Bearing Witness

There is no morning that you wake up and tell yourself, “yes, today feels like a good day to visit a genocide memorial.”

I’ve been in Rwanda for nearly two months, and you might note that I haven’t written much about the genocide, except a few asides or references to the nation’s past, with the inhumanity of 1994 twenty years ago. There are a few reasons for this (at least this is what I tell myself). The primary one is that I’ve always hated the way the West views or presents Africa, especially in the media. Starving children with distended bellies and flies in their eyes, cruel dictators who massacre opponents and bulldoze townships, camo-clad guerillas firing AK-47s into the sky. Not that these images aren’t true; there’s South Sudan’s cycles of war and famine, Robert Mugagbe’s seeming unending reign of terror, Somalia’s pirates. But there’s so much more to this continent than those things. And Rwanda is much more than the genocide- it’s a place of beauty, of some tranquility, of quirks and kindness and goat kebabs.

But there’s a greater reason why I haven’t written about the genocide, and kept my posts on food or volcanoes or the banality of my daily life as they are something easy to write, something bright and cheerful and simple.

I remember a similar period of life, a moment during my first visit to Poland in 2008 before walking beneath that famous sign at Auschwitz, the one that reads Arbeit macht frei. I asked myself if I really wanted to do this—to witness the remnants of atrocity instead of only encounter it through a book, as I (and most Westerns well insulated from mass tragedy) had in the past. Maybe if I had been by myself that day in Oświęcim, I would have turned and wandered back to the sleepy city center melting under a ferocious August sun to find ice cream and air conditioning and read instead of walking through it. I was reading Kapuscinski then, his book Imperium that chronicled his meanderings through the crumbling U.S.S.R. during which he documented Soviet atrocities against humanity, nature, and happiness. I would take that approach to horror any day of the week; life and humanity has always been easiest for me to fathom from ink on a page. But I didn’t. I went in, passed through the gates, and went back in time.

Today, the truth is, I didn’t want to confront this fresh genocide. This genocide is far from the one raged against Jews, Poles, gypsies, gays, and others labeled untermensch (“sub-human”) in Central Europe, with most of its victims long buried and their families separated from its tragedy by the calming blanket of passed time. Here, in this new place, time has only begun to heal gashed wounds: twenty years is not so long. I remember 1994. I remember standing outside at school assembly, a fourth grader at Catholic parochial school in my plaid jumper and ripped navy tights, listening to the monthly student awards be called out by the school principal. I got one, one time, for citizenship. It was late in the schoolyear—April—which essentially meant that the teacher was now going down the list to manufacture the Student-of-the-Month as a student wasn’t to be repeated. It’s hazy, but I remember April of 1994. Student-of-the-Month for Citizenship, Jump Rope for Heart, the ebbing close of the school year and the coming fun of Day on the Green and still another summer before the angst of adolescent set in. My dull world was so far from what occurred in Rwanda, the events that stretched across three months, willful ignored by the powerful despite heads shaking at Auschwitz and whispers of “never again.”

Kinzer writes of a moment experienced by outsiders, the one reached by people who spend enough time in Rwanda to reach it, “when its story overwhelms the intellect and the conscious mind. Floods of grief and pain sharpened immeasurably by the realization that an outsider’s emotions can never fathom the agony that enveloped and still envelops most Rwandans, becomes a torrent that drowns thought and reason.” I knew that like many, I would encounter this moment for myself when I was confronted with stark evidence of the genocide itself: like many, my moment would come at the Kigali Genocide Memorial.

photo 1

The Kigali Memorial Centre, constructed with assistance from UK-based Aegis Trust, sits on the edge of a hill, with a sweeping view of the road and the patchwork of green fields below. On a bright Saturday, I hiked up the road with another American, a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant who worked in Kigali. We hadn’t eaten lunch, so we ducked into the memorial center’s café and proceeded to spend two hours avoiding moving from our seats. Rwanda is not a country known for its Western-style service, but our lengthy lunch was calculated: neither of us wanted to take the step towards confronting the event that was an undercurrent in the conversations and interactions of our everyday lives. The word “genocide” isn’t often spoken. In fact, when a group of students chose it as a topic in my communication class, I was shocked. I’d been in Rwanda for more than a month and you just didn’t hear the word mentioned. The impact is obvious, but unstated. Someone will tell you that they don’t have parents, that they lost their sister, that they lived with strangers for a while. They will tell you that they spent time in Congo, that their schooling was interrupted, that they were in the military. But the words of “genocide” or even those volatile markers, Hutu and Tutsi, are almost never mentioned, the “ethnic” labels most silent of all. But the genocide is painfully present, even if it remains unspoken.

We walked down from the café to the main entrance to the memorial, a blindingly white building surrounded by blooms and tile walkways, almost Mediterranean, with birds calling and the wind whistling in the palm fronds. The first stop on the audio tour, narrated by a somber Brit, was down another flight of steps to the mass graves. The graves don’t strike you as such as you see them: my friend and I looked at our map, then back at the wide concrete expanses before putting the two together. They hardly betray what lies beneath: nearly 250,000 dead, many from Kigali, but others moved from the places around the nation to the memorial as a final resting place. One, closest to the gardens dedicated to peace and healing, has a window to show what lies beneath the thick slab: nothing grotesque, but an opening with shapes draped in burial clothes edged with white ruffles and appliqued with a wide white cross. In my mind, I felt unable to even do the math. 250,000 people. An estimated one-quarter from the genocide’s toll. That’s not a number one can even imagine. I could feel the itch in my throat and the beginning of a headache, a throbbing between my eyes. We moved on.

Beside the graves on the secondary level is a long black wall, reminiscent of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. But this wall had only a few plaques of inscribed names. The narrator notes the reason that many bodies went unidentified: when your entire family has been murdered, cut down and sent to the next life, there is no one left to identify you. Even your existence, your name, your likes and dislikes, your hopes for the future—everything that makes you who you are, wiped clean. You are nameless, unknown, settled into the graves with the others.

Inside the white building, we began a walk through the history that led to the genocide itself. That history is another post for another day, but the bulleted facts are clear. 1. Rwandan society has long been stratified between these groups, the cattle-owning Tutsi and land-working Hutu, with the wandering Twa often forgotten. 2. There is no evidence of violence between the two groups who lived in a very closed, highly controlled society with a strict administration echoed in today’s well-organized environment. 3. The Germans, and later the Belgians, exacerbated the perceived differences between the two groups, identifying them as “ethnic” markers and, according to later Hamish theory, deciding that the Tutsi were more similar to white people, thus the “elite” who would rule the country, despite being only 15% of the population. 4. Hutu were oppressed, their children often barred from attending school, and generally marginalized as an aspect of this popular technique in colonization: divide and conquer. 5. A shift toward “Hutu Power” and decolonization resulted in the first outbreaks of violence in the 1950s, what the memorial terms a “precursor” genocide. Tutsi were massacred and many fled, establishing the Rwandan diaspora in Uganda, Tanzania, Congo, and beyond. 6. Persecution of the Tutsi continued into the eighties and the RPF, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, formed abroad to fight for the refugees’ right of return to the nation. History marched on, with a build-up of cached weapons and racist vitriol spewing from politicians and media elite. The message was clear: the Tutsi were to be eradicated. In 1994, following the assassination of then President Habyarimana touched off the 1994 genocide: 100 days of carefully calculated massacres that resulted in thousands dead. Most experts put the number between 800,000 and more than a million. The world turned its back on Rwanda, with France even aiding and supporting the genocidaire government.

The memorial’s historical section winds around in a circular path, each chapter arresting your attention as walkway curves and you cannot see what lies ahead. This careful coordination of architecture and story keep you focused on the moment, each section moving you closer to the horror of April 1994. It wisely avoids gratuitous and disrespectful images, the disaster porn common in media representations of the event, and instead focuses the viewer on the cold facts of the case. This section of the museum is on the lower level, partially submerged into the hill, with the only outside light streaming in through two stained glass windows constructed by an artist whose own father survived the Holocaust.

I made it through the data, reading every board and listening to the audio tour, all of this information stacking up against the many books I’ve read on the topic. Three rooms remained before we were to move upstairs to see the presentations of genocide in history: Armenia, Namibia, Poland, Cambodia, Bosnia. The first room opened to me with nooks cut into the walls, and hundred of photographs clipped on wires: images of the victims, donated by their family members. My headache was growing worse, pulsing in my eyes. The collection was diverse, from somber school photos and identification images, common in developing countries where people don’t have easy access to cameras (especially in the early 90s), to wedding shots and goofy child pictures. Women with braids, natural poofs, veils. Men with beards, smiles, serious eyes, bellbottoms. Children- so, so many children.

photo 2

I sat for a few moments, studying these pictures, my eyes constantly moving between the black and white and sepia-toned images, stained and discolored in twenty years. Then I moved to the next room, a silent, dark round with glass cases laid out against the walls. And here, in the words of Kinzer, is where I experienced that moment, the pain in my head becoming tears streaming down my face, holding my hand clapped tight over my mouth and nose so that my sobs couldn’t be heard. In the glass cases were remains, bones gently laid out. What had been hidden under the concrete slabs outside was laid in the dim light, a warning and evidence all in one. For those who will say this didn’t happen, that the concrete graves are nothing but expanses of earth, this will silence them.

I knelt in front of a case for a while, looking down at the small skulls and the personal effects placed around them: ubiquitous plastic rosaries, like those worn by my university students. Identity cards disintegrating with age and preserved plastic bags, names and ethnic identification (“Tutsi” in scrawled cursive) still visible among blood stains. Children’s shoes, dirty and worn. All of this was too much to bear, too fresh and too close. I just wanted to leave, to get back into the yellow sunshine.

In places where tragedy has occurred, tragedy on a grand scale, these places must exist. And we must visit them. We must pay homage to this country’s history, and honor the memory of these people who were murdered. Of course, it is far easier to skip these museums and monuments constructed in honor of tragedy, to ostensibly convince yourself that you wish to view the country as it is today, to avoid the personal struggle that occurs when confronted with this manner of evil.

And I was able to leave the memorial. I was able to walk outside, back into the lush beauty of this corner of the city, back toward a meal and a place to sleep for the evening. I could breathe in the air, clean and smelling a little of the dirt from the plots below, alive. We walked back down the hills, weaving through throngs of people, vendors with passion fruits and fresh-caught fish. Alive. All alive. Survivors. Witnesses.

Every one of us alive today, who has the ability to read about this genocide, or the ears to hear about it, becomes a witness to this crime. Globalization and the reporting of the press has made us this: consumers of content and history means that we know of this event and the others that came before it: the extermination of peoples and their cultures- the Armenians, the Herero, the Jews, the Bosnians. All of us—six billion and counting—have a responsibility as witnesses to continue these stories in the hopes that they will not occur again.

From one witness to another, peace and love – this time from Kigali.



4 thoughts on “Bearing Witness

  1. Realizing this is not the greatest cover art or title to contradict your “typical image of Africa,” (which I completely agree with, oh jeez) but a good book nonetheless.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: And So We Remember | a thousand hills from home

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