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Rwanda Journal: The Return

Jan. 3, 2009 — Children laughing and the gentle lowing of unseen cows echoing off the verdant hills of southern Rwanda belie the horror witnessed by those who were there on April 21, 1994.
Despite the pastoral setting and ensuing years, the scent of death still hangs in the air from that time almost 15 years ago when 50,000 people were killed in the Butare district. The local Tutsi population was promised safety by local officials who sent them to a construction site for what was to be a school. It became a killing field.
Thousands of skeletons of those who were slaughtered by a group of militant Hutus, whose mission was to wipe out the country's Tutsi population, lie bleached and crumbling at what is now the Murambi Genocide Memorial, reminders of what happened here — as is the quiet presence of Juliet Mukakabanda.
Mukakabanda was 30 when the Hutu militia killed her husband and her two sons. And even before she was paid to welcome visitors to the site, Mukakabanda came to the memorial to tell her story to those who asked.
Keeping that story alive, though admittedly painful, is for Juliet her testament to the God who saved her, she tells our interpreter, Frederic Budaramani.
Her murdered sons were 7 and 5. Mukakabanda doesn't know how old her husband was because he was orphaned when his parents were killed in 1963 during a previous attack by militant Hutus against the Tutsis.
She was saved by a combination of her husband's courage, her Hutu heritage, and the ultimate aversion to butchery of one of the killers.
Mukakabanda knows, she said, that her salvation was a miracle, after she prayed and promised to devote her life to God if she and her infant child were spared.
At the time, she refused to save her own life by relinquishing the month-old daughter she carried on her back, who the militants said was a Tutsi and therefore must die. Her husband, who had already suffered a gunshot wound to the leg, begged Juliet to show her Hutu identity card.
But as one of the militants raised his machete to hack her and her baby to death, one of the militia men had had enough, and said. “Whoever kills this woman, I shall kill.”
Juliet's face remains stolid as she recounts her story, leaning against a brick wall that separates the dead from the outside world.
We move from the brick buildings to a field, in the middle of which is a sign that identifies the area as the spot where soldiers played volleyball — on top of a mass grave just days after soil had been tossed over thousands of corpses.
A year later, the bodies were exhumed and the remains placed in one of the 24 rooms that never became classrooms, or beneath a cement slab adorned with flowers in front of the contemporary structure that is the memorial's center.
Juliet points out a room in the new building piled high with mattresses where the “traumatized” can come to feel secure or to rest.
I ask carefully if she knows where the remains of her husband and sons are.
No, she shakes her head.
Between April and July of 1994, a million people were killed while the rest of the world looked on, refusing to name the slaughter genocide and intervene.
For others, the genocide memorials scattered across the country are a reminder of what happened and provide the hope that it will never happen again.
But the Rwandans I have met all say they want to move on, and they have.
In the six months since I last visited, many new businesses, including modern supermarkets have sprung up. The telecommunications infrastructure has seen vast improvements, and the country has become even more tidy in the cities and byways. There is not a bit of litter to be found.
A story in Saturday's Rwanda New Times says tourism was up by 54 percent in 2008.
On this second trip to the country I fell in love with in July 2008, I am once again struck by the fortitude and ingenuity of the people and by their resilience.
To be continued….
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