Days 7-8: hate media history/international reporting/Nyamata and Ntarama

Friday night in the AFRI 3100 house. It’s been a relaxed evening after a difficult day.
I’m lying in bed, a top bunk in a six person room, mosquito netting just above my head, headphones in my ears, trying to tune out the world. I’m finding that I need space and quiet to cope with the places we’ve been visiting and the stories we’ve been hearing. In a house of sixteen people, it’s sometimes difficult to find that solitude. Thus the headphones.
Yesterday we had a talk from a Paul Mbaraga, a professor of journalism here. Mbaraga has extensive experience working for the national radio station before the genocide, but he was in Germany, working as a journalist there, when the killings happened. He returned to his country in the early 2000s to teach.
Mbaraga spoke about domestic media leading up to the genocide. He explained how Rwanda used to only have state-run media, but this changed in the early 1990s. Private media emerged and newspapers and radio stations that broadcast Anti-Tutsi messaging became very popular. These stations would refer back to a biased version of history, describing a noble post-colonial Hutu revolution threatened by a Tutsi minority trying to reinstate monarchy in the country. This “hate media” encouraged the extermination of the Tutsi “cockroaches,” and urged genocide and killings.
The ICC has convicted three men for their roles in spreading this hateful propaganda. At least one more, Felicien Kabuga, is wanted by the ICC for funding the extremist radio station, RTLM. According to Mbaraga, Kabuga is uneducated, but inherited a fortune that left him rich enough to go into hiding and buy his safety.
Mbaraga also spoke to us about another side of Rwandan media pre-genocide: papers that spoke out against the hate media. He brought in copies of a pro-RPF paper called Kanguka. The editor of the paper was a personal friend of Mbaraga, and was killed in the early stages of the genocide. Other journalists were also targeted.
After Mbaraga’s talk we had lunch and then sat around the house. I managed to get some internet and posted a blog, although I’m now days behind in posting. When the connection died, Kirsten, another Canadian student, and I moto-ed to a nearby hostel to steal their signal and apply for transit visas, since we’ll be travelling through Kigali again in three weeks, on our way home from Tanzania.
We had dinner and then sat and talked in the evening. A large group crowded in the living room to watch Sex and the City, one of the few sitcoms somebody had on their computer already, but I sat upstairs on the balcony and talked about Rwanda, politics, and journalism with Allan and a few other students.
After breakfast this morning we Skyped Lindsey Hilsum, one of two foreign correspondents who was on the ground reporting during the genocide. Hilsum ended up in the role accidentally. Though she was a journalist, she’d taken a break from working with BBC and was actually living in Rwanda and working for UNICEF when the president’s plane was shot down on April 6.
Recognizing the magnitude of the situation, she immediately began reporting. It was a huge challenge to fully understand the situation, she said. She had colleagues and friends calling her, desperate for help, as Hutu militia advanced and attacked them. She experienced grenade fire as the RPF advanced. Her editors and audiences at home misinterpreted the situation. It took three weeks for her to finally use the word genocide.
It was a fascinating conversation. I kept trying to picture myself in her position. It’s one thing to discuss ethics and news values in a Carleton classroom, but in the middle of a genocide, how does that theory apply?
After lunch we drove out of the city to visit two memorials: Nyatmata and Ntarama. Both were Catholic churches where thousands of people sought sanctuary during the genocide, only to be brutally massacred 15 days into the killings. Forces killed most people with guns and grenades, shot from outside the buildings, then the militia entered the chapels to kill any survivors with machetes and clubs. Because the 20th anniversary of the genocide was this last month, there were grey and purple ribbons strung up around the memorials and bundles of flowers on the graves.
An estimated 11,000 people died at Nyatmata, a small brick building. Now, the pews are laden with the clothing of the dead, stacked in ragged piles. At the front of the space is a figurine of the Virgin Mary, her hands clasped in prayer, her lips subtly smiling, her eyes downcast, glancing towards the heaps of clothing that were once heaps of mutilated bodies.
There is a crypt underground displaying fractured skulls and a coffin containing the body of a rape victim, symbolizing all the women who suffered from sexual violence. Bulled holes have cut stars into the tin roof. There are mass graves behind the building, containing rows of skulls, dusted in red dirt.
My chest hurts even writing about it.
Ntarama is a small church, about the size of the Seventh Day Adventist church next door. There were more than 5,000 victims at Ntarama. Their bones and personal items still fill the main building. There are countless skulls, coffins filled with multiple remains, and shirts and pants hanging off the rafters. The guide showed us a yellowed identity card stamped Tutsi.
There are also three smaller buildings around Ntarama, “small houses,” the guide called them. People died there too. In the building that was the church kitchen, people were burned alive. In the space where Sunday school used to be held, there is a stain on the brick wall.
“They threw the small children against the wall,” our guide told us, “it is a blood stain. A blood stain. From the children. They threw the children against the wall and that is the blood stain.”
I struggled to breathe.
Even now, writing, it’s too much to comprehend. It’s too horrible for me to produce the meaningful commentary I’d like to be able to write. I have no thoughts beyond the deep sadness, horror, and incomprehension I feel thinking of that dark patch on the wall. No matter how much I read about the events and social climate leading up to the genocide, I don’t think I’ll ever wrap my head around how somebody could have created that stain.
On the way home we stopped at a hotel for a drink and view of the city. I sipped a lemon Fanta and chatted with two Canadians, Emma and Meag, and a Rwandan student, N., about culture.
N. told me his favourite food is traditional Rwandan food. I told him I grew up often eating my own culture’s “traditional food:” Chinese food. He seemed excited, and asked “Do you know how to eat with the sticks?” I laughed and demonstrated with two pens and then taught him how.
The four of us also talked about dating and marriage, about travel and more about food. It was a nice way to ease the tension of the day.
This evening we all relaxed and hung out. Some people put on Sex and the City again and this time I stayed. It was my first time watching the show, and it seemed an odd distraction, a world completely foreign to my life both at home and abroad. Eventually I snuck away to bed, to write and spend some time alone.
Tomorrow we are departing for a weekend out of the city. We’ll be spending the night in Gisenyi, which is supposed to be quite beautiful. There’s a beach there, where we can swim and relax. No skulls for a while.
Life goes on. It seems like it should be impossible, but somehow, we’ll get on a bus tomorrow and laugh and see more of this place and wonder at the beauty that, against all odds, does exist here.


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