Nyamata Genocide Memorial
- darkometer rating: 10 -
One of the National Genocide Memorials in Rwanda
– and one that really makes you gasp for breath – second only to Murambi
. Thus one of the very darkest sites anywhere in this world. Real heavy stuff. Seriously. Go well prepared.
>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 historical context overall is outlined under the glossary entry for the Rwandan genocide
. More background info can also be found under the general Rwanda
Nyamata was one of the worst sites of the unfolding of the genocide – the numbers of victims alone are staggering. 10,000 people were murdered inside the church building alone – yet more outside. The figures given vary, but it could have been as many as 24,000.
Like Ntarama, Nyamata lies in a region that had a particularly high proportion of Tutsis amongst the population. This was partly due to the fact that after the first genocidal developments in 1959 and the early 1960s (when Rwanda gained its independence and Hutu majority rule was installed), Tutsis were forcibly resettled here, as it was considered an unfavourable part of the land.
It was also here, on the other hand, that churches did serve as safe havens during the earlier genocidal outbreaks before 1994. This is why so many people crammed into churches all over the country to seek shelter, not knowing that these buildings would turn into death traps this time around. Nyamata became one of the starkest examples of this. The frightened Tutsis who had locked themselves in the church were not to be spared by the Hutu killer hordes.
When the Interahamwe militias at first couldn't get into the church, they sought re-enforcement from the Presidential Guard who then used hand grenades to force the way into the church open. Grenades were also thrown at the mass of people inside. Those who survived this were then "finished off" by all manner of brutal means … with the machete being the most prominent tool of death used, here as all over the country. Allegedly, some victims were even thrown – or forced to jump – into latrines. At least one corpse was retrieved from a deep well too.
Nyamata church was appropriated by the government after the genocide to turn it into a memorial, one of the earliest set up in the country. At first it wasn't generally welcomed by all. The Catholic Church even complained. But these days it ranks as one of the most significant and best-maintained such sites anywhere in Rwanda
What there is to see:
As at all of the National Genocide Memorial sites in Rwanda outside Kigali, visitors are on arrival greeted by a local guide who will then escort them around the site. Part of the reason for this appears to be the enforcement of the no-photography policy at these sites (at least indoors – see below
for more on this issue).
Much of the place is adorned with purple and white cloth – the symbolic colours in Rwanda for mourning and hope, respectively.
The guided tour starts inside the main church building itself – past a metal gate that is bent and twisted from when the killers forced their way into the church with the aid of grenades.
Inside, the pews – originally intended for up to 600 worshippers – are covered with heaps of dirty rags … the clothes of the victims! The amount of blood-stained clothing gives you a rough impression of the number of victims. But it is still near impossible to imagine how crowded the church must have been when the massacres began. How 10,000 people should have fitted into this space is beyond all comprehension really. The same is even more true, of course, for what happened to them here. Incomprehensible.
Still, the story of the place and the mass slaughter that took place here is narrated calmly by the local guide, in fairly decent English, by the way (which hadn't been the norm in Rwanda until rather recently). She also pointed out a few special exhibits on the church altar, first and foremost the cloth covering it: you can clearly see the enormous blood stains. Some of the victims were literally slaughtered at the altar. A couple of artefacts are also displayed here, including the genocidaire's murder weapon of choice: a machete.
The brick walls of the church interior also show stains from the blood of victims – as well as bullet holes and grenade shrapnel scars. The tin roof also has holes from the explosions – which now let tiny specks of light through.
Steps lead down to a morgue-like underground basement beneath the church. The inside is covered with white tiles and looks eerily clean ... in contrast to the rough appearance of the church room above with its heaps of clothing. There is a closed coffin displayed down here – and the guide explains that it contains the corpse of a woman who was raped and then impaled on a stick from the vagina up to the neck. Apparently the degree of brutality on the part of the killers knew no limits.
On a level above the coffin, shelves in a glass display cabinet contain a number of skulls and bones as well as a few selected further exhibits. Amongst these is an example of an original ID card, which everyone was obliged to have up until the genocide. Without them the selections of Tutsis by the Hutu militias wouldn't have been so easily possible. Thus it may be a minor exhibit to look at, but once you understand the significance of these little cards, it takes on a lot more gravitas.
Then you exit the church as such and are guided round one side of the building. You pass the grave of Italian humanitarian Tonia Locatelli – who was killed in 1992 after she had tried to draw the attention of the media to the fact that Tutsis were being systematically killed. And that was before the full-on genocide of 1994. It's a small reminder that a) the genocide hadn't come out of nowhere, and b) that the world could have known better and done more to prevent the mass slaughter …
Behind the church, a large metal roof on stilts protects two mass graves – or crypts rather. You can look in – and even walk in! In other words, here you can descend into the underground and stand amongst the remains of Nyamata's genocide victims. These are stacked on two high rows of shelves, from floor to ceiling, with bones and skulls. You can see on some of the skulls the cracks and holes left by machetes and other "tools" used by the killers to slaughter their victims. There is a musty smell about down here that only underscores the intense eeriness of the experience.
It's not for the claustrophobic – and also standing amongst the dead in this fashion may be too borderline an experience for some visitors. It is certainly one of the most intense sites a dark tourist in Rwanda
can visit – and should visit. I would personally rank Nyamata as the second darkest experience in the country, after Murambi
– which is an altogether different level still.
in the provincial town of the same name in the Bugesera region, which is now administratively part of Rwanda
's eastern province, roughly 15 miles (25 km) south from Kigali
(as the crow flies: more like 40 miles (65 km) on the road).
Access and costs:
fairly easy to reach from Kigali
, nominally free, but a donation is invited and expected.
Nyamata town can be reached independently quite easily: there are regular (mini)bus services from central Kigali
; roughly every half hour, taking ca. 40 minutes. You may have to ask around for help finding the correct spot and obtaining the correct ticket. The memorial site in Nyamata is (just about) within walking distance of where you get dropped off – or get one of the motos (scooter "taxis") or bicycle boys to take you there.
The more comfortable way is, of course, to get a taxi all the way from Kigali – or taking a general guided tour with a driver (see under Rwanda
Admission is nominally free, but a donation is not only welcomed but positively "invited" as you are steered towards the guest book and donation box (the guest book can also give you a guiding hint as to what kind of amount may be appropriate).
Opening times: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, is the general policy at the National Genocide Memorials, also that they are closed on public holidays and 'umuganda' (public work days), last Saturday of each month.
There may be deviations, though. When I visited, on Christmas Eve 2010 in the afternoon Nyamata (like Ntarama
) was still open, whereas Gisozi
had closed early at noon. It may not be a bad idea to check ahead to make absolutely sure you can get in.
Photography anywhere indoors is strictly prohibited (and the rule is enforced!) – if you want to take pictures you need to obtain a permit from the National Commission for the Fight against Genocide (CNLG), whose office is Kigali
I wish I had known this before I was taken there – that's the one thing where the company I travelled with let me down. I had made it clear that this was a research trip, so really they should have alerted me to the restriction; but they didn't, so I arrived without a permit. And no pleading got me anywhere at the site. In a way it confirmed the well-known cliché that Rwandans are very fond of hierarchies, strict rules and unfalteringly obeying them … but so what. At least it explains to you why I don't have better illustrative images in the gallery below … at least I managed to sneak in a zoom shot of the main church interior taken from the outside. For the rest of the inside, verbal illustrations have to suffice. Of course, if/when I go back to Rwanda – and there are several good reasons for a return visit – I will apply for the required photo permit and revisit the genocide memorial; so hopefully I will one day be able to supply more photographic images here too …
UPDATE 2023: a fellow dark traveller who visited Nyamata in August 2023 informed me that when he was there his guide was quite unenthusiastic and bored and didn't care that visitors took photos. Whether that was just a one-off an exception or if the rules have been relaxed I cannot say.
about half an hour … maybe a little more, depending on how long you can take it down in the mass graves … if you combine the trip (as is sensible) with a visit to nearby Ntarama
, then allocate about two to three hours for the round trip from Kigali
Combinations with other dark destinations:
It makes a lot of sense to combine a visit to Nyamata memorial site with one to Ntarama
, especially if you have your own driver/guide or have taken a taxi from Kigali
. Ntarama is only a few miles up the road back in the direction of Kigali and then off the main road to the left. It may not be quite as dramatic and breathtaking as Nyamata, but since it's on the way and one of the most visited such sites in the country it would be daft not to take it in when in the area. When travelling independently, then Ntarama is a bit trickier to get to, though you can get a moto (scooter "taxi") from the Nyamata bus stop to take you to Ntarama and back. In general see under Rwanda
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
nothing much in the vicinity – for elsewhere refer to the entries under Kigali
Note: images 3b/c and 7b/c are new additions, supplied by a fellow dark traveller who visited Nyamata in August 2023 but who chose to remain unnamed
- Nyamata 1
- Nyamata 1b
- Nyamata 2
- Nyamata 3
- Nyamata 3b
- Nyamata 3c
- Nyamata 4
- Nyamata 5
- Nyamata 6
- Nyamata 7
- Nyamata 7b
- Nyamata 7c
- Nyamata 8
- Nyamata 9