Murambi genocide memorial
- darkometer rating: 10 -
Possibly the darkest, starkest, grimmest, most shocking site it is possible to visit as a dark tourist on planet Earth. It is unique amongst all the various genocide memorial sites in Rwanda
in that at Murambi whole bodies are on display, half-decomposed, half- mummified by lime, which turned the bodies white. The experience is heart-stopping, gut-wrenching but awesome at the same time.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
Indeed, the "shock and awe" policy of the Murambi memorial is deliberate – and is defended officially as serving to prevent genocide
denial. Whether or not you follow that reasoning, the site is in any case controversial. Some claim it is undignifying to display corpses like this. On the other hand, most of the dead at Murambi were indeed given a dignified burial and it is only corpses that were never claimed by any surviving relatives that were left on display, which I guess makes it a little less problematic.
I'm not even convinced that their display is really "undignifying". You can argue that the fact that they are bleached white from the lime they had been buried in makes the display somewhat detached from the rawness it would otherwise have (although the thought of blacks dyed white is not without its irony).
Actually, you can also see a certain beauty in the display of the dead
at Murambi – and in that sense they are even more dignified than those buried in the mass graves under big stone slabs. Presumably, this is only a minority opinion. But in any case I am glad I've been to see this – haunting as the experience is.
But now for some historical background information. What happened at Murambi during the Rwandan genocide
of 1994 was this: as the genocide was unfolding, Tutsis all over the country tried to seek refuge in churches and schools, including at the nearby parish of Gikongoro. At the soon overcrowded place, the refugees were then told (even by a bishop) to move on to a new school complex on the hillside at Murambi (the construction work had not quite been finished, so the school was not yet in use). As so often, however, this turned out to be just a ploy to assemble large numbers of Tutsis in a place where they could more easily be massacred.
When the killers first arrived, on 18 April, the masses of people crowded into the school in Murambi were at first able to fend them off e.g. by throwing stones – but basically, there were just too many of them, though this safety in numbers proved to be only temporary. Many people were killed during those initial attacks. But on the morning of 21 April the killers came back in force, and with soldiers wielding guns and grenades. They encircled the compound and began mowing the Tutsis down. Within a few hours they had slaughtered virtually everybody, then they went round looting and finishing off any wounded who were not yet dead. The numbers given for the total death toll at Murambi vary widely, usually between 20,000 and 70,000. It's hard to ascertain.
What is certain is that only a very small number of the people attacked at Murambi survived – mostly because they were unconscious and left for dead but came to in the night and managed to flee before the militia came back with heavy machinery for burying the sea of corpses in mass graves. One such survivor used to guide visitors round the site – as reported e.g. by Jeb Sharp for "The World" in 2007 here
But when I visited, in December 2010, this survivor guide was nowhere in sight, and the guide I had was clearly especially appointed for the job, and seemed too young to possibly have been an eyewitness.
Things are changing at these memorial sites in Rwanda
, and Murambi is no exception. Indeed, it has arguably changed the most since it was first conceived in 1996. And the developments are not over yet. When I visited, lots of construction and/or maintenance work was going on in various parts of the complex. Moreover, the exhibition in the main building was still not open.
Apparently, this exhibition part of the site had been worked on for a long time, and the opening delayed for years. This is partly due to controversies over the content of the exhibition, but details of this are difficult to come by. One element outlined on the official website of the National Museum of Rwanda (INMR), which also covers the six National Genocide Memorials, is this: apparently the local population had voiced suspicions concerning the memorial, many seemed to believe that the memorial was intending to stir up hatred against Hutus. When the exhibition designers then tried to emphasize the role of Hutu "heroes" who had helped Tutsis during the genocide, it turned out that some of Hutus mentioned may indeed have helped some Tutsis, while still having been involved in the slaughtering of others.
Whether this controversy was part of the reason for the delay, however, I cannot tell. What I do know is that the Aegis Trust, who runs the corresponding exhibition in Kigali
's Gisozi genocide memorial centre
has been involved in the design of the exhibition. But the CNLG had editorial control of the texts used.
The exhibition has meanwhile officially been opened, in May 2011. It is bound to be a valuable addition to the Murambi memorial site as a whole. It's a shame that I wasn't yet able to see it. Well, it gives me another reason for a return visit.
Yet another such reason would be to go back with a photo permit. As with most of the other National Genocide Memorials, photography is no longer permitted inside. At Murambi, this rule is especially strict, and rigorously enforced – to the point of paranoia. Visitors have to leave all recording devices (including photo cameras) behind before entering the site. It reminded me of North Korea
This has clearly not always been so at Murambi – you can find numerous images on the Internet that were taken by tourists visiting the site, not just professional reporters (see below). Maybe that's precisely the reason why the rules have meanwhile been tightened up so much? Although I have yet to come across any photographic coverage of Murambi that wasn't respectful – so what exactly the underlying fear is, I cannot say.
These days, a special photo permit has to be obtained from the office of the National Commission for the Fight against Genocide (CNLG) in Kigali prior to any visit. I wish I had known that before I went to Murambi (and the other memorial sites outside Kigali), but the company I travelled with never pointed this rather important detail out to me.
This means that I turned up at these sights without a permit – and no degree of negotiating, pointing out it was for research, nor any amount of pleading and begging got me anywhere. Rules really are rules in Rwanda. So I was unable to take pictures of my own on that visit and can thus only illustrate the experience verbally here.
However, if I travel back to Rwanda I will definitely first of all go to the CNLG office to obtain such a permit. I really regret not having been allowed to gather photos at this exceptional site. As I said, it gives me a reason for a return visit … in a few years time. Meanwhile the single picture I took from the car as we were approaching the memorial is all I can offer. For more visual illustration you will have to search the Internet – or go directly to these few examples of where to find such images: an official site that's a good starting point is this official website
Good for photos of the site (including some historical ones), if not so much of the corpses, and with some valuable accompanying information, is this extensive site
I had other photo sources too, but rechecking the web address a decade later I found that most had disappeared. But in the end, no photos can convey what it is like to see these displays of the dead with your own eyes in any case …
What there is to see:
The ex-school complex at Murambi is quite a sprawling site, with a white fence around it, comprising a cluster of smaller buildings and one larger main building at the front, which has more recently added features such as the new front hall. This also serves as the reception. As usual at these sites in Rwanda
, visitors are greeted and then led around by a local guide (i.e. you can't go off and explore the site on your own). Then you are informed that you have to leave all your cameras and other recording devices behind (as is the strictly enforced rule here – see under background for more info).
The first part of the visit should have been the exhibition upstairs in the main building, but when I visited, in December 2010, I was informed this had still not been opened yet … and that the opening was still a few months away. Meanwhile it has opened (in May 2011) but since it wasn't available for viewing yet when I was there I can't say anything about the exhibition's quality or content from my own experience. However, photos I've seen and reports I've read suggest to me that the exhibition is probably fairly similar in style (and possible content) to the Kigali Genicide Memorial
At my visit, though, we instead we went straight round this main visitor centre building and headed to the rooms where those exhumed corpses are on display …
… I thought I had been rather well prepared for my visit to Murambi – but nothing can really prepare you for this experience. I had seen photos, but it simply doesn't compare to being there and seeing (and smelling) those corpses for real.
You enter the first room and it's instantly shocking. A certain stench hangs in the air – somewhat nauseating, though it's not really that of decomposing (the bodies have been preserved, after all) but still reminiscent of decay. Difficult to describe in words, but intensely part of the horror at this memorial site.
You almost have to force yourself to take a closer look at those bodies – and there are dozens of them, arranged next to each other on wooden table-like structures. They are all white – apparently from the lime pit they were exhumed from and which had preserved them in this half-decomposed state, almost like natural mummies. Apart from the odd bunch of flowers and other mementoes, there is little sign of active commemoration: the bodies are left to speak for themselves. And this they do, of sorts, if completely silently.
Gradually you spot details that further drive in the shock. Some skulls are slashed open, you notice missing limbs – presumably from having been hacked off by machetes, as the killers so frequently did.
Some of the faces you look into seem to silently scream out in pain. Others appear to hide their faces under their hands. Some hands are raised up as if begging for mercy. Some still clutch rosaries.
And then there are those unbelievably tiny bodies … yes, those of slaughtered children. Some were barely three years old. There was no mercy.
Most of the corpses lie there naked, often in contorted positions (vaguely reminiscent of Pompeii even), but some still have clothes on, rags by now, with mostly faded colours. This is probably due to the varying degrees in biodegradability of different types of fabric. Somehow, seeing some of them (partly) clothed has an almost dignifying, soothing effect. On the other hand, seeing that some skulls still had little tufts of black, wiry, fuzzy hair on them, somehow had yet another extra shocking effect.
And it's not just that one room – no there's room after room of more and yet more of those white bodies. Hundreds. I remember how physically shaken my wife appeared after the first room. But she didn't hesitate to go through them all. She explained to me later that she felt a kind of obligation for equality of deserved respect and thus to pay the same amount of attention to all these victims, right to the very last room. Indeed! The guide told us that some visitors can in fact not handle this and have to decline seeing more rooms after the initial shock of the first one. I'm glad, though, that we carried it through all the way. I too think that, once you're there, you owe it the place, and the people commemorated here, to do so.
Make no mistake, though, this is a very tough experience. Even after having been to so many dark tourism sites of the grimmest nature – Auschwitz
, the killing fields
, etc. – this was truly disturbing on yet another level. It makes your heart race. It takes your breath away (and not just because of the stench).
I must say, however, that on the other hand, many of these mute, brittle-looking whitened bodies also exuded some strange, almost angelic aesthetics. It is difficult to take in at the time, but in hindsight at least, this has come to be equally dominating in my memories of Murambi, on a par with the shocking horror of it all. Yes indeed: quite a few of these people were beautiful in their displayed death.
Is this twisted? Is it politically incorrect to express such an observation? I don't know. Maybe it's also my mind playing tricks on me, trying to soften the experience through imagining beauty where in reality there is only horror?
One has to wonder, however, whether this display of the dead will remain at Murambi. I've heard of plans to move at least some of them into special display cases. For the time being, the preservation of the bodies in their current state (and I do not know how stable that is) is left to mothballs and little pots of salt distributed amongst the corpses (since they too are white you don't notice them at first – at least they do not distract, then). I sincerely hope that this extraordinary display can continue …
UPDATE 2023: A fellow dark traveller reported from his recent visit to Murambi that some changes have occurred. The special boxes for some of the corpses inside of, or as an extension of the main exhibition, are indeed in place – but as yet they are still empty. Apparently the guide at the site explained that it was found that the microclimate in these boxes turned out not to be suitable for the display of the mummified bodies. The empty boxes are surrounded by walls with photos, apparently of the persons when they were living who were supposed to have moved into the special display cases.
The preservation of the semi-mummified bodies in general has become an issue, as I had suspected back when I visited. There is now an involvement of German scientists, including from the medical university in Hamburg, who are looking into this. As I was told there are now also not just the white-lime preserved bodies but also others that are closer to a natural reddish brown.
Moreover, there is now a special extra exhibition about these preservation efforts and scientific co-operation programme. And this contains airtight glass display cases with select corpses of Murambi all accompanied with details about that person in question (age, gender, etc.) and also about the nature of the fatal wounds inflicted. Reportedly, these displays add an extra level of impact compared to those rather anonymous displays of lime-white corpses on the tables in the side buildings.
The same fellow traveller also reported that his guide at Murambi was very good (apparently a lot better than the woman I had when I visited – see below) and spoke excellent English. It seems to be a bit of a matter of luck who you get as a guide on the day …
He also confirmed that photography is still strictly forbidden. And he also agreed with me that Murambi is one of the darkest and most intense places one can visit on this planet.
There's not only such whole mummified bodies, as at other genocide memorials there are also stacks of neatly piled bones and skulls arranged in rows. In yet another room, a whole wall of open cupboards contained victims' clothes, piled high. Although the effect is less intense as those heaps of decaying, blood-stained clothes on the church benches at the Nyamata
The outside also has several more spots commodified for visitors. This includes a patch of grass on which a sign points out that the French military used it as a volleyball field during their Operation Turquoise (when they provided a 'safe zone' in the south-west of Rwanda
, which many perpetrators took advantage of and sought refuge in then or used it as a corridor to flee to neighbouring Congo
– see under Rwandan genocide
for more on this). The French soldiers were playing volleyball on top of a mass grave! That's the tacit accusation here, for sure. What we are not told as visitors is whether the French were aware of those mass graves.
UPDATE 2023: as a fellow traveller recently reported to me (see also above), the story of the French soldiers has been expanded beyond the volleyball field … now there are also accusations of rape of Tutsi survivor women by French soldiers and one panel names and shames four French commanding officers responsible for such crimes but who’ve never been held to account.
There are still indications of more mass graves dug at the time of the genocide; and some are also marked by signs (all trilingual, Kinyarwanda, French and English) – otherwise the slight dents in the field of grass wouldn't have suggested anything sinister.
Especially marked, and surrounded with a fence and a viewing platform at one end is the mass grave from where those white bodies were exhumed. The pit was left open to serve as another poignant part of the Murambi memorial.
There are also new mass graves, tombs rather, covered in white tiles – apparently a recent improvement. Images taken of the tombs in 2008 still showed the usual simple concrete slab covers (as at numerous other genocide sites), which were beginning to crumble.
The guided tour, though, ends after the open pit, which is right next to the main building, where the tour started.
The guide, by the way, spoke English too, as at the other National Genocide Memorials in Rwanda
these days. But in the case of the Murambi guide I'm afraid I can't say she spoke English all that well. Quite on the contrary. She struggled a lot expressing what she wanted to say, I struggled a lot understanding her, like she struggled understanding me when I asked questions. Had I known French better, that would certainly have been a much more feasible language option.
I was also a bit miffed by her rough manners, especially when enforcing that total no-photography regime. But although that slightly soured the visit, it was still wholly worthwhile.
In fact, Murambi made it straight into my updated Top-20 list of dark tourism sites worldwide
. As regards the direct exposure to death, it is possibly the very darkest site on the planet. It is definitely not for the faint-hearted. It's as hard-going as it is exceptional, singular even – and in its own unfathomable way it is awesome and humbling at the same time. For those who think they can handle the shock and horror nature of the place, Murambi should definitely be the very top priority on a dark-tourism trip to Rwanda
. The Kigali Genocide memorial
is better commodified as far as information is concerned, but it's nowhere close to Murambi in really driving home what the hell-on-earth horror the Rwandan genocide
in the south of Rwanda
, just north of the small town/village of Gikongoro, which is some 90 miles (150 km) from the capital Kigali
and about 15 miles (25 km) north-west of the region's most important town, Butare (now also referred to as Huye, after the region it is the capital of).
Access and costs: quite remote; nominally free, but donations expected.
to get to Murambi independently is rather tricky. You could first get public transport (mostly by the omnipresent minibuses) from Kigali
to Butare/Huye, which is relatively unproblematic. From there you could get another (mini)bus headed for Cyangugu to drop you off at Gikongoro and either walk (you'd need to ask directions) or try and get a moto (scooter "taxi") for the rest of the journey.
Most foreign visitors, however, get a car with driver all the way from Kigali, or visit the site as part of a longer guided round trip (like I did – see under Rwanda
), which takes the hassle of finding the place out of the equation.
Opening times: presumably 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, except on public holidays, including 'umuganda' (public work days), last Saturday of each month. This at least is the general policy for these national memorials – it may be advisable to check ahead, though, to make absolutely sure that someone will in fact be there to let you in.
Admission: nominally free, but donations are not only welcome but strongly encouraged as you are steered towards the guest book at the end of your visit – and here the entries also list how much every visitor's contribution was; and you can use this to gauge how much you are willing to leave in the large glass donations box (which looked pitifully empty when I visited – only a couple of notes, but then again you don't know how often they empty the box …).
allowed – absolutely no other recording devices either. You have to leave them behind before being allowed to enter the site! This regulation is not negotiable but ruthlessly and mercilessly enforced (see above
). You can only take pictures if you bring a special permit issued by the CNLG (National Commission for the Fight against Genocide) in Kigali
Time required: without the exhibition, viewing the site on the guided tour took me about 30 to 40 minutes – with the exhibition finally open, significantly more time should be allocated. How much is difficult to judge not having seen the exhibition, but should guess maybe another hour or so.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
nothing noteworthy in the vicinity – but see under Rwanda
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Murambi is the genocide memorial that is located closest to Rwanda
's National Museum in Butare (also known as Huye), the largest town of the southern province. The National Museum covers more ancient history than contemporary aspects, though there is also a small section about the impact of colonialism and another listing short biographies of all of independent Rwanda
's presidents, complete with a portrait photo. Thus you can see – in the same row – the images of both former dictator Juvenal Habyarimana (whose death triggered the genocide) and that of the current president Paul Kagame
(who was at the time commander of the RPF
troops, who proceeded to end the genocide). The rest of the museum, however, is dominated by old pots, tools and handicrafts. For those interested in these things, the National Museum is thus the most important such institution in the country. Personally, I can't derive much fascination out of viewing artefacts of that nature so I quickly got bored – and hardly managed to spend as little as half an hour inside, just as much as I thought could pass as a respectful minimum …
The main road from Butare to Gikongoro goes on westwards (towards Cyangugu) and leads to, and all the way through, Nyungwe Forest National Park, which ranks as Rwanda
's second most significant nature reserve (after the Parc National des Volcans in the north-west, famous for its mountain gorillas). At Nyungwe, the star attractions are the somewhat elusive chimpanzees and a large number of other primates that can be observed much more easily, including the fantastically flamboyant colobus monkeys.