25 March 2015

Murambi: a death camp by any other name

by Marc Masurovsky

The Murambi memorial site is, literally, in the middle of nowhere.
view of the entrance to Murambi
After reaching Butare, the second largest city in Rwanda, you take a side road that extends for 27 km, along a dirt road, winding round villages where the unfamiliar Muzungu (roughly translated as “lost and confused” to designate white foreigners) stand out like sore thumbs. No matter. Stares accompany us with the occasional motley crew of boys on bicycles trying to steer us in the right direction in exchange for coins.

We finally reach Murambi, at a dead end. The road goes nowhere else. That ought to tell you something already. A finality in and of itself. The memorial site is surrounded by villages comprised of a dozen huts and houses each, made out of the proverbial mud brick and found materials stitched together to produce a semblance of shelter.

Nothing prepares you for Murambi in the same manner as nothing can prepare you for Birkenau. The only difference is that the horror of Murambi is hiding in plain sight, whereas the horror of Birkenau is a horror left to the imagination to toggle and to sift through once the landscape of dying and suffering has been explored.

Murambi is a place flanked by bucolic landscapes of rolling hills, verdant sceneries, much like the rest of Southern Rwanda. At this place, tens of thousands of Tutsi civilians from surrounding areas were corralled to await their fate.

There are building structures at Murambi, red brick shells that look more like barracks than classrooms for a future state technical training center that was never completed, so goes the official story. One can only imagine young men and women studying to be the future engineers and technicians of a modern Rwanda at the end of a dead-end road far from everything and flanked by dead poor villages with no commercial infrastructure to support such a technical center. The story makes no sense. By default, we are left to speculate and to leave open the possibility that our worst thoughts are closer to the truth than the official “spin” of an unfinished school. Let’s say, for a moment, that there was such a plan to build a school in the middle of nowhere, difficult to reach, and that the project was nixed for one reason or another. If that were the case, the abandoned red brick shells constituted the proper edifice in which to park men, women, and children, who had reached—in more ways than one—the end of their road.

Murambi became a killing ground where every square inch was used to hack, shoot, dismember, rape, and murder men, women and children. No one is sure about the numbers, but 20,000 is the minimal safe number. Some speak of as many as 55,000 bodies buried at Murambi.

The memorial building itself houses an exhibit that resembles the one housed in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. Nothing new to offer. The only interesting presence is the absence of bodies from casings inset in the floor covered by clear panels in which were supposed to be displayed the remains (or whatever is left of the remains in their accelerated state of deterioration) of men, women, and children, frozen in the position that they yielded to as they exhaled their last breath.

Several barracks house the remains of approximately 1500 people who were disinterred from mass graves and put on display. The corpses of the victims are lying on wooden racks atop improvised platforms in successive rooms. Children with one arm extending over the corpse of an adult man or woman, adults with a finger pointing nowhere as if they had tried in vain to dissuade their attackers from hacking them into death, children with smashed skulls, women with small patches of hair still clinging to the thin skin layer peeling off their skulls, children curled up as if trying to get some sleep. It is all so poignant and yet so desensitizing to be faced with the final moments of Tutsi victims’ lives, frozen as their bodies desiccate and gradually vanish at the relentless mercy of the elements.

We climb up some steps and enter another part of this desolate site where ghosts abound.


As we walk through the grass and in between neatly laid out rows of red brick barracks, a flash memory crosses our minds as we recognize some of the timeless architectural elements of a Nazi concentration camp. We enter one of the barracks. Some walls show evidence of bullet impacts. But the most striking feature of these rooms is their redness, red from the dust of the rich loam that covers Rwandan fields blending with the fading dark red stains left by victims’ blood, spilled on the floors and splattered on the walls. Those who maintain the site tried in vain to eliminate all traces of the blood and one can see the crude brush strokes of off-white paint splashed on the walls as added evidence of the grisly nature of these rooms. Death rooms, hacking rooms, rooms of torture and unremitting, cruel death. These rooms succeed themselves one after another and one should not even try to imagine what took place there as thousands of human beings were crammed into them, awaiting their fate, hungry and thirsty and panicked.

Victims' belongings, in the background, the  killing rooms

In some of the rooms, teenagers and adults living in the villages surrounding the memorial site have scrawled haphazard designs of cars and planes, words and sentences in Kinyarwanda. One can only wonder if they were even mildly aware of the function of these rooms. A form of unwitting desecration has taken place at Murambi. The sheer state of neglect that prevails at this death camp is simply unacceptable.

One can only hope that the Rwandan government will take urgent measures to rectify the situation, secure these killing rooms, stabilize the remains of the victims, perhaps rebury them in a dignified way so as to memorialize them the way that most people honor their dead and, just as important, recount the story of Murambi so that the visitor is not left to her own imagination to understand what happened in that hellish space.

Murambi is a death camp where breathing is labored, the mind goes numb, and death hangs in the suffocating air amid fields, rolling hills and the banality of human survival and existence in a forgotten corner of Rwanda.

The neighborhood of Murambi