Using shovels, hoes and rakes, residents of the village of Ngoma dig up the earth and uncover skulls, bones and fragments of clothing: even 30 years after the genocide against the Tutsi, Rwandans still regularly find remains of victims of the 1994 massacres.
• Also read: Genocide against the Tutsi: Former Rwandan doctor sentenced to 24 years in prison
About a hundred of them work wearing hygiene masks on the side of a hill in this city in the south of the country.
During their research, bones – whole or in pieces – emerge from the ocher earth. Once removed from the ground, they are placed on a tarp or stored in trash bags.
The remains of 119 people were exhumed within four days, Napthali Ahishakiye, president of the Ibuka Association, the main survivors' organization, told AFP on Wednesday.
And the excavations continue. “As we dig, we find new layers with remains,” emphasizes the deputy mayor of Huye district, André Kamana.
Rwanda, a country in the Great Lakes region, was the scene of the last genocide of the 20th century.
According to the UN, in a hundred days between April and July 1994, 800,000 people, mainly members of the Tutsi minority, were massacred at the instigation of the then ruling extremist Hutu regime.
“During the genocide, there was a roadblock nearby where Tutsis were arrested and killed,” explains Goreth Uwonkunda, a resident of Ngoma who is taking part in the investigation: “It is clearly one of the mass graves where they were dumped became.”
“The murderers buried their victims on top of each other. We found large bones, some intact, even whole skulls,” the 52-year-old woman continues.
The mass grave, the extent of which is currently unknown, is located on the site of a house that was demolished for research purposes. Five of its residents have been arrested and are being investigated for complicity in genocide and concealing evidence.
“The investigation began in October when a whistleblower informed authorities that there may be a mass grave beneath the house. We suspect that the residents of the house knew what was underneath, that it was a family secret,” says Napthali Ahishakiye.
Goreth Uwonkunda still can't believe it. “I knew the people who lived in this house and I am quite shocked to learn that they were sleeping peacefully on bodies. It’s shameful and shocking.”
The discovery of remains of victims of the 1994 massacres is not uncommon. Every year mass graves are uncovered across the country, reminding us of the scale of the genocide.
Last April, 1,100 bodies were discovered in mass graves on a Catholic community plantation in Rusizi (West) district.
Three years earlier, in April 2020, a mass grave containing no fewer than 30,000 bodies was exhumed near a dam near the capital Kigali.
Six months later, 5,000 bodies were discovered in Gatsibo district (east).
According to Ibuka, in the last five years, the remains of more than 100,000 victims have been discovered and buried in places of remembrance.
“We suspect that similar mass graves have yet to be discovered across the country,” Napthali Ahishakiye continues.
“The biggest challenge is that most of the crucial information about the locations of these mass graves is held by people involved in the massacres or by relatives of the killers who are reluctant to reveal this information,” he said.
In Ngoma, Célestin Kambanda observes the research and looks for a familiar sign among the exhumed pieces of cloth or shoes.
This 70-year-old farmer lost seven children during the genocide. “I haven’t found any remains of any of them,” he sighs.
“I came to see if I could recognize some of my children, perhaps by the clothes they were wearing when they disappeared. (…) I hope to be able to give them a dignified burial one day.”