• PROOF:
  • April 2, 2014

Revisiting the Rwandan Genocide: How Churches Became Death Traps

Author
Peter Gwin
Photographs
David Guttenfelder

On a summer afternoon in 1994, David Guttenfelder took a taxi from the Rwandan capital Kigali to the nearby region of Bugesera. He walked inside the Ntarama Church and began taking photographs of people who had been murdered by their neighbors. They had come to the small, red-brick church from all over the area seeking refuge—just as their parents and grandparents had come in the past when violence broke out between the ethnic majority Hutus and minority Tutsis. But this time the church, like many others in Rwanda during the genocide, became a killing ground.

Left: The clothing of thousands of victims are piled on pews inside the Nyamata Church | Right: A spear-pierced skull is lined up with hundreds of other victim remains inside the church.  During the genocide thousands took refuge in the church but were massacred along with tens of thousands in the surrounding area. In the space of 100 days in 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed, 200,000 were raped and two million fled the country.
Left: The clothing of thousands of victims are piled on pews inside the Nyamata Church near Bugesera, Rwanda. Right: A spear-pierced skull is lined up with hundreds of other victim remains inside the church.

Thousands of bodies—old men and women, young men and women, boys and girls, toddlers and infants—filled the entire sanctuary. “People piled on top of one another, four or five deep, on top of the pews, between the pews, everywhere,” he said.

Outside, the grounds were overgrown, and victims lay where they had fallen. “People had been hacked to death and left slumped against trees. I remember one woman with her underwear pulled down lying on the ground. You didn’t have to be a detective to see how people were killed,” he said.

An hour later, as they drove back to Kigali, Guttenfelder asked the taxi driver if he had known anyone in the village. “Oh yes,” he replied. “My father and mother are in that church. And my grandparents.”

He went on to list most of his extended family as they followed the dirt road back to the capital where it had all begun.

In this photograph taken in 1994, survivors of a massacre in Nyakizu, Rwanda, stand outside the Cyahinda parish church where villagers said 4,000 to 5,000 people were killed.
In this archival photograph taken in 1994, survivors of a massacre in Nyakizu, Rwanda, stand outside the Cyahinda parish church where villagers said 4,000 to 5,000 people were killed.
Young Rwandan women leave the Sainte-Famille catholic church in Kigali after morning mass, March 30, 2014.
Young Rwandan women leave the Sainte-Famille Catholic church in Kigali after morning mass, March 30, 2014.

Before that day, Guttenfelder had seen the conflict from a very different vantage point. He arrived in Rwanda after the Tutsi-led Rwanda Patriotic Front had chased the Hutu-dominated army and militias over the border into Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), which prompted an estimated two million panicked Hutus to follow them, creating one of the greatest humanitarian crises in modern African history.

“I hitchhiked straight through Rwanda to the refugee camps and spent many weeks photographing the people who had done this,” he said. “And then I came back to Rwanda, and I didn’t have a clear perspective on what the Hutus had really done until I walked into that church. You can be told the enormous number of those murdered (estimated at between 800,000 and a million), but numbers don’t mean anything until you see something like the scene at Ntarama firsthand,” he said.

“What compounded the shock of it was that not only was it the most horrifying hell that I could imagine, but my first view of it was at a church. Rwanda is one of the most religious countries I’ve been in. It’s also one of the most physically beautiful countries I’ve ever traveled through. But this beautiful, seemingly pious nation also holds one of the darkest, most evil things I’ve seen in my life. I couldn’t understand or believe what had happened here.”

The experience set Guttenfelder on a career path of photographing conflict. “Up to that point, I didn’t really think of myself as any kind of war photographer. I had been a student in Tanzania. I was focused mainly on documenting normal African life. But this was the beginning of me understanding that to live in Africa and care about Africa, I had to cover the massively important stories that were unfolding during the 1990s. It was one after another, and in many ways they were interrelated: the genocide in Rwanda, the fighting in Burundi, the fall of Mobuto in Zaire. Later, there were the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia.”

This week, Guttenfelder and I visited Ntarama Church, which has been turned into a genocide memorial. It was his first time back since that day in 1994. The bodies have been removed from the grounds, which have been fastidiously groomed. But the church and its outbuildings have been left largely as they were the day he entered 20 years ago.

The brick facades are pocked gunfire and large jagged holes remain where Hutu soldiers used grenades to force their way inside. In the sanctuary, some of the bodies have been placed into coffins. The victims’ bloodstained and ripped clothing has been arranged into neat piles. Large metal shelves at the back contain rows of skulls and bones.

Bellancilla Uwitonze was 16 years old when the genocide began in 1994. Today, she works as a guide at the genocide memorial at Ntarama Church, where more than 5,000 people were massacred by Hutu soldiers and militias.
Bellancilla Uwitonze was 16 years old when the genocide began in 1994. Today, she works as a guide at the genocide memorial at Ntarama Church, where more than 5,000 people were massacred by Hutu soldiers and militias.
Skulls are lined up with hundreds of other victim remains inside Ntarama Church near Bugesera, Rwanda. During the genocide thousands took refuge in the church but were massacred along with tens of thousands in the surrounding area. In the space of 100 days in 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed, 200,000 were raped and two million fled the country.
Skulls are lined up with hundreds of other victim remains inside Ntarama Church.

Bellancilla Uwitonze, a 36-year-old genocide survivor and a visitor’s guide at the memorial, explained the events and described how the curators had sought to preserve the scene as much as possible. The remains of some 5,000 victims are here, she said.

She led us to the altar at the front of the church. Some of the weapons used by the killers were displayed on the floor: rusty machetes, spear points, knives, a wooden club, and a shot put used to crush the skulls of some of the victims.

She directed our attention to a purple and white banner bearing a phrase in Kinyarwanda. She begins to translate: “If you know me, and you know yourself, you do not kill me.” Her voice broke on the last line and she calmly walked out of the church. We could hear her muffled sobs.

Later she told us that even though she recounts what happened at Ntarama every day, several times a day, it is painful every time. “It is very difficult to relive the genocide every day,” she said. “I do it because young people must know what happened and that they can never let anyone divide us as Rwandans ever again.”

In Kigali we visited another church that had seen the massacre of its parishioners. In the first chaotic days of the genocide, more than 2,000 people had sought shelter in Saint Famille, Rwanda’s largest Catholic church. Later, many were handed over to the killers by one of the parish priests, who witnesses said colluded with the Hutu militias.

Rwandans congregate inside the Sainte-Famille catholic church in Kigali for Sunday mass on March 31, 2014. During the Rwandan genocide of 1994 thousands took refuge in the church but very few survived the massacre. Witnesses said that the priest in charge of the church armed himself and helped Hutu militias take people away to be murdered.
Rwandans congregate inside the Sainte-Famille Catholic church in Kigali for Sunday mass on March 30, 2014. During the Rwandan genocide of 1994 thousands took refuge in the church but very few survived the massacre. Witnesses said that the priest in charge of the church armed himself and helped Hutu militias take people away to be murdered.

Guttenfelder photographed the services there on Sunday. The pews in the cavernous church were filled with Hutus and Tutsis, women in sundresses, men in suit jackets, and children of all ages. They sang hymns, clapped their hands, and recited the Lord’s Prayer in Kinyarwanda.

“I was grateful to come back to Rwanda after 20 years,” he said, “and see a church full of life.”

David Guttenfelder and National Geographic staff writer Peter Gwin are currently in Kigali documenting the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide for National Geographic. This week, they share their words and images from Proof. Guttenfelder is posting these and other iPhone photographs in real time on Instagram at @dguttenfelder and @natgeo.

There are 29 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Carolyn James
    April 16, 2014

    David and Peter, Thank you, thank you, a thousand thank you’s.

  2. Cole Tierney
    April 5, 2014

    Good work
    Myles would love this. :)

  3. mithelesh
    April 4, 2014

    Financial , Educational and Moral support should be continuosly given to the people of Kigali especially.
    Every country must help the people of Rwanda.

  4. Paul
    April 4, 2014

    At the beginning of the book “Left to Tell” it says if you read this book you will never be the same. Very true. I encourage everyone to read it.

  5. Thomas J
    April 4, 2014

    If anyone sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; For in the image of God has man been made. (Gn9:6 )

  6. pat chan
    April 4, 2014

    Father forgive us all

  7. maria agueci
    April 3, 2014

    Mother Mary appeared in Rwanda in the early 80′s (church approved the apparition). She warned them that if man did not change, horrible things would happen. Alphonsine, Natalie and Marie Claire were the visionaries and were shown the horrible future which was waiting their country. Let us open our hearts and listen to what our Lady is still saying to us today. Mary, our Mother, please pray for us.

  8. Chloe
    April 3, 2014

    I still can not believe that when I was 6, living a happy and carefree childhood in the UK, this atrocity was happening. The threat of genocide is only too real for our generation, it is our responsibility to do everything in our power to prevent it affecting future generations.

  9. Noah
    April 3, 2014

    I think rewandans and the world at large should have learnt a lot of lessons from the ethnic aparty that ended up in a blody genocide.united will stand divided will fall.ethnic descrimination amongs us is far greater n deadly betwen the racial descrimination{black and white race.}

  10. concetta
    April 3, 2014

    it just breaks your heart to see this

  11. john bills
    April 3, 2014

    Amazed that very few of my family or friends know anything about this and many other atrosities in our “modern” times !

  12. shirani jayatilaka
    April 3, 2014

    I pray for all the souls of the victims of the genocide,that they are in the kingdom of God.I also pray for all who committed the genocide that they will repent of their sins so that they could be saved by the precious blood of Jesus Christ.

  13. Deb
    April 3, 2014

    While it is often evil under the banner of religion, in this case it was evil under the banner of racial/tribal divides. Religion was not part of this conflict. The horror was because churches have always been sanctuary where violence did not take place. This changed with the Rwandan genocide conflict, where thousands were massacred in the churches where they sought asylum.

  14. Terry Tempest Williams
    April 3, 2014

    Our hearts are with all those who remain and those who were taken, as we honor this 20th commemoration of the genocide. Twibuke. Never again. May we have the courage and the compassion and the moral governance personally, collectively, not to avert our gaze. “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.”
    Edward Abbey

  15. Mary Strom
    April 3, 2014

    This didnt happen because of religion…it was pride and government propaganda of hate which turned one group of people against another. We must return God to His rightful place in our hearts and begin to love one another again. United we stand, divided we fall. Search Our Lady if Kibeho on the web and be amazed.

  16. B. F.
    April 3, 2014

    My heart is still heavy thinking about the inhumanity that happened 20 years ago. That was pure, unadulterated evil; the minion-ship of Satan. Conversely, that last photo of all of those children is so beautiful. Prayerfully they will rise up out of the despair of their past.

  17. JESSIE
    April 3, 2014

    It is hard to rerview the whole thing,it is a human tragedy,it should not happen again.

  18. Bianca
    April 3, 2014

    I might be wrong because I don’t know the time zones in Africa, but in the caption of the last photo of the kids standing together, it reads that they congregated for Sunday mass on March 31st, 2014. Wasn’t March 31st a Monday? Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    • Alexa Keefe
      April 3, 2014

      @Bianca,

      Thank you for catching that. The Sunday mass was indeed on March 30. I have updated the post with the correct date.

  19. Lynn Loyd
    April 3, 2014

    I agree with this comment: “Mans inhumanity to man, not new and is still happening…humans ability to shock and repulse is nothing new…pure evil under the banner of religion”

  20. Ashok Manvati
    April 3, 2014

    http://youtu.be/6YIYeR3pI20 …….
    Link to the above site. You will have a glimpse of ethnic cleansing of about one million Kashmiri Pundits – aboriginal inhabitants of Kashmir, who have been brutalized and exiled from there ancestral land by extremist Islamic zealots in the year 1990; and the world remained silent. Vote and power politics is eating into the humane behavior of the human beings. So sad… be it in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan or any other place.

  21. C. Castellanos
    April 3, 2014

    How does one even begin to understand how such things can happen?

  22. Engin Akis
    April 3, 2014

    I visited Ntamara Church in Sept.2010. I cannot find words to express my feelings when I saw scene there… hard to believe what has happened there…

  23. Nivedita
    April 3, 2014

    Makes one wonder- what is it to be ‘human’?

  24. Milton
    April 3, 2014

    Do they have on trial or in prison the priest that helped the Hutu militia?
    If they didn’t , he will be judge by the highest judge ….GOD, with a one way ticket to hell.

  25. Antonio
    April 2, 2014

    Very sad that this things are happening in this modern days.

  26. Stephanie Grenier
    April 2, 2014

    Very well written! Africa suffers to much! Im glad they now live in peace!

  27. Lisa Sky
    April 2, 2014

    This painful look back also shows the strength of those who for religious and just plain human reasons hid/helped/protected each other- Hutus helping Tutsis and vice versa. It shows that it’s possible and that in the face of horrifying evil people can do good and rise above it.

  28. Alan
    April 2, 2014

    Mans inhumanity to man, not new and is still happening…humans ability to shock and repulse is nothing new…pure evil under the banner of religion…

Add Your Comments

All fields required.