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Monday, April 12, 1999 Published at 13:22 GMT 14:22 UK


Mourning the Rwanda genocide

Fifth anniversary of the start of the genocide is commemorated

By Africa Correspondent Jane Standley

I caught the smell of genocide before I could see where it was coming from.

You never forget the stench of a mass grave - you can almost taste it. The over-ripe sweetness of earth and bones invades your stomach and your mind, bringing back memories of things you hoped never to see.


Click here to listen to Jane Standley's report
I looked for the smell. But I could see only photographs and writings, pinned up on exhibition boards. And then as I peered around one, I saw the smell.

On a long thin table, human skulls were lined up, femurs and fragments of pelvic bones. Next to them the weapons of the genocide - machetes, hammers, clubs studded with nails.

They had been exhumed from one of Rwanda's many, many mass graves - as a travelling memorial to the victims. The red Rwandan earth - and the smell - still clings to the remains.

'Never again'

It is a special exhibition to commemorate the genocide - the photographs show the piles of victims, the mutilated survivors. Their testimony of grief and horror is written alongside.

The ministry of youth has organised the exhibition, with the support groups formed by genocide survivors, so that this generation can never say it didn't know what happened in 1994.

The message is, never again.

But that was the international community's message after the holocaust of the Jews. And almost 50 years later, and despite the international laws and conventions, genocide was allowed to happen again.

Silent suffering


[ image: Difficult for the very young to comprehend]
Difficult for the very young to comprehend
In 1994, the eyes of those who had escaped were terrifying - you didn't want to look into their emptiness - to confront your own failure, shame and guilt.

Five years on, there are still many empty eyes in Rwanda - the suffering is just more silent. If you want to, you can avoid them. But it is wrong not to meet the gaze of the survivors of the massacres - who sit quietly in the exhibition hall.

They appear to be listening intently to the songs of mourning playing on the national radio: I can hardly bear to imagine what they are thinking. Even the groups of schoolchildren are quiet. It's unlike any normal class trip to a museum.

Too young to remember

I go into the room where they are sitting on simple wooden benches, watching television footage of the bodies in the streets, listening to the killing songs and radio broadcasts of the militia responsible for the genocide - the Interahamwe - to their incitements to mass murder.

It's an odd and disturbing sight - some of the children are too young to remember anything, and may be too young now to understand what they are seeing. It may be too frightening, too traumatising for them to watch.

There are some awkward, nervous laughs amid the silence. It seems even odder that the children are sitting in a gymnasium, their benches crammed in around battered weight-training machines.

But this - the national stadium, is one of the few buildings big enough to hold large groups of people. I remember it for doing the same in 1994.

Thousands of people sought refuge here, existing as best they could, inside the stadium. Its name - Amahoro - means peace. The peacekeepers of the UN managed to protect most of them from the attacks of the militia - but there were few troops in 1994, the UN withdrew most of its force, when the need was greatest.

When I came into these same rooms five years ago, into this same gymnasium, I saw the remains of the squatting lives of the displaced and fearful - plastic plates and cups, bits of clothing.

Searching for the children


[ image: Candles are lit at the Amohoro stadium where people took refuge]
Candles are lit at the Amohoro stadium where people took refuge
The people themselves had gone back to their homes on Rwanda's green hills - to find out if there were any other survivors. For many there were not - their families were in the mass graves.

This was the way it was for my Rwandan friend, Helen. Five years ago we went together when the genocide had ended, when it was safe to go and look, to search for her five children. We found them not even in a mass grave, but in a pit.

The same smell was there. Now the three girls and two boys have been exhumed, been buried decently - and Helen and I go to pay our respects. She makes this same journey at this time every year - April is a mournful month in Rwanda.

Living with the memories

I wasn't here in Kigali when the reburial ceremony took place - so Helen describes the piles of bones and skulls being lined up on the ground, then being pressed into communal coffins. She says she could not bring herself to join the other survivors in the digging.

Helen also cannot bring herself to watch the commemorative films, to listen to the sounds of the genocide.

"I don't need any reminder, I will never forget," she says. "When I walk past the stadium, when I walk past the hospital, when I walk past the church - all the places where people tried to hide, and where many were killed - for me it is the same.

"The pain, the sorrow, the loneliness will never go away."



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