The altar of Nyamata Church is draped in bloodstained cloth. Its benches have disappeared; in their place stand rows and rows of clothing and personal effects that belonged to those massacred here 28 years ago. The roof above is littered with holes caused by shrapnel, after the perpetrators threw grenades into the building.
In 1994, Hutu extremists in Rwanda targeted ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus in a three-month killing spree that left an estimated 800,000 dead, although local estimates are higher.
In the basement under the church – now a memorial to the 1994 genocide – the skulls of unidentified Tutsi men hang above the coffin of a woman of the same ethnicity who died as a result of an act of barbaric sexual violence.
The attackers targeted churches like this one on the outskirts of the capital Kigali. More than 10,000 people were killed here in two days, according to memorial official Rachel Murekatete. A mass grave behind the building is the final resting place of more than 45,000 local people killed in the violence.
Prince Charles looked visibly moved when he was shown on the church grounds on Wednesday, where even now bodies discovered elsewhere are being brought, as former assailants identify other burial sites as part of the process of reconciliation that began in 1999.
The heir to the British throne is in Rwanda for a Commonwealth leaders’ summit later this week. but his trip comes at a delicate time as a furor over the British government’s radical plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda has erupted in his country.
The British government announced the deal with the East African country in April, but the inaugural flight a week ago was blocked after an 11-hour intervention by the European Court of Human Rights. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is also confirmed to attend the Commonwealth Leaders Summit and is expected to meet Prince Charles on Friday morning.
After viewing the burial site, the 73-year-old royal laid a wreath in honor of the victims buried here. On his card, a note from the king written in the local Kinyarwanda language: “We will always remember the innocent souls who were killed during the genocide against the Tutsi in April 1994. Be strong Rwanda. Charles”
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 forgiveness.
The first day of his visit to Rwanda was heavily devoted to learning more about the massacres of almost three decades ago. Rwandan footballer 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 last stage of genocide’ which is denial. And having someone like Prince Charles visiting Rwanda and visiting the memorial … shows how the country has managed to recover from this terrible past,” he told CNN earlier this month during a reception at Buckingham Palace celebrating the contributions of people from across the Commonwealth.
Earlier on Wednesday, Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall met Rwandan 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 memory, a place where survivors and visitors come to pay homage to the victims of the genocide against the Tutsi”, explains Freddy Mutanguha, director of the site and himself a survivor of the genocide. “Over 250,000 victims were buried in this memorial and their bodies were collected from different locations…and this location [has] become a final destination for our loved ones, our families.
These families include his, who once lived in the town of Kibuye in the country’s Western Province.
Mutanguha told CNN he heard assailants murder his parents and siblings during the genocide, saying, “I was in hiding but I could hear their voices until they were done. I survived with my sister, but I also lost four sisters.
Maintaining their memory is now the driving force behind her mission at the memorial.
“It’s a very important place for me as a survivor because in addition to being where we buried our family, my mother is 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 that responsibility. As a survivor, I have to speak, I have to tell the truth about what happened to my family, to my country and to the Tutsi people,” he continues.
Mutanguha was keen to host Prince Charles to learn more about what happened here and help counter the growing online threat from genocide deniers, which he likens to Holocaust denial.
“That’s what really worries me because when the Holocaust happened, people didn’t learn anything from the past. When the Genocide against the Tutsi happened, you can see the Genocide deniers…mainly those who committed the Genocide – they feel they can do it again because they haven’t finished the job. So, me telling the story, working here and having visitors, we can probably make “never again” a reality.
A spokesperson for Clarence House said the royal couple were struck by the importance of never forgetting the horrors of the past. “But they were also deeply moved hearing from people who found ways to live with and even forgive the most appalling crimes,” they added.
Prince Charles arrived in Rwanda on Tuesday evening – the first member of the royal family to visit the country. He is in Kigali to represent 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. This is the first CHOGM he has attended since being chosen as the organization’s next leader at the 2018 rally.