Never Again
by Keith Cousins

Sterile and lifeless is the last thing that came to mind as I woke up in Butare, Rwanda. The air was heavy with the smell of clay from the red dirt roads and even though it was 6 a.m., birds chirped in the trees while Rwandans began to move about the city. I walked out of the apartment-style hotel and into a world that was wild and untamed. The red soil on the hills contrasted with the dense green plant life to make the world appear brighter, more defined. The movies I watched before my trip, like Hotel Rwanda, were nothing in comparison to being there.

I went to Rwanda with my college-age bible study group to help out street kids and work with Restoration Church, a Baptist church recently started by several Rwandans. We sat down at a small restaurant for a breakfast of fresh croissants and tea. Morris, our guide and translator, said we would be heading out of the town and into the hills to visit the Murambi Memorial. Immediately I expected a similar sort of museum as the one we visited in the capital, Kigali. That museum was like any other and if it wasn't for the view of a bustling African city in the background, it would have felt at home anywhere in the United States.

Photos, video and artifacts were all contained in sterile air-conditioned rooms. However, I knew that just ten years prior over a million people were killed in a genocide which made even the lifeless exhibits more powerful. But nothing could prepare me for what I would witness at the memorial.

"The museum is, well, more like the history of the genocide," Morris explained. "But the memorial, it is much sadder of a place to be at." I was curious about what he meant figured I would soon find out. A big old rusty van with "The Black" painted on the side lumbered up to us, and we began the bumpy ride.

The town was quickly behind us, and we began to drive up a dirt road. The van climbed higher and higher as my jaw dropped lower and lower. I stared out the window at pure green, the landscape was filled with trees and bushes and only a small trail of red soil led us to our destination.

We began to go downhill and a small rural village, looking as though it had been cut out of the forest, came into view.

Just beyond the village, on top of a green hill, was the memorial. The van screeched to a halt in front of a large metal fence. Children rushed the car, screaming "mzungu" (Kenyan-Rwandan for "white person") and wanted to play football – the familiar scene wherever we went.

As soon as the soccer balls came out and we began playing, a tall, skinny man with an indentation in his forehead approached us and opened the fence. He walked slowly, hunched over, as if he had a weight on his shoulders.

The first part of the walking tour was just at the entrance under a Rwandan flag. Seven large rectangles of concrete were slightly raised above the red ground. We were told by Morris, who translated from the guide, that these were mass graves. He said over 40,000 people were buried inside.

I stood motionless. They were there, but how did they get there? Did they all die here? We were led into the main building at the memorial and I got my answers. According to our guide, Tutsi refugees were told that the site – built before the genocide began as a school – would serve as a haven. There they would be safe from the countless Hutu groups trying to eradicate them. They were told by the local government that French troops were at the site and they would be there to protect them. However, as soon as the refugees arrived, the water and electricity were cut off to the entire school. Shortly after, the French "protectors" left. In just two days, 45,000 of the 60,000 refugees were dead – a result of a vicious series of attacks by the Hutu Interahamwe militia.

Our guide was one of the survivors. After having been shot several times, he hid amongst the bodies until it was night and could flee the school. After the killings concluded and the school became officially known as the Murambi Memorial Genocide Centre, he came back to the site to tell visitors about the massacre.

The story of that place hit me like a bullet. Sadness and rage swelled in my chest, but tears would not fall from my eyes.

Soon after we were told that we would walk the school. It was beautiful. The bright green grass speckled with dead patches and muted brick buildings made it easy for me to imagine students roaming the grounds. As we walked toward the first of several classrooms, Morris began to speak again. This time in a somber tone, as if he didn't want to disturb the dead.

"So, about 5,000 of the dead here were preserved with lime and they are in these buildings," Morris said. "You can go in them if you want."

I started walking slower and slower. I knew my curiosity would not let me leave that place without looking in one or more of the rooms. Finally, I approached the first dark room and stepped in.

The smell of lime was immediately in my nostrils, invading all of my other senses. Lying on crudely-made wooden platforms were countless uncovered bodies made stark white from the preservation process. Some of the bodies were men, some women and, shockingly, some of them children.

Crying felt right. You should cry Keith, I thought, this is emotional, this is heartbreaking. But I couldn't cry, for the life of me I couldn't cry. It was real now. It wasn't some movie with Don Cheadle or the countless articles I had read. It was in my nostrils and dominating my view.

Our guide, Morris and several other companions from Rwanda walked off to the side of my group as we went in and out of the buildings. They were there with a hand to hold, a hug or simply to grab a shoulder and give a reassuring squeeze.

I could only go into one more room, to snap a couple pictures before moving on. The looks in the eyes of my friends told the whole story. Tears. Anger. Disgust. It was all there. In one of the bigger rooms, the clothes of those 5,000 were strung out on clotheslines.

I felt helpless. I stood there looking at the clothes, knowing that each pair represented a life. A real life. It shook me to my core. I wanted to build a time machine. I wanted to go back and stop this from happening, to tell the media, tell the military, shout "STOP THIS!"

But I knew it had happened. These people, some only as old as I was in 1994, were killed.

I slowly made my way off the grounds, unsure of what to do next. The genocide occurred in Rwanda when I was just a carefree 8-year-old. But now it was as though I had witnessed the whole thing. On the van ride back to the apartment, I wrote in my journal: "I saw children, my age, with their hands outstretched, as if they were saying why didn't you help me? Why didn't you do something about this?" The pen did little to alleviate my hurt, but then as I finished writing I thought again of our Rwandan guides.

They had lived through this, seen the whole thing unravel in front of them. Lost friends, family members, childhoods. Yet, they chose to be gatekeepers of their history – to share it with whoever cared to experience it with them. They were there to tell people like me that it was OK, that it happened, but that was the past and there was hope for the future.