Church Massacre at Nyarubuye During the Rwandan Genocide


The genocide in Rwanda during the 1990’s brought about a new level of brutality and cruelty in more than a few ways. A phenomenon that occurred during this particular genocide was the practice of massacring civilians, men, women, and children, in churches. It is estimated that eleven percent of those murdered perished in churches. (Smith and Rittner 181) A massacre of this kind took place at the Nyarubuye church on April 15th, 1994. Nyarubuye is in the Diocese of Kibungo, which is southeast Rwanda.  This massacre brought many questions to light; questions about possible church involvement, what actually happened during the course of the two-day assault, the significance of the killings being in a church, and after the killings were over, how the events should be remembered and memorialized. . Because the genocide was so recent, there were many media sources that were able to capture aspects of this massacre in images. These images show especially the change in nature of the church as a whole. In the Rwandan Genocide churches were reassigned from their traditional roles as places of refuge and worship and were turned into sites of unbelievable horror. The actual physical spaces were transformed from sites of worship to sights of death.The Nyarubuye Church Settlement during the genocide and now as a memorial site shows this shift.


Over the course of one hundred days in 1994 between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Rwandan Tutsi were systematically murdered in the fastest moving genocidal act of modern times. (Caplan 447) This number does not include Hutu victims, who were less numerous than Tutsi victims.  As we learned in our course, there are several patterns that repeat themselves in genocidal situations such as context of colonial expansion, war, and hatred being created by outside sources.  These were all present in Rwanda in the early 1990’s.  As Jones writes in his work, “Invasion from without; economic crisis; growing domestic and international support for extremists- it is hard to imagine more propitious circumstances for genocide” (Jones 351). In addition to these factors many think that the Catholic Church had some responsibility of the genocide occurring. The Catholic Church was mainly composed of Hutus. (Ugirashebuja 49) Only a few of the Hutu priests opposed the beginning of the genocide and after the genocide many churchmen tried to minimize or trivialize the horror of the extermination. (Ugirashebuja 55) Tensions rose over time and peaked ion April 6, 1994. This is when President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down and roadblocks began to be set up. The genocide had begun. (Jones 352) For the next one hundred days or so the extremist government systematically went down every street and dragged Tutsi’s out of their homes. Horrendous actions began immediately, such as rape, murder with clubs and machetes, and brutal mutilations. (Jones 352) According to Jones, “Tens of thousands of Tutsis sought sanctuary in schools, stadiums, and especially places of worship. But there was no sanctuary to be had. In fact, those encouraging them to seek it were usually genocidares working to concentrate their victims for mass killing” (Jones 354). These church massacres altered the sacred space and made them into places of horror. These massacres are what I will be discussing and imaging in the rest of this post.

April 15th 1994

On this day everything changed for both Nyarubuye and the purpose of churches as a whole in Rwanda. Before April 15th 1994, the large church at Nyarubuye and the connected convent were places of worship and sanctuary.  The Church can be seen here.


The Church at Nyarubuye. Courtesy of Jens Meierhenrich

After this date and the two days following it the church became a grave for thousands of Rwandan Tutsis. As you can see the Church and its grounds appear to be a pristine and relaxing. It appears to be peaceful, not at all like a site for one of the most brutal and vicious massacres of all time. It also seems to be a holy site. There is obvious religious paraphernalia along with classic architecture and general peaceful appearance. This changes abruptly on this fateful day. Those who gathered at the church were seeking refuge from at least three communities during the first days of violence, so they travelled to the church at Nyarubuye. (Safari 874) Instead, this place of sanctuary became a place where a concentrated number of targets gathered for the Hutu army to annihilate. According to the Trial Judgment from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda,

“The attackers wore clothing attributed to the Interahamwe. They were armed with machetes and other traditional or crafted weapons, and with guns and grenades that they used during the attack. […] Shortly after arriving at the parish at about 3 p.m., Sylvestre Gacumbitsi killed Murefu, a Tutsi refugee who had gone up to him, and gave a signal for the massacres to commence. Sylvestre Gacumbitsi addressed the crowd through a megaphone and ordered Hutu refugees to separate themselves from the Tutsi. Some obeyed the orders. Communal policemen and Interahamwe attacked the refugees in the church building.” (“Through a Glass Darkly”, n.d.) This quote really says it all. This was an organized and well-executed massacre that was ordered by the Hutu people against the Tutsi refugees.

There were some Hutu refugees in the church but they were spared. The church was turned into a brutal murder zone where people were attacked with machetes and blunt objects along with guns and grenades, which were thrown into the church. Donatella Lorch reported that the refugees were methodically hunted down; first in the church, then in the schools, and then in the surrounding buildings. In addition to the refugees who were massacred, nineteen Benebikira Sisters were also killed. They were the nuns who resided in the convent attached to Nyarubuye. (Smith and Rittner 201) Lorch also reported that the perpetrators turned the church, school, and convent into a graveyard, leaving the bodies right where they fell.  This type of practice is evident in the following pictures.

Imaging The Massacre at Nyarubuye

Because this massacre happened relatively recently, in the 1990’s, it was in front of the public eye. There are countless images from the genocidal acts because of this, including from the massacre at Nyarubuye. Well renowned French photographer and professor of Human Rights and Photography at Bard College in New York Gilles Peress on his trip took the first three images to Rwanda.


A decaying corpse lies in front of the Church at Nyarubuye. Courtesy of Gilles Peress.

This image is incredibly telling in multiple aspects. It is framed with the image of the corpse, lying in a Jesus-like position, in front of the church steps with the prevalent religious statue of Jesus behind it. This specific image shows both the atrocity and the religious nature of the site.  It’s a great juxtaposition of the religious and the gruesome reality of what occurred there.  This image shows well how a sacred place was turned into a brutal murder site and also a final resting place for the victims of Hutu violence. The body is in a state of decomposition, however it does appear to be a woman. This in itself shows something else about the massacre; that everyone was targeted. The victims were not an opposing army; this genocide was carried out on civilians. These were men, women, and children and no distinction was made. All of these people were slaughtered in a place that they thought was their sanctuary. The next image shows this same fact.


Two corpses lie in the mud on the grounds of Nyarubuye Church. Courtesy of Gilles Peress.

This is an image of two of the victims of the massacre who perished at the hands of the Hutu attackers. Like the photo before, this image highlights the civilian aspect of the conflict and specifically this specific massacre. These people were simply seeking refuge in a religious place, thinking they would be safe because it is not generally acceptable to attack others in a church. This was obviously not the case. These two bodies seem to be in the fetal position, and one body appears to be smaller than the other. It’s possible that this is a mother and child, or at least the smaller body seems to be that of a child. It appears as if the larger person was protecting the smaller person when they were killed. This highlights both the brutality of the attack and also the civilian nature of the victims. It also shows how a beautiful, pristine, and peaceful site became one of despicable violence that ended in corpses littering the ground covered in mud.


A decaying corpse is shown in front of the church. Courtesy of Gilles Peress.

This image is particularly disturbing in that it shows just how close this boy was to the church. Like the two images prior French photographer Gilles Peress took it on one of his trips to Rwanda in which he wished to document the genocide.He obviously framed this image for optimum impact with the main focus on the horror of this body. This person’s decaying corpse lies right where he or she fell, possibly trying to escape the building and run for his life. Unlike some of the images we have looked at, this person still has some facial characteristics and therefore is more relatable and therefore the image is much more disturbing. It’s interesting to see how the church is framed in the background of this image as well. The statue of Jesus, who, in the Christian religion is a savior, is visible as well. This statue is showcased in many photos of this massacre and afterwards, both because it is a centerpiece of the exterior of the church but I think also because it shows the irony and tragedy of the loss of lives in a church. The physical place has been transformed to a place where rotting bodies lie instead of a place where God is praised. A church is not a place where God should let his people be struck down.


Belongings of the deceased are strewn throughout the buildings. Courtesy of Kigali Memorial Centre.

This image shows the piles of remains, clothes, and belongings that the refugees owned prior to their deaths. This particular image is interesting in that it shows the religious image that has Jesus on it. The refugees were looking for a savior of their own and had sought refuge in “God’s house”, however this is ironically where they perished. The physical ground has been altered from clean floors to piles of remains and remnants of life. Once again, this site has been changed from religious to a place of death. In addition to this ironic fact, this image shows how there were so many bodies and so many belongings that the floor is not even visible. It highlights just how many people actually perished in this church, a number that is in the thousands.


Remains and belongings litter the floors. Courtesy of Kigali Memorial Centre.

This final image is another of the inside of the church and the piles of remains and belongings that are there. This image is different in that it shows a wider expanse of these piles of remains. If you look closely you can see how bones of the victims are not necessarily cohesive. It seems as if the bones and belongings as a whole have been scattered, which could mean that others were forced to try and hide within the bodies and items or that there was skirmishes on top of the other bodies. There are skulls mixed in with the rest of the material items, highlighting that the loss of their life was not of any more importance to the perpetrators than their belongings were. If you look closely at these skulls you can see the cracks in them; caused by the machetes and blunt objects that the Hutus used to inhumanely kill these thousands of Tutsi refugees and church workers.

Imaging the Memorial

The way in which genocides are remembered is always telling and interesting. The massacre at Nyarubuye is no exception. In Rwanda as a whole it was up for debate whether the churches would be re-consecrated, which some were immediately, or if they should be kept as a memorial. (Smith and Rittner 204) There is no general agreement on what should happen next, some families want their relatives bodies shown so that the perpetrators are forced to see what they did and also for the global community to see what happened. Others wish that the church could be blessed again and used for what it was intended. (Smith and Rittner 204) It is important to remember “memorialization has an impact on the collective memory of a people and on the next generation” (Smith and Rittner 204). Since the 1994 massacre the space has both been used as a church again and has also been devoted to memorializing and remembering those who were lost in the massacre. The main church space has been re-sanctified and is again in use as a church. (“Through a Glass Darkly: Genocide Memorials in Rwanda, 1994-Present”) The memorial is housed mainly in the convent, where the majority of the killings took place. The grounds around Nyarubuye’s church have been kept as a memorial for those whose lives were lost. Its purpose has stayed as a religious and educational site, however the content of the education is now vastly different. A few of the images that are shown from now on are from a photo project by Jens Meierhenrick for a research project about the memorial of Genocide in Rwanda.


Sign that gives information about the Nyarubuye memorial site to visitors. Courtesy of Jens Meierhenrich.

This is the entrance to the Nyarubuye Genocide Memorial Site and Cemetery. As you can see, there is information on the sign, which aim to tell the story of what exactly happened on this site in 1994. The actual church is still used for religious purposes, however the grounds betray a different story.  This is one way in which the educational function of the church has stayed intact. This serves as an educational tool that the surviving families and Church want to keep in order to not let the story die along with the victims of these heinous crimes. While the inside of the actual church is still used as a church for worship, the outside still bears the memory of what occurred. The church’s function will never fully be restored because of what happened, no matter what the people of Nyarubuye do to re-sanctify it. This showcases how the function of the church has shifted from being a place of religious education and practice to now always being remembered as the site of a horrible genocide.

This is an image of the small museum that is present on the grounds of Nyarubuye. It is housed in the convent, where the majority of the killing took place. In this image we can see the mass amounts of bones that accumulated from the thousands of victims To the right of it you can see the glass cases which house the skulls of the victims that were recovered. In this image, which is in the convent, you can see the huge numbers of people who were murdered right in front of your eyes. This type of memorialization helps to affect those who see it; the people are real they are not just numbers. These human beings died brutally and all that remains are their bones. These bones are neatly arranged on tables, laid out as if they are simply scientific specimens. This more orderly configuration implies that for people to be able to cope more easily with this kind of tragedy, the remains must be placed in a fashion that we as people can understand. We often go into museums and see animal remains on display which is very similar to how these are configured.


The mass graves on the grounds at Nyarubuye. Courtesy of Jens Meierhenrich.

This is an image of the graves in which the bodies of the victims have been buried. Slightly behind these concrete graves you can see a large ditch, which serves as an unmarked mass grave. The remains of the victims are housed in these humble concrete with just a very simple cross adorning them. This is an attempt to sanctify these mass graves and give the victims respect and peace. Not all of these victims have been identified however their burial has a form of dignity in this way. The actual church no longer houses the remains of all of the victims.


The names of the known victims are memorialized in stone. Courtesy of Jens Meierhenrich.

This final image is of the stone in which the names of the known victims have been carved. Behind it, not in focus, is the same statue of Jesus that we have seen before in other images of the actual killings. Most of the names of those who perished are not on this memorial because it is difficult to identify all of the remains. (“Through a Glass Darkly: Genocide Memorials in Rwanda 1994-Present”) The bodies were found in such a state of decomposition that it nearly impossible to identify them. It is likely that many will go unnamed forever.  This image shows the strange irony of that many people perishing in such a religious and holy place, where they were simply seeking refuge from the violence that seemed to be chasing them.


The Rwandan Genocide happened during my lifetime. Children my own age were being slaughtered while I was happily playing with my family. This fact is what brought me to work on this project. Imaging genocide is important in that it brings a very human perspective to the history of an event. A professional photographer took most images I used, one of the images is from a personal trip to Rwanda.This shows that a wide variety of people show interest in memorializing this genocide. Church massacres became a very common practice during this very short yet effective genocide. Through these massacres, churches moved from being a place of refuge and religiosity and have become a place of brutal violence and now remembrance. These images that I presented help to show this key shift in Rwanda’s history.

Works Cited

Ugirashebuja, Octave. “The Church and the Genocide in Rwanda”. Genocide in Rwanda, Complicity of the Churches? Newark, Notts., U.K: Aegis, 2004. Print.

Smith, James and Rittner, Carol “Churches as Memorial Sites, A Photo Essay”. Genocide in Rwanda: Complicity of the Churches? Newark, Notts., U.K: Aegis, 2004. Print.

“Through A Glass Darkly: Genocide Memorials in Rwanda, 1994-Present” Genocide Memorials. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2013.

Jones, Adam. Genocide. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2008. Print

Lorch, Donatella. “Heart of Rwanda’s Darkness: Slaughter at a Rural Church”. The New York Times. 1994. Print.

Caplan, Gerald. “The 1994 Genocide of the Tutsi of Rwanda” Centuries of Genocide Essays and Eyewitness Accounts. New York City: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Safari, Peter. “Church, State, and the Rwandan Genocide”. Political Theology. 11.6 (2010): 873-893

Meierhenrich, Jens. “Through a Glass Darkly: Genocide Memorials in Rwanda 1994-Present”. Photograph. Genocide Memorials. Web. 29 April 2013.

Kigali Memorial Centre. “Through a Glass Darkly: Genocide Memorials in Rwanda 1994-Present”. Photograph. Genocide Memorials. Web. 29 April 2013.

Peress, Gilles. “Rwanda”. Photograph. Magnum Photos. Web. 29 April 2013.

Hollie. “Nyarubuye”. Photograph. Hollie’s Dissertation Travels. 7 September 2012. Web. 29 April 2013.