Creative Non-Fiction Collective

Descent into Darkness

Nancy O’Rourke is the winner of an annual non-fiction prize awarded by the CNFC. “Descent into Darkness” was selected by CNFC contest judge Betsy WarlandNote: This story, adapted from a memoir-in-progress, has changed the names of the main characters, including Elias, in order to protect their privacy.


Machetes. The weapons of choice. Crude weapons, many of them with blades stained dark by the blood of victims. Machetes used viciously in the streets, in markets, schools, and churches. Machetes used to maim and slaughter men, women and children. Machetes used by farmers, shop owners, teachers, and priests. Machetes used to kill strangers, neighbours and sometimes family members.

I’d only been reunited with the children of Kimihurura for two weeks. Back in Rwanda on a United Nations contract, I was recognized one day by a man on the street. A man who remembered me from 18 years earlier as the white woman, the Muzungu, who played with children. Back then, I spent several months in the country visiting my then partner, who worked on a contract with the Rwanda Development Bank. With a love of children, but without any of my own, I was happy to join in with a group of neighbourhood kids, playing soccer in the afternoons, with a ball made up of wound-up plastic garbage bags. Those kids were something else. They strung up little lights around my heart.

I kept in touch with a couple of them for a while, but after the genocide they disappeared. All of them. Gone.

And then, all these years later, I was identified by a virtual stranger – a man who spotted me one Sunday afternoon, in the neighbourhood where I used to live. I had gone out with my driver, curious to see if I could find my old home. Mystery of mysteries, we managed to locate the place.

There we were, standing out front of the house when this fellow called out my name and came running over. He told me that long ago, when walking home from work, he often saw me playing with the neighbourhood children. Even more extraordinary, he knew some of them, now adults, the ones who survived the genocide and he promised to find them, to bring us together. What were the odds of that?

But he did. He found more than half a dozen of them – those kids I used to hang out with 18 years earlier.

Gathering with the group one evening to share a meal, a young man of 27 years, Elias, made an unexpected demand.

“Anyesé,” he said, using the nickname I’d been given years earlier, “we must go to the Genocide Memorial. We have to go together.”

“Sure, we can go.”

“Soon. We must go soon. It’s not good to wait.”  

His insistence puzzled me, but I decided to let it go. As the oldest in the group, he had a tendency to dominate.

“Well… okay,” I responded. “Why don’t you look into it and we can make arrangements?”

I’d not yet ventured to ask any of my young friends about the genocide, thinking it was too early for such a discussion.

The rain pounded, heavy, pungent, falling in endless, grey sheets. As we toppled out of the taxis, sharing umbrellas, many of them torn and bent, someone mentioned we should first join in prayer. I did not understand the words, foreign and unknown, but was aware of the urgency involved. With solemn faces, all looking down, one of the group members recited a psalm, while we tried to hold hands and umbrellas at the same time. We were drenched before the prayer ended.

Afterward, Elias led the way from the taxi stand up to the museum doors. Upon entering he pointed out that our visit had been pre-arranged and that the director of the museum wished to greet us before entering the presentation rooms. Sure enough, a tall, gap-toothed man in his mid 30s came striding over and told us he had opened a private room for us.

“You’re welcome. Feel free to drop off your belongings in the room set aside for you.”

“But we’ve brought flowers,” said Elias, “for the burial grounds.”

“Certainly. I can escort you now – or we can wait until the rain stops.”

“No,” said Elias, as he hurried back outside with the others in tow. “Let’s go now before we visit the museum.”

With the director leading the way, we moved back outside and along a walkway leading to a series of staggered terraces. Surrounded by well-manicured gardens, lay several large rectangular slabs of grey concrete, stretched out like a string of infinity pools, perched high above the city and overlooking the endless chain of nearby mountains.

As we drew up beside one such slab of concrete, the rain appeared to lessen. We stood huddled together, expectant and unsure.

The director spoke: “These mass burial sites hold the remains of more than 250,000 Tutsi who were murdered during the genocide. In this area before you, the corpses of men, women and children were placed together in sealed burial containers…”

As his voice went on, providing detail after detail of the genocide and burial grounds, my body felt increasingly heavy, weak. I’d forgotten that the memorial included mass graves, not to mention those including children. I’d envisaged only a museum, some artifacts.

I wondered how those accompanying me were managing. I recalled them as young children, always eager to play with balloons and sing songs, happy to include me in their little games. I was aware that many had lost family members during the genocide. Only half the children I’d known in 1992 were still alive.

When the director finished speaking, everyone continued to stand silent, observant. And then, with reverence, Elias stepped forward and placed one bouquet on the ground in front of the gravesite. One of the young women in our group followed and placed the second bouquet alongside. Together and without facing away, they then took one step back, falling in line with the rest of us. We stood still, soundless, as if at attention.

After a few minutes, we returned to the museum where our host provided an introduction and explained how the exhibits were presented in a circle, moving counter-clockwise, working from the ground floor and up two levels. He suggested we begin with the first room to the right of the lobby.

We entered what seemed like a cave. The lighting was low, with small spotlights shining bright on the exhibits – several dark wooden sculptures, a series of black and white photographs, a running video display, and a number of items encased in glass. I was reminded of some swanky little art galleries I used to visit when living in Manhattan years before – the spare, clean lines, flooring designed to flow seamlessly from one room to the next, places to sit and rest. The only difference, due to the heavy rain, were the floors streaked with trails of red, clay mud.

As my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized we were among other visitors – Rwandans and foreigners alike – each moving with heavy steps from one presentation to the next. In a room, specified as “the final divide,” a number of people had stopped in front of a large photograph, indistinguishable from where I stood. Curious, I walked over to get a closer view. It took a few seconds for the image to register but as soon as it did, I felt a quick intake of breath. A huge black-and-white floor-to-ceiling photo of a dead woman and children, lying on the street, abandoned, left for the dogs.

Step by step we continued, moving counter-clockwise from one exhibit to the next, each more harrowing than the last. The third or fourth room we entered, darker with pitch-black walls and minimal lighting, was titled “descent into genocide.” There I came across a display called “apocalypse,” which included a group of items behind glass, the simplicity of which did nothing to disguise the horror involved.    

Machetes. More machetes than I could count.

In Southern countries, the machete, as a utility tool, is used more than any other in the world. Often imported from China or India, with a blade typically made of carbon steel, this instrument is approximately two feet long, two inches wide, with a handle of five inches. As an agricultural implement, it can slice through bushes and slash through corn stalks.  The machete is known to “… cut, chop, slash, hack, split, scrape, scoop, hammer, dig, crush, carve, whittle, crack or smash just about anything you can put in front of it.” More than 300 years old, the machete is also recognized as a “survival” tool and has often been used as a weapon of attack. Derived from the Spanish word “macho;” in Rwanda, the machete is best known as the weapon most used by the Interhamwe militia to slaughter men, women and children during the 1994 genocide.  

The thought of machetes raised, then plunged down recklessly, slicing through bodies, tearing away clothing, flesh and body parts, made me shudder. I knew that my young friends had witnessed this – had experienced this depravity first hand.  My eyes burned.  Restless, I backed away, moving on to the next room for escape.

But avoidance was impossible, the presentations in each room more disturbing, more violent than those preceding. In one room, the walls were covered floor to ceiling with row upon row of horizontal wiring, like clothes line, spread eight or nine inches apart, each line filled with photos of genocide victims, clipped on by family members. All these innocent victims, lined up, row after row, as if giving witness to us – to remind us of how the world turned away as they were killed with brutality and force. As much as I wished to honour these people and what they endured, a part of me wanted to run.

Another room, with the same type of wire and photo exhibit, was assigned to children alone, complemented by fourteen large photos of individual children, each with a short biography of the child. 


Age: 10

Favourite sport: football

Enjoyed: Making people laugh

Dream: Becoming a doctor

Last word: ‘UNAMIR will come for us.’

Cause of death: Tortured

Throughout the tour, we moved individually, from room to room, like cattle passing through a gate, sometimes tracing back and occasionally bumping into one another. No one spoke. Our exchanged looks were brief, most of us clutching tissues or hankies, wiping away the tears.

Eventually I made my way back to the private room assigned to us. Upon entering, I noticed several from our group had returned, yet were sitting apart from one another, heads down and silent.

I took a chair, and then one of the group members, a young man of about twenty years, came and sat beside me. He had a small, wiry build, with large brown eyes that stared into mine, yet with a facial expression that was almost absent. Vacant.

But then his mouth began to crumple, his face scrunching up and his lips twitching, and I saw something else.

A look.

A look I’ll never forget. Though I cannot say I truly understood.

Was it anxiety? Humiliation? Fear? I continued to hold his stare, while my mind raced, trying to comprehend this young man’s experience.

And then, as if speaking for his heart – to declare his truth – he let his body loose and leaned in heavy against me. With his head nudged in tight beneath my chin, I reached out to pull him in, wrap my arm around him – and almost instantly recoiled. His flesh was damp. And cold. Ice cold – his body exuding a bold and acrid odour.

Only then did I grasp his reality.

There was no protection. No solace. Not for this boy.

His truth was horror. The kind that clings, like skin to the bone. Horror that hangs on and lasts forever.

 As for the others, well, there was just no telling.

And Elias? He’d not yet returned.


As a sociologist specializing in human rights, Nancy O’Rourke has extensive field experience, primarily in Africa. Having studied Creative Writing at the University of Toronto, she was recently recognized by Memoir Magazine for her notable essay, “To Breathe Again.“ Her story, “Descent into Darkness,” is adapted from a memoir-in-progress, which examines processes of forgiveness, focusing on a group of children she befriended in Rwanda in 1992, lost during the genocide, and found later in 2010.