Revisiting the Rwandan Genocide: How Churches Became Death Traps

On a summer afternoon in 1994, David Guttenfelder took a taxi from the Rwandan capital Kigali to the nearby region of Bugesera. He walked inside the Ntarama Church and began taking photographs of people who had been murdered by their neighbors. They had come to the small, red-brick church from all over the area seeking refuge—just as their parents and grandparents had come in the past when violence broke out between the ethnic majority Hutus and minority Tutsis. But this time the church, like many others in Rwanda during the genocide, became a killing ground.

Thousands of bodies—old men and women, young men and women, boys and girls, toddlers and infants—filled the entire sanctuary. “People piled on top of one another, four or five deep, on top of the pews, between the pews, everywhere,” he said.

Outside, the grounds were overgrown, and victims lay where they had fallen. “People had been hacked to death and left slumped against trees. I remember one woman with her underwear pulled down lying on the ground. You didn’t have to be a detective to see how people were killed,” he said.

An hour later, as they drove back to Kigali, Guttenfelder asked the taxi driver if he had known anyone in the village. “Oh yes,” he replied. “My father and mother are in that church. And my grandparents.”

He went on to list most of his extended family as they followed the dirt road back to the capital where it had all begun.

Before that day, Guttenfelder had seen the conflict from a very different vantage point. He arrived in Rwanda after the Tutsi-led Rwanda Patriotic Front had chased the Hutu-dominated army and militias over the border into Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), which prompted an estimated two million panicked Hutus to follow them, creating one of the greatest humanitarian crises in modern African history.

“I hitchhiked straight through Rwanda to the refugee camps and spent many weeks photographing the people who had done this,” he said. “And then I came back to Rwanda, and I didn’t have a clear perspective on what the Hutus had really done until I walked into that church. You can be told the enormous number of those murdered (estimated at between 800,000 and a million), but numbers don’t mean anything until you see something like the scene at Ntarama firsthand,” he said.

“What compounded the shock of it was that not only was it the most horrifying hell that I could imagine, but my first view of it was at a church. Rwanda is one of the most religious countries I’ve been in. It’s also one of the most physically beautiful countries I’ve ever traveled through. But this beautiful, seemingly pious nation also holds one of the darkest, most evil things I’ve seen in my life. I couldn’t understand or believe what had happened here.”

The experience set Guttenfelder on a career path of photographing conflict. “Up to that point, I didn’t really think of myself as any kind of war photographer. I had been a student in Tanzania. I was focused mainly on documenting normal African life. But this was the beginning of me understanding that to live in Africa and care about Africa, I had to cover the massively important stories that were unfolding during the 1990s. It was one after another, and in many ways they were interrelated: the genocide in Rwanda, the fighting in Burundi, the fall of Mobuto in Zaire. Later, there were the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia.”

This week, Guttenfelder and I visited Ntarama Church, which has been turned into a genocide memorial. It was his first time back since that day in 1994. The bodies have been removed from the grounds, which have been fastidiously groomed. But the church and its outbuildings have been left largely as they were the day he entered 20 years ago.

The brick facades are pocked gunfire and large jagged holes remain where Hutu soldiers used grenades to force their way inside. In the sanctuary, some of the bodies have been placed into coffins. The victims’ bloodstained and ripped clothing has been arranged into neat piles. Large metal shelves at the back contain rows of skulls and bones.

Bellancilla Uwitonze, a 36-year-old genocide survivor and a visitor’s guide at the memorial, explained the events and described how the curators had sought to preserve the scene as much as possible. The remains of some 5,000 victims are here, she said.

She led us to the altar at the front of the church. Some of the weapons used by the killers were displayed on the floor: rusty machetes, spear points, knives, a wooden club, and a shot put used to crush the skulls of some of the victims.

She directed our attention to a purple and white banner bearing a phrase in Kinyarwanda. She begins to translate: “If you know me, and you know yourself, you do not kill me.” Her voice broke on the last line and she calmly walked out of the church. We could hear her muffled sobs.

Later she told us that even though she recounts what happened at Ntarama every day, several times a day, it is painful every time. “It is very difficult to relive the genocide every day,” she said. “I do it because young people must know what happened and that they can never let anyone divide us as Rwandans ever again.”

In Kigali we visited another church that had seen the massacre of its parishioners. In the first chaotic days of the genocide, more than 2,000 people had sought shelter in Saint Famille, Rwanda’s largest Catholic church. Later, many were handed over to the killers by one of the parish priests, who witnesses said colluded with the Hutu militias.

Guttenfelder photographed the services there on Sunday. The pews in the cavernous church were filled with Hutus and Tutsis, women in sundresses, men in suit jackets, and children of all ages. They sang hymns, clapped their hands, and recited the Lord’s Prayer in Kinyarwanda.

“I was grateful to come back to Rwanda after 20 years,” he said, “and see a church full of life.”

David Guttenfelder and National Geographic staff writer Peter Gwin are currently in Kigali documenting the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide for National Geographic. This week, they share their words and images from Proof. Guttenfelder is posting these and other iPhone photographs in real time on Instagram at @dguttenfelder and @natgeo.

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