Nyarubuye Genocide Memorial
- darkometer rating: 9 -
One of the more remote of the National Genocide Memorials of Rwanda
. Refugees from the genocide
gathered here in the massive church and adjacent convent but in just 2-3 days in mid April 1994 almost all of the 20,000 were butchered. It was one the starkest sites of death in Rwanda – now it is a fairly neatly maintained, dignified memorial and the church is back in use.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
The story of the massacres at Nyarubuye during the Rwandan genocide
is an especially vile one, though a very typical one at the same time. It's one of those many cases where fleeing Tutsis (as well as moderate Hutus) were first sent to a church to seek safety but then found they had been duped. The ploy only served the killers. Assembled in one place they had it easier in slaughtering the Tutsis en masse. Some 20,000 is the most often quoted figure for the total death toll at Nyarubuye. The killings took no more than two or three days.
In this case, a specific name can be attached to the betrayal and subsequent organized butchering of these victims: Sylvestre Gacumbitsi, who was the mayor (bourgmestre) of the district. He personally led the attacks on the church, distributed arms, and urged the mob to rape and kill, both in the run-up to the event as well as during it – using a megaphone! He actively took part as well. At the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, he was sentenced first to 30 years (when he was initially acquitted for murder and complicity in genocide), which was increased, after an appeal, to life imprisonment. For once, a key player in the actual massacres had to face justice.
The local guide at today's memorial site also pointed out an additionally tragic element of the horrors of this particular place: that most of the victims at Nyarubuye were refugees attempting to escape from the genocide by fleeing across the border to Tanzania, which is only a few miles away. They were so close but never made it (unlike about half a million luckier/quicker ones who did).
Today it seems unimaginable when you step into the immaculately refurbished nave that back then it was filled with corpses. While the church has been returned to its original function (unlike the ones at e.g. Nyamata
), parts of the adjacent convent (where atrocities took place too) now house the actual memorial.
What there is to see:
This was the last of the genocide memorials I visited on my Rwanda trip December 2010/January 2011. Maybe I was already somewhat hardened by the previous ones, but Nyarubuye stands out in my memory as the most serene, most dignified, even pleasant one visited. The shock factor was a lot lower than at Ntarama
or (in particular) Murambi
, even though what happened here was no less horrific, and the guide on the tour doesn't spare you the gory details.
Maybe it's a matter of balance. The first thing you see of the site after you pass the large stone sign for it (in Kinyarwanda only, for once) is the massive brick church that dominates the complex. The actual memorial site, however lies behind it. There, visitors are received, as usual at these sights, by a guide who then takes them round the place.
The tour took us first to what used to be the convent (nunnery) attached to Nyarubuye church. It consists of three wings of single-storey buildings arranged like a horseshoe shape.
The "exhibition" part of the memorial is located inside two of them (no photography allowed here). In what feels like a long corridor are arranged the usual (literally) rags and bones exhibits one has come to expect of these sites: skulls in neat rows on low table-like shelves, and bones stacked equally neatly according to size. Some of the skulls show the cracks and holes from the brutal use of machetes and other farming tools.
A whole range of instruments of murder are also on display here, far more than at the other genocide memorials. Not just the usual machetes, also all manner of even cruder farming implements. Also displayed are troughs, originally used for brewing banana beer, which during the killings were filled with blood. The irony here is that it was banana beer that "fuelled" many of the murdering hordes … A milk vat displayed was allegedly even filled with victim's blood deliberately – as a racist gesture: because Tutsis were known for preferring a milk and dairy-product accented diet.
The most gruelling details outlined by the guide were those of use of the pointed sticks that were leaning against a wall. The Interahamwe killed pregnant women by driving such sticks through the vagina and impaling them up to the neck, piercing the baby in the womb on the way. (Cf. the similar story told at Nyamata
.) This was possibly the very pinnacle of unimaginable cruelty.
Along the first corridor were also the piles of rags, victims' clothes, faded but with visible blood stains, piled in one corner. The guide pointed out that these are awaiting some chemical treatment for preservation. The passing of time has arrived at Rwanda
's genocide-related artefacts too, then, if such measures are now required ... and it is of course good that they are being undertaken. I felt reminded of Auschwitz
and the problems of deterioration and fading of e.g. the infamous heaps of victims' hair displayed at the museum there.
Another thing that was vaguely reminiscent of Auschwitz etc. was that at Nyarubuye there's also a table with a pile of victims' shoes (sandals mostly) – heaps of shoes are also a common feature of many a former concentration camp or other Holocaust memorial.
At the end of the second room, a headless Jesus statue stands out. As the guide explained, the Hutu attackers beheaded this Jesus because it had a long nose – just like Tutsis, who were in part distinguished racially from Hutus by their longer noses. I asked, but weren't most of the attackers also Christians? Well, yes, but their frenzy of racist hatred was clearly stronger than their religion. Indeed. Still, it's odd to see that on top of slaughtering thousands of living people there was still headroom for racist violence directed at a mere statue – and it's strange to register a certain feeling of being sorry for this lifeless object, and that in the face of so much evidence of real death. But sometimes it's the symbolic power of such a display that has an even deeper impact than yet another row of skulls.
Outside in the courtyard of the ex-convent, a few more spots of significance are pointed out. This includes, in particular, a couple of boulders poking out of the ground. They don't look like anything until you learn that their smooth edges stem from the fact that the killers used them to sharpen their machetes – which obviously became blunt after hacking thousands of bodies apart.
Opposite the convent, a kind of memorial garden has been created near the mass graves of the victims. Landscaping and gardening work was still in progress when I visited. The other main feature of this section of the memorial complex is a long wall of names, intended to commemorate every single life lost here by name. However, the problem is that because so many victims were not from the area but on their way to refugee camps in neighbouring Tanzania, the identity of most of them cannot easily be established. Thus far only a tiny section of the endless concrete wall actually has any names on it. On the one hand it looks a little pathetic having only so few names on such a long wall – on the other hand, the vast empty space still available for more names (even if they never can be filled in) provides a stark indication of the numbers involved. Space for some 20,000 names, but only a handful have been identified – the rest have to remain anonymous.
The memorial garden also features a kind of rostrum with a metal roof for sun-protection and a bench under it, behind a kind of podium. Obviously, this has been constructed for the holding of ceremonies. And indeed, Nyarubuye is one of those memorials that has seen high-ranking dignitaries as visitors, including not only Paul Kagame
(the current president) but also Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the then Secretary-General of the United Nations
at the time of one of the greatest failures in its history.
Although not actually part of the memorial site as such, we then also paid a visit to the Nyarubuye church – and imposing brick structure, quite different from the modest, modern, low-rise churches of Ntarama
. Unlike the latter, Nyarubuye church was also returned to its original function as a place of worship. Hence you have to use your imagination to picture the interior of this calm place littered with dead bodies (if that's possible at all). The only indication of violence visible at the church is, again, one directed against Jesus – in this case the white statue over the main portal on the outside: if you look closely you notice that his left hand is missing, presumably also hacked off by the Interahamwe … Otherwise, the church today looks impeccably tidy both from the outside and inside.
The whole place looks in very good shape, and more improvements are being made (esp. continued landscaping in the memorial garden). It is clear that it is a well-managed site.
The guide, as usual these days at Rwanda
's genocide memorials, spoke English (as well as French and Kinyarwanda, of course); she struggled a bit with the language at times, but managed OK. And in contrast to the experience with the harsh-mannered guide at Murambi
, the guide at Nyarubuye was as pleasant as can be, while still very professional. Furthermore, unlike any of the other guides encountered at these sites, she (I think he name was Jane) also took an interest in the visitors themselves and asked us questions beyond the usual 'where are you from?' but enquired how many of the genocide memorials we'd seen, what we thought of them and the way they present themselves.
On balance, then, it was a very worthwhile visit, even though on the scale of darkness that some of the other memorials in Rwanda
aspire to, Nyarubuye is probably only somewhere in the middle. It is thus probably not as high on the priority list a dark tourist in the country should have as it could be were its location not so remote. Whether it is really worth the effort coming all the way from Kigali
to see Nyarubuye and then heading straight back is thus a real question. But if tagged on to a day or two at the nearby Akagera National Park (see under non-dark combinations) it certainly makes much more sense and is recommended.
In the south-east of Rwanda
's Eastern province, not far from the border with Tanzania, which is only 7 miles (11 km) further east; the nearest larger town is Kibungo 15 miles (24 km) to the west as the crow flies.
Access and costs: very remote, not easy to get to independently; nominally free (but a donation is expected).
Nyarubuye's location in the hinterland of the rural far south-east of Rwanda makes it very difficult to access independently. You could get fairly easy public transport from Kigali
to Kigongo, which is the largest town of the region and thus served by regular (mini)bus connections, but travel onwards from there could be trickier to organize. The distance to Nyarubuye is only 15 miles (24 km) but roads follow roundabout courses, so the real distance is far more than that – too far for a moto (scooter taxi) ride. Also, once you're off the main tarmac surface road (2b) towards the Tanzanian border at Rusumo, the dirt tracks over the rocky hills in these parts can become quite rough in places. So a good car, preferably a 4x4, is required. Here, it really pays off to have a driver/guide who knows the territory – without, Nyarubuye may be near impossible to find. When I visited the place it was part of a larger round trip, and we came to Nyarubuye from the Akagera National Park (see below
), and I remember the ride being a slow and bumpy one, through very remote rural Rwanda, with hardly any signposting. Even my knowledgeable and experienced driver-guide had to ask directions from locals a couple of times. The remote scenery is pretty to look at from a car, but out here on my own I would have felt very lost indeed. The time it took for the drive back to Kigali from Nyarubuye was something like three hours, so it should just about be doable as a day return trip from Kigali
The memorial site itself is clearly marked by a large sign when you get there, and as usual at these sits there's a local guide on hand to receive foreign visitors.
Admission is nominally free, as in all the national memorial sites, but here too a donation is welcome, even expected.
presumably between 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., daily, with the exception of public holidays and 'umuganda', the Rwandan "public work days" on the morning of the every last Saturday each month. At least this is supposed to be the general policy for all the National Genocide Memorials – however, I'd recommend you check ahead (or have your guide check ahead), in order to make absolutely sure that you won't be arriving at a closed door (cf. Bisesero
), especially given the remote location of Nyarubuye.
Photography is restricted to the outside and the church only, but nowhere inside the memorial – similar to the rules at Nyamata
(but not as totally strict as at Murambi
Time required: about half an hour guided tour, and you can add a little time for viewing the church. Getting there and back will take disproportionately more time.
Combinations with other dark destinations: none in the vicinity – unless you count the Rusumo Falls right on the border with Tanzania: here, at the height of the genocide, bloated dead bodies of victims butchered further upstream and thrown into the Akagera river were washed over the crown, down the waterfall, and onwards towards Lake Victoria at a rate of one or two a minute … but today there is no indication at the site of this grim spectacle; what you see is just a waterfall (a pretty impressive one all the same).
For dark sites in other parts of the country see under Rwanda
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
in general see under Rwanda
– the main reason for tourists to venture out to the eastern edge of the country is Akagera National Park, and for good reason. Here you can go on game drives for hours on end without ever passing another vehicle. As a game reserve, Akagera cannot compete with, say, Kruger Park in South Africa
or the famous national parks over the border in Tanzania, but even though you won't see as many animals, you get a marvellous off-the-beaten track experience. Of the so-called "big five", only buffalo are almost guaranteed to be spotted. There are also elephants, but they are harder to find because they live in a fairly densely forested part of the Park, so unless they are on or directly by the road you won't be able to see an elephant even if it is just yards away. Big cats are extremely rare in Akagera, but a few leopards have reportedly been spotted on several game drives recently. Lions, however, are almost non-existent. The Park is making efforts, however, to finish a complete fence around the Park, with a view of possibly resettling some lions here. The fence is intended to protect both the lions from poachers and the cattle of the farmers living in the area from the lions. Poaching is now more or less under control, but remains a problem: shortly before my visit, two rangers had been killed in a clash with poachers – a stark reminder that it remains a dangerous job.
The greatest danger to the visiting tourist, though, is posed by insects, including malaria-transmitting mosquitoes and the nasty tsetse fly. Hippos and crocodiles, which can be seen in abundance at Akagera, are also potentially very dangerous. The most common animal encounters in the Park are, however, with all kinds of antelope, from the pretty little impala to the mighty elan antelope; male bushbuck are also an impressive sight. On the primate front, Akagera is paled by both the gorillas of the Virungas and the plethora of species in Nyungwe National Park, but you are likely to encounter at least baboons, and with a bit of luck a few other species can also be spotted.
Bird life is also a significant factor of wildlife watching at Akagera, and a few larger species are also impressive for those that aren't into the nerdier levels of bird-watching. The superstar of all birds in Akagera Park, the mighty shoebill, is, however, not easy to find, as its habitat is in the swamps too far off the tracks safari jeeps can go on or boats can navigate.
Accommodation-wise Akagera lacks the range of the more famous game reserves in Africa, but the Akagera Game Lodge, the only option inside the Park other than camping, makes for a decent compromise between the basic and the super-luxury of some of the African lodges and game camps.
- Nyarubuye 01 - sign
- Nyarubuye 02 - church
- Nyarubuye 03 - former convent
- Nyarubuye 04 - now housing remains and artefacts
- Nyarubuye 05 - stones used for sharpening machetes
- Nyarubuye 06 - memorial garden
- Nyarubuye 07 - landscaping still in progress
- Nyarubuye 08 - only very few names known
- Nyarubuye 09 - rostrum for visiting dignitaries
- Nyarubuye 10 - massive brick church
- Nyarubuye 11 - Jesus with hacked of hand
- Nyarubuye 12 - church interior
- Nyarubuye 13 - church detail
- Nyarubuye 14 - church altar