This is an excerpt from my journal just after our visit to the Murambi genocide memorial, outside of Butare.
We’ve left, but the smell of calcified bodies in unfinished rooms still lingers. Rooms that would — should — have been classrooms. Instead, contorted bodies, gnarled hands, twisting feet of lime-covered bodies on the tables. Small to large, infant to mother, father, grandparent. On some of the heads, curly, thinning black hair.
Everything else is white. Some of the corpses wear underpants, waistbands too loose to fit on their desiccated owners. Some wear shirts, in many different styles, with just a hint of former color remaining.
Just down the hill from those rooms, which hang frozen in time, the patchwork fields begin. Women hoe their crops, stand outside of mud brick houses laughing. From across the valley on a nearby hill, echoes of children laughing reverberate between brick buildings.
All around Murambi, this memorial to 40,000 murders in the space of three days, life goes on.
Before you enter a room, the stench hits you. It’s a stench that, in itself, would be merely unpleasant. In context, that smell makes you gag, makes you want to vomit just to rid your nose and mouth of the particles you’re breathing in. It’s not a rotting smell. It’s the aging, stale smell of lime.
You want to forget the smell, but you continue to enter the rooms, one after another, all down the balcony, twisted corpse after twisted corpse. Each time you leave a room, there is the woman in pink hoeing her field, the brilliant green rolling hills, the dirt roads shimmering with rain, the mist hanging low. Life and death, sadness and laughter so close together.
Then come the mass graves, the ones filled in a hurry, with a bulldozer, to hide evidence of the massacre. When French soldiers came in on Operation Turquoise, they set up camp at the half-built school and built a volleyball court atop one of the graves, allegedly not noticing the turned-up dirt or the evidence of a massacre.
It took years to find those bodies.
We’ve heard from some who say they’ve forgiven those who killed their parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts or siblings — sometimes all — and some who say they haven’t.
Honestly, I don’t think I could forgive. Visiting these sites, I’ve felt the strongest emotions when small details have reminded me of loved ones, and I’ve broken down recognizing that those clothes, those skulls, those corpses preserved in lime could be my family.
I can hardly imagine living with that memory and that loss for the rest of my life, and I can not imagine forgiving the ones who caused that loss. The ones who can are stronger than I will ever be.