What there is to see: On arrival a local guide welcomes visitors and then gives them a guided tour. The guide on duty when I visited, in December 2010, spoke halfway decent English and was able to enlighten us about the details of the place. This too seems to be a more recent development – I had read in earlier accounts of the place that the guides used to speak only French (and, one presumes, Kinyarwanda) but no English. French is still the preferred language of guides all over the country, but efforts of pushing English more to the fore are showing some effect.
 
The main part of the site is the church – a rather unassuming, simple brick structure that doesn't look like a church building at all. The place was, after all, only a minor rural parish. You can see the holes in the walls and the broken and bent windows – signs of how the killers tried to get access to the church by force.
 
The inside is rather dark, but still the sight of the skulls and bones stacked towards the back wall hits you immediately. The rest of the interior is kind-of semi-cleaned up. The clothes of the victims that used to be strewn all over the floor are now hung up from the walls and ceiling – many show clear remnants of blood stains. Personal belongings of victims as well as other objects have been neatly stowed away, leaving the benches of the church bare.
 
Tougher to stomach than even the bones and clothes is a patch on a wall that the guide explained is stained the darker colour it is because it was here that Hutu killers smashed children's heads against the brick wall. Grisly details.  
 
In one of the side buildings you can still see more of the jumble that the whole place used to be. And in another small room a cupboard has two shelves with what I take to have been personal belongings: letters, books, school materials, brochures, many in a bad state of decay.
 
The opposite is true for the outside – the landscaped garden surrounding the buildings appears well looked after (perhaps slightly too much so even). Also, when I visited, the place featured lots of banners and ribbons in the colour that in Rwanda signifies commemoration and mourning: purple – together with pure white (standing for hope). Here at Ntarama this colour scheme was much more visible than at most other genocide sites.
 
At the back of the compound, a relatively new wall of names has been set up. Here it takes the form of bare grey concrete, with names simply chiselled into it. Only a relatively small section of the wall does in fact have names on it – much of the wall is still blank, presumably for the usual reason that it's not easy to ascertain the identities of many victims (e.g. if there are no surviving family members left to provide such information). Still, the wall of names does more of a commemorative service to the place than the single white grave next to one of the buildings.  
 
 
Location: In a rather forlorn rural place in the Bugesera region south of Kigali, now administratively part of Rwanda's eastern province, roughly 15 miles (25 km) from the capital city as the crow flies (more like 30 miles (50 km) on the road).
 
Google maps locator: [-2.113,30.050]
 
 
Access and costs: rather remote, but not far from Kigali; nominally free but a donation is welcomed (and expected).
 
Details: getting to Ntarama independently is a bit tricky. You'd first have to get to Nyamata (connected to Kigali by regular bus services) and from there hire a "moto", a taxi scooter, or find some other form of private transport to take you to Ntarama (or brave the rather long walk).
 
Most foreign visitors, however, will take the easier option of going all the way from Kigali in a taxi or as part of a tour with a guide/driver (see under Rwanda for more info).
 
If you want to drive it yourself, take the Kigali-Nyamata road south out of Kigali – e.g. from the district of Kicukiro, where the road is called Avenue des Communications. You pass the Nyanza memorial site (see under Kigali) on the outskirts of the city, and eventually a bridge takes you across Akagera River, also known by its older name Nyabarongo. After that the road, now in a very rural area, takes a number of sharper curves, then straightens out again. It is here that you have to look out for the dirt road branching off to the right. After three quarters of a mile (1.2 km) the track forks and you need to take the left one. From here the memorial site is another mile (1.6 km) further on.  
 
Opening times: nominally 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, closed on public holidays, including 'umuganda' = public work days, the last Saturday of each month. This is at least supposed to be the general policy for all of the national memorials – however, when I went there on Christmas Eve, after Gisozi in Kigali had closed at midday, Ntarama was fortunately still open. To be on the safe side it may be a good idea to check ahead …
 
Admission is nominally free, but you are steered to a guest book and a donations box – and should leave something in both.
 
Photography is restricted: outside and in the side building is fine, but not in the main church building. However, I found that the rule was far less strictly enforced here than is the case elsewhere in Rwanda. At first I wasn't even informed of it – only after I had taken a couple of pictures in the church, the guide softly admonished me not to take any more, but did not demand I delete the images. Therefore I've taken the liberty of putting those two pics up here too, even though they are quite blurred.
 
 
Time required: a guided tour around the compound takes half an hour at most; getting there will take equally long at least. In combination with a visit to nearby Nyamata, the whole excursion takes something like two to three hours.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: the most obvious combination is a visit to Nyamata, which is just a few more miles down the main road from Kigali. Of course, the sites in Kigali should also be seen. Getting to the remainder of the National Genocide Memorial sites (see under Rwanda) requires significantly more time and driving.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: none nearby – but see under Kigali and Rwanda in general.
 
 
 
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