The altar of the Nyamata church is draped with a blood-stained cloth. His pews have disappeared; in their place were rows and rows of clothes and personal effects that had belonged to the people massacred here 28 years ago. The roof above is littered with shrapnel holes after the perpetrators threw grenades into the building.
In 1994, Hutu extremists in Rwanda targeted Tutsi ethnic minorities and moderate Hutus in a three-month killing spree that resulted in the deaths of around 800,000 people, although local estimates are higher.
In the basement below the church – which today stands in memory of the 1994 genocide – the skulls of unidentified Tutsi men are suspended above the coffin of a woman of the same ethnicity who died following an act of barbaric sexual violence.
The attackers targeted churches like this one on the outskirts of the capital Kigali. More than 10,000 people were killed here in two days, according to memorial manager Rachel Murekatete. A mass grave behind the building is the final resting place of over 45,000 people from the surrounding area killed in the violence.
Prince Charles appeared visibly moved as he was shown around the church, where bodies discovered elsewhere are still being brought today, as former attackers identify other graves as part of the reconciliation process that began in 1999.
The heir to the British throne is in Rwanda for a Commonwealth leaders’ summit later this week.
After showing the grave site, the 73-year-old royal placed a wreath in honor of the victims buried here. On the card, a note from the real written in the local Kinyarwanda language: “We will always remember the innocent souls who were killed in the genocide against the Tutsis in April 1994. Be strong in Rwanda. Charles”
The royal then visited the reconciliation village of Mbyo, one of eight similar villages in Rwanda, where the survivors and perpetrators of the genocide live side by side. The perpetrators publicly apologize for their crimes, while the survivors profess forgiveness.
The first day of his visit to Rwanda was heavily focused on learning more about the massacres of nearly three decades ago. Rwandan footballer and genocide survivor Eric Murangwa had encouraged the prince to include Nyamata during his three-day visit to the country.
“We currently live in what we call ‘the last phase of the genocide’ which is denial. And having someone like Prince Charles visiting Rwanda and visiting the memorial … highlights how the country has managed to recover from that terrible past, “he told CNN earlier this month at a reception in Buckingham. Palace to celebrate the contributions of people from across the Commonwealth.
On Wednesday, Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, met with Rwanda President Kagame and First Lady Jeannette Kagame and visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial and museum in Gisozi, where a quarter of a million people are buried.
“This memorial is a place of remembrance, a place where survivors and visitors come to pay their respects to the victims of the genocide against the Tutsis,” says Freddy Mutanguha, director of the site and himself a survivor of the genocide. “More than 250,000 victims were buried in this memorial and their bodies were collected in different places … and this place [has] become a final destination for our loved ones, our families ”.
These families include his own, who once lived in the town of Kibuye in the country’s western province.
Mutanguha told CNN that he heard the attackers who killed his parents and siblings during the genocide, saying, “I was hiding but I could hear their voices until the end. I survived with my sister, but I also lost four sisters. ”
Keeping their memory alive is now what drives her mission at the memorial.
“This is a very important place for me as a survivor because in addition to being where we buried our family, my mother is down here in one of the mass graves, it’s a home for me, but also [it’s] a place where I work and I feel that responsibility. As a survivor I have to speak, I have to tell the truth about what happened to my family, my country and the Tutsi people, ”she continues.
Mutanguha wished to welcome Prince Charles to learn more about what happened here and help counter a growing online threat from genocide deniers, which he likens to Holocaust denial.
“This is what really worries me because when the Holocaust happened, people didn’t learn from the past. When the genocide against the Tutsis happened, you can see the genocide deniers… mainly those who committed the genocide – they feel they can do it again because they haven’t finished the job. So by telling the story, working here and getting visitors, we can probably make “never again” into reality.
A spokesperson for Clarence House said the royal couple were struck by how important it is to never forget the horrors of the past. “But they were also deeply moved as they listened to people who have found a way to live together and even to forgive the scariest crimes,” they added.
Prince Charles arrived in Rwanda on Tuesday evening, the first member of the royal family to visit the country. He is in Kigali representing the Queen at the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting.
The meeting is usually held every two years but has been rescheduled twice due to the pandemic. He is the first CHOGM he has attended since being selected as the next head of the organization at the 2018 rally.
However, the royal trip to Kigali comes at a somewhat embarrassing time as a fury has erupted over the British government’s radical plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda home.
The British government announced the deal with the East African country in April, however the maiden flight a week ago was blocked after an eleventh hour intervention by the European Court of Human Rights.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will also attend the Commonwealth Leaders Summit and is expected to meet Prince Charles on Friday morning.