OCTOBER 5, 1994
KIGALI, Rwanda (AP) -- Three minibuses arrived at a church where 400 hacked corpses lay decomposing between the pews. Ten foreigners, wearing T-shirts with aid agency insignia, went inside. Some carried cameras.
A while later, an off-duty U.N. civilian official showed up. Then came a film crew.
It's the latest pastime for foreigners in blood-soaked Rwanda -- body tourism. Sightseeing trips to mass graves and massacre sites give outsiders an adrenalin rush, said British psychiatrist Maj. Ian Palmer.
"It's a sort of pornography. It's a risky game, it's stepping out of innocence, it shows the dark side in all of us," he said.
In the dank church at Nyamata, the skin of massacre victims seethed with maggots. Some of the Western visitors, men and women, gagged, clothing held to their mouths against the odor. Several fought back tears.
The buses had traveled 60 miles, the long way to Nyamata because a bridge on the direct 20-mile route south of Kigali was blown up during Rwanda's civil war.
Other foreigners go further afield to witness the horrifying aftermath of ethnic bloodshed that erupted in April and left mass graves, corpses reeking inside buildings and sun-bleached skulls and bones scattered across the countryside.
They won't talk about why they spend hard-earned leisure time this way, but Palmer, in Rwanda to counsel U.N. peacekeepers, believes it's not a rare response to apocalyptic slaughter on a scale few can fully comprehend.
He says Westerners mainly see death on television or occasionally on the scene of a car wreck.
"Death is an existential worry we all have. We have a good side, but there's always a shadow," he said. By looking at corpses, "we are confronting our own death, our own fears and our own ghosts. Irrevocable change takes place. We are never going to be the same again."
By photographing a massacre site, "we can trick ourselves into believing the images are in the camera and not in our head. We can say I was there, I saw it, I have proof."
Palmer said some sightseers were drawn to atrocities by feelings of excitement, masochism or voyeurism that they didn't want to acknowledge in themselves. Some have said they never even processed their photos but did keep the film.
"That's another way of putting it away in a box," he said.
Hutu extremists have been blamed for killing more than 500,000 Rwandans, most of them Tutsi, in a few weeks following the April 6 assassination of Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana.
Many of the victims were hacked to death with machetes and lay unburied after survivors and killers fled.
Palmer has noted that U.N. troops who discovered the bodies of massacre victims in the course of their duties have displayed common symptoms of "post traumatic stress reaction," particularly family men troubled by the death of children.
"We try and make it easier for them to talk about it and normalize their emotional responses. What goes in has to come out," he said.
But civilians don't have the same support in Rwanda, and for Rwandans themselves mass killings have broken down traditions of family care.
Palmer and other U.N. medics dealing with trauma cases in Rwanda say they have been astonished by the fury of past mass violence and the group frenzy of killers who cut down helpless victims who often showed little resistance.
One of their case studies describes how a young girl looked into the eyes of a machete-wielding attacker who hacked into her neck. The sudden glimmer of personalized contact fazed the attacker and he left the girl alive.
Palmer said similar cases have been recorded in Bosnia, in most other conflicts over hundreds of years and even among youth gangs in Western cities where violence is spurred by the ease of collective blame.
"It's possible because 'It's not my fault, it's the group's fault'," Palmer said. "Perhaps we all have this primitivity, this holocaust in us."