Nyamata: Sacred Ground

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It’s impossible to write a blog about Rwanda without dedicating at least a small amount of text to the genocide. While I have skimmed over the topic thus far, I feel an obligation to share a larger glimpse of the past and current situation with others. Over the first few weeks, Emily and I talked to genocide survivors (which included just about all of our Rwandan friends), we drove past mass graves on the highways, and we read about the history at the National Genocide Memorial in Kigali. Yet no matter how much factual information I learned, I was never able to even comprehend the horrors which these people lived through.

Emily and I heard about some church in a small rural town called Nyamata which had been left virtually untouched since it was rampaged in the genocide. A week before we left, we decided to visit the church in order to observe the special place and honor the victims before we departed for America. We weren’t sure how to get there, so we decided to ask our friend Prosper for directions. Coincidentally, Nyamata was Prosper’s town, and he was heading home with his family at that time. So he escorted us to the bus and we traveled together to the countryside. We arrived just before the memorial was about to close, which was also really lucky. God must have really wanted us to see this place!

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What I saw in the church was horrific. I got goosebumps and chills down my spine upon walking through the threshold of the door. I just stopped, unable to take another step, as I tried to filter the immensity of emotions that flowed through me. I just couldn’t fathom how much pain and suffering must have happened in that very spot; I was standing on sacred ground. I was immersed in an incomprehensible situation, but I finally felt a small amount of the pain which many Rwandans feel daily. The altar was desecrated, the tabernacle was torn open, old rosaries were heaped in piles. Blood stained clothes with visible tears from machetes were stacked in heaps on the pews. In a lower chamber of the church, and in two large chambers in the ground outside were the tangible remains of death. Open mass graves were filled from floor to ceiling with skulls and bones of thousands of people. They were situated in clear view, and many were filled with holes from bullets and slices from machetes.

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It was truly a spiritual experience, and it really made me think about some big theological questions of theodicy. How could God let this happen? Was this the answer to the peoples’ ceaseless prayers? Though God is often perceived as an unchanging and everlasting being, was God more present now than during the destruction? I became a little bit angry and frustrated with the God who is all-good. Yet what amazed me most was the courage, perseverance and relentless faith of the Rwandan people despite this pain. After Prosper stopped at his house, he joined us at the church to be our “tour guide,” but truthfully he poured out his own experience of the dark time. For his privacy I won’t repeat his story here, but suffice it to say he was stoic and brave as he factually told us unimaginable realities.

Rwanda is a peaceful nation now, but it maintains memorials like the Nyamata church as constant reminders of their plea for “never again.” And out of all the memorials, this was the only one that really struck me. It was simply crazy to see the shredded clothing, the shelves and stacks of bones, and the bullet holes in the ceiling. Yet out of the ruins, there is always hope, and this hope lives on in the lives of each Rwandan today.


2 thoughts on “Nyamata: Sacred Ground

  1. Connor and I walked with Tom Allen through Nyamata church, down into the catacombs. We spoke with the guard about the names on the open graves and were told that fathers and sons, women and children, all huddled into this church for protection. The soldiers, turned aside and let the killers into the sanctuary. It took 4 days to kill 5000 people. 4 days. The killers kept returning for more blood. Only the devil could have possessed these men to enable them to commit such atrocities.

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