Clothing collected from the victims of the 1994 Nyamata Church killings and surrounding area are put on display inside the church as part of a memorial. Some are covered in blood. Melissa Urscheler/Missourian
Meeting Charles

On our second day in Rwanda, we traveled to Nyamata, a small town outside Kigali, to visit the Nyamata Church, a brick building surrounded by a white iron gate. The sound of singing from Sunday Mass being celebrated in a nearby building could he heard through an open door. As I looked through quarter-sized bullet holes in a patio cover overhead — a reminder of the massacres that took place there — I found it hard to fathom that such faith was still present.

A young man dressed in dark jeans and a black button-up shirt, whom I had not noticed on the porch when we arrived, quietly introduced himself in accented English as Charles Mugabe. Awkwardly apologizing for his poor grammar, Charles switched to Rwanda’s native language, Kinyarwanda, and, with help from a translator, started telling his account of survival in 1994.

Charles was 8 when the genocide began. He, along with his father, mother and two brothers, fled to Nyamata alongside thousands of their Tutsi neighbors. Together, they crammed into the Nyamata Church and the surrounding yard, unable to sit. Charles said that many died from starvation and dehydration even before the arrival of the Hutu rebels, the Interahamwe, which, in Kinyarwanda, translates to "those who attack together." The Interahamwe was responsible for much of the killing during the genocide.


Children gathered outside the gates of Ntarama Church. Melissa Urscheler/Missourian
As Charles led us inside the church, we passed under a purple-and-white banner that, translated, reads, "If you knew me, you wouldn’t have been able to kill me."

Piles of torn, dirty and bloodied clothes that once belonged to those murdered in and around Nyamata were stacked a few feet high on every wooden pew. On the altar lay a rusted machete. Overlooking the mounds of clothes, a Virgin Mary statue was positioned on the back wall. Bullet holes in the roof made the interior of the church appear bathed in sunlight.

In his soft voice, Charles recalled April 1994, when his family was massacred inside those brick walls. He remembered the armed Interahamwe rebels mobbing the church, as they sang and shouted, “We’re coming to kill the cockroaches, the snakes.”

Charles pointed at places around the church, recounting the crimes he'd seen. To the right of the entrance, the rebels had murdered the little children, grabbing them by their legs and bashing their skulls against the wall. In front of the altar, they carved the fetus out of a pregnant woman, yelling, "We have to kill the Tutsi inside of her." To the left of the altar, a woman was impaled, a spear shoved between her legs. It exited through her neck.

This was our first meeting in Rwanda with a genocide survivor. I felt numb and unsure how to respond, but perhaps the most disturbing story was still to come: how Charles survived.

He turned his attention back to the open closet door behind him and explained how he and his mother had hidden there with others. His mother had been killed after the Interahamwe forced open the door and started pulling people out, in some cases using machetes to cut off the arms of people and slicing off the heads of others, which were tossed into the crowded sanctuary.

Charles had escaped into the main area of the church where he was able to find his twin brother, the only member of his family still alive. Slashed across the neck with a machete, his brother told him to smear the blood across his own limbs in an attempt to fool the rebels into believing he had been injured as well. Charles told us he did as his brother told him and, accepting his own death, lay down and eventually fell asleep. Later, after the soldiers left, he escaped from the church and sought refuge in swamps a few miles outside of the village.


Melissa Urscheler/Missourian A marker for one of the mass graves outside the Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre.
Charles did not tell any more of his story. Instead, he stepped aside while we walked around the church, which is now a memorial site. Outside again, he led us down to a cramped underground space and stood next to shelves full of the skulls of those who had been killed during the genocide. On other shelves, simply made coffins covered in cloth contained more bones of the dead. As we made our way down the steep stairs, the air increasingly stale, Charles pointed to one he said held the remains of his family.

When it was time to leave, we shook Charles Mugabe's hand. Overwhelmed and reflective, we thanked him and shuffled back onto the bus. I took a seat in the back where I was able to look through the fence at the church. Charles still stood on the porch, smiling and shaking hands with other visitors.

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Timeline

1918 Rwanda-Urundi, a former German colony, is given to Belgium under the Treaty of Versaille.

1926 Ethnic identity cards are introduced in order to distinguish between Hutus and Tutsis.

1960 Belgian colonial rulers organize municipal elections. Hutus win.

1961 to 1962 Rwanda becomes an independent country.

Mid-1960s Half the Tutsi population is estimated to be living outside the country.

1967 Tutsis massacre begins.

1973 Tutsis are no longer allowed at universities and are restricted to 9 percent of paying jobs.

1975 The National Revolutionary Movement for Development (MRND) is formed.

1986 Rwandan exiles form the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

1989 Coffee prices collapse, creating a sever economic downturn in Rwanda.

1990 to 1991 The army begins to train civilian militias. The MRND stalls on creating a multi-party system. Tutsis are killed in many massacres. Opposition is persecuted.

February 1993 RPF renews fighting around Kigali, lasting for several months.

August 1993 The MRND and the RPF sign a peace accord, creating a coalition Hutu-RPF government. About 2,500 U.N. troops are deployed to oversee the return of the refugees.

September 1993 to March 1994 Militia training intensifies. MRND stalls on creating government. Extremist radio stations broadcast please to attack Tutsis.

April 6-7, 1994 The Rwandan and Burundi presidents are killed after their plane is shot down. The Rwandan army and militias start killing Tutsis and moderate Hutus. U.N. forces stand by because intervening would break their mandate.

April 21, 1994 The U.N. reduces forces to 250 after the killing of 10 soldiers.

April 30, 1994 The U.N. Security Council condemns the killings but omits the word "genocide," releasing it from the obligation to protect civilians.

May 17, 1994 The U.N. agrees to send more troops with power to protect civilians and begins to use the word "genocide."

Mid-May 1994 The International Red Cross estimates that 500,000 Rwandans have been killed

Nov. 1994 A U.N. tribunal is created.

Jan. 10, 1997 The first trial comes before the tribunal.