The township of Ntarama is home to a red-brick Christian church, set in a garden and surrounded by trees. It looks like a very quiet place, but that tranquility belies its violent past.
At Ntarama Catholic Church, more than 5000 people were brutally killed during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis.
The church, today a memorial, presents a few particularities compared to other sites: while you can find mass graves, some videos and photos of the victims to describe the brutal massacre in other sites, Ntarama also houses skulls lined on a shelf at the building’s entrance, as well as belongings of the victims.
The building contains a few coffins laid on the altar and in the pews, browned clothing hanging from red-stained walls, as well as items such as mattress, ID cards, shoes, cooking stuff and notebooks people brought to the church hoping to live there until the end of the violence.
Rosaries and an old open-armed statue of Mary promised a peace the victims never got.
According to Bellancille Uwitonze, a guide at Ntarama memorial site, all those victims gathered in the church between April 9 and 14, believing that a church was inviolable if one was being pursued by a killer. On April 15, the Interahamwe proved them wrong when they attacked and barbarically killed them.
Traditional weapons such as machetes as well as grenades were used to massacre the victims -these instruments used in the executions, too, can still be seen there as they are grouped at the front of the church. Among them a long, sharp stick that was used to violate women.
On the other side of the church, there is what used to be a Sunday school. This is another place where a series of dehumanizing actions took place: children were taken there and systematically killed by smashing them against the wall. Until today, blood stains testify to the horror. A nearby kitchen shows another gruesome scene, with charred mattresses as a witness of how people were burned to death.
While those are all remnants of the 1994 massacres, Uwitonze says persecutions against the Tutsis began much earlier, with the area being turned in some kind of testing ground for the Genocide.
According to her, the region was less populated before 1959 and many Tutsis from Gisenyi, Ruhengeri and parts of Gitarama were massively relocated there in early 60s. She explains the reason behind this was to let them be killed by hunger and the numerous Tsetse flies this forest area.
Yet contrary to expectations, the majority survived. Later, other people also settled in the area. Throughout the years, they were harassed and persecuted, says Gaspard Gasasira, a journalist in early 90s who now works with The National Commission for the Fight against Genocide (CNLG).
“For instance, they came with a mini-bus in which a bomb was planted, and then blamed the Tutsis to be responsible for it,” he recalls.
Antonia Locatelli, an Italian volunteer working in the area at the time, also witnessed one of the massacres leading up to the Genocide. In an attempt to save the lives of the Tutsis who were being persecuted in 1992, the Italian struggled to inform the western world and the international media to denounce what was happening.
She was murdered one day after she made the appeal. She is now buried at Nyamata, close to the church in which thousands of Tutsis were massacred just two years later.
Of the thousands who were gathered there, only a handful survived.