Nyamata Church’s altar is covered with a blood-stained cloth. Its pews are gone; in their place are rows and rows of clothing and personal items that belonged to the people who were massacred here 28 years ago. The roof above is riddled with holes caused by shrapnel after perpetrators threw grenades into the building during the killings.
In 1994, Hutu extremists in Rwanda attacked Tutsis and moderate Hutus ethnic minorities in a three-month killing spree that claimed the lives of an estimated 800,000 people, although local estimates are higher.
In the basement below the church – which now stands as a memorial to the 1994 genocide – the skulls of unidentified Tutsi men hang over the coffin of a woman of the same ethnic group, who died after an act of barbaric sexual violence.
Attackers targeted churches like this one on the outskirts of the capital, Kigali. According to the director of the memorial, Rachel Murekatete, more than 10,000 people were killed here in two days. A mass grave behind the building is the final resting place of more than 45,000 local people killed in the violence.
Prince Charles was visibly moved as he was shown around the church grounds on Wednesday, where bodies discovered elsewhere are also now being taken, while former attackers are identifying other burial sites as part of the reconciliation process that began in 1999.
The British heir to the throne is in Rwanda later this week for a Commonwealth summit. but his trip comes at an awkward time amid an uproar at home over the UK government’s radical plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.
The British government announced the deal with the East African country in April, but the first flight a week ago was grounded after an 11-hour intervention by the European Court of Human Rights. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will also attend the Commonwealth Leaders’ Summit and is expected to meet Prince Charles on Friday morning.
After being shown the gravesite, the 73-year-old royal laid a wreath in honor of the victims buried here. On his card was a note from the king in the local language, Kinyarwanda: “We will always remember the innocent souls killed in the Tutsi genocide in April 1994. Be strong Rwanda. Karl”
The king then visited the reconciliation village of Mbyo, one of eight similar villages in Rwanda where genocide survivors and perpetrators live side by side. Perpetrators publicly apologize for their crimes, while survivors profess their forgiveness.
The first day of his visit to Rwanda was heavily focused on learning more about the massacres nearly three decades ago. Rwandan soccer player and genocide survivor Eric Murangwa had encouraged the prince to include Nyamata during his three-day visit to the country.
“We are currently living in what we call ‘the final stage of genocide’, which is denial. And for someone like Prince Charles to visit Rwanda and visit the memorial… shows how the country has managed to recover from this horrific past,” he told CNN earlier this month during a reception at Buckingham Palace, which drew contributions from People from across the Commonwealth were celebrated.
Earlier on Wednesday, Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, met with Rwanda’s President Kagame and First Lady Jeannette Kagame and visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial and Museum in Gisozi, where a quarter of a million people are buried.
“This memorial is a place of remembrance, a place where survivors and visitors come and pay their respects to the victims of the Tutsi genocide,” says Freddy Mutanguha, director of the site and a survivor of the genocide himself. “More than 250,000 victims were buried at this memorial and their bodies were collected at various locations… and at this location [has] become a final destination for our loved ones, our families.”
One of those families is his own, who once lived in the city of Kibuye in the western province of the country.
Mutanguha told CNN he heard attackers murder his parents and siblings during the genocide, saying, “I hid, but I could actually hear their voices until they were done.” I survived with my sister, but I also lost four sisters.”
Keeping her memory alive is now what drives his mission at the memorial.
“This is a very important place for me as a survivor because apart from the fact that we buried our family and my mother lies down here in one of the mass graves, it’s a home for me, but also [it’s] a place where I work and I feel this responsibility. As a survivor, I must raise my voice, I must speak the truth about what happened to my family, my country and the Tutsi,” he continues.
Mutanguha was keen to welcome Prince Charles to learn more about what happened here and to help counter a growing online threat from genocide deniers, which he likens to Holocaust denial.
“That’s what really concerns me, because when the Holocaust happened, people didn’t learn from the past. When the Tutsi genocide took place, you can see the genocide deniers… mainly those who committed genocide – they believe they can do it again because they didn’t finish the work. So with me telling the story, working here and receiving visitors, we can probably make ‘never again’ a reality.”
A Clarence House spokesman said the royal couple were struck by the importance of never forgetting the horrors of the past. “But they were also deeply moved as they listened to people who have found ways to live with and even forgive the most appalling crimes,” they added.
Prince Charles arrived in Rwanda on Tuesday night – the first member of the royal family to visit the country. He is in Kigali representing the Queen at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).
The meeting is usually held every two years but has been postponed twice due to the pandemic. It is the first CHOGM he has attended since he was elected the next leader of the organization at the 2018 meeting.