As With a Harvest
"Maybe you even killed her with your own hands in the church."
The only architecturally modern building in Nyamata is the town church. Or at least it was. It still stands today, one story tall, made from bricks, with a high-ceilinged sanctuary in the middle. Back in its full glory the church was the centerpiece of Nyamata, a small village on a hill in southern Rwanda, just north of the Burundi border. The church always stood out from the other features in Nyamata, like a grand cathedral presiding over an old city square—though such cathedrals aren’t typically riddled with bullet holes.
Back when the church’s walls stood unperforated, Innocent Rwililiza worked in the town hall nearby. Innocent was a teacher, which was one of the highest positions that a person could hold in Nyamata. He was charismatic and well-liked; wherever he went people came up to him to conduct a routine checkup on life’s goings on. On the morning the Rwandan genocide came to Nyamata, the people of the town congregated in the courtyard of the town hall, Innocent among them. They waited there for about two hours, hoping to hear of some reprieve from the impending violence. When the mayor, a Hutu, finally addressed the crowd, he told them, “If you go home, you will be killed. If you flee into the bush, you will be killed. If you remain here, you will be killed. You must leave here in any case, because I do not want any blood in front of my town hall.” Innocent, along with the other Tutsis, were on their own.
The women, the children, and the feeble shuffled toward the church. But Innocent took off. He ran into the surrounding bush of Rwanda’s dense and undulating hillscape. He spent the night among eucalyptus trees and the next day made it to Kayumba, a couple hills over from Nyamata. He wasn’t alone, since many of Nyamata’s able-bodied had also fled. There they waited it out, peering across the terrain at the hill they’d escaped from, where their loved ones remained.
When the Interahamwe arrived outside the church with their weapons, chiefly machetes, they sang songs. They thrust their machetes toward the sky and declared their intention to massacre. The women and children waited in the church, barely taking a breath. When the Interahamwe began to rush the building, they fired guns into its walls. They threw grenades. They entered the church and slashed at the cowering bodies with machetes and spears. As one survivor, a young boy named Cassius, later recalled: “They struck with swinging arms. They cut anyone, without choosing.”
From Kayumba, Innocent could see the smoke and hear the grenades. His wife and children were inside the church that day. Sometime later, amidst the chaos of the ongoing genocide, Innocent encountered a woman who had escaped from the church that day. “Innocent,” she told him, “I bring bad news: I saw your wife during the mêlée in the church. Given the state in which I left her, I must tell you that she is no longer of this world.” Yet Innocent remained hopeful. “I told myself, if no one has seen her body, perhaps she managed to escape, too.”1
In the wake of the Rwandan genocide, a French journalist named Jean Hatzfeld visited the country, first to interview the survivors, then, some years later, to interview the killers.2 Innocent acted as Hatzfeld’s liaison, translating from Kinyarwanda into French. (Hatzfeld’s book was later translated into English.) In his interviews with the killers, Hatzfeld focuses on one killer in particular, a prisoner named Joseph-Désiré Bitero.