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The Genocide: Still Very Personal

February 27, 2010

Yesterday was my third visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre since arriving in Rwanda.

The first had been with Sorny, as newly-arrived residents in mid-September ‘09. Having read Kinzer’s ‘A Thousand Hills’ we had a reasonably good view of the history and the culpability of a wide range of players.

Sorny at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre

The Memorial is recently constructed and is really quite effective in its use of pictures, video monitors and information panels – all in three languages (Kinyarwanda, French & English, in equal treatments – many other museums and memorials could take note).  (link to the centre: )

Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre - Photo: Nat. Museum of Rwanda

The story is laid out chronologically, cleanly presented in long narrow hallways dimly lit so that you are drawn to the illuminated displays and videos. The narrative gives just enough detail to get a sense of how it all built into what seems an inevitability, but not an overload of information – there is enough “white space” that you have time to reflect a little between sections.  There is a curious juxtaposition between the emotion all this generates – as you see a small nation heading towards the abyss – and the almost clinical narrative provided.  

Memorial exhibits - Photo: Nat. Museum of Rwanda

The most moving area may be the children’s section, where large photos of children are presented on the walls with a snapshot of their family background, their age, their likes & dislikes (favourite food, favourite game), and then – how they were murdered. 

Painting: 'Genocide': Photo - Nat. Museum of Rwanda

Criticism of the UN, US and of France is restrained; having read of the blunders and home-politics fixation of the former two, and the sheer cynicism of the French, Sorny and I found ourselves choking a little on how much was not said.

The Memorial comprises a museum laid out in three parts – the precursor history of uncaring colonialism in Rwanda; the path to the 1994 genocide; and then zooms out into something very welcome: a global presentation on genocide, with case studies in some depth presented in text and photos – Cambodia, the Holocaust, Armenia…   In the grounds outside, three large concrete-roofed vaults house the mass graves; apparently some 250,000 bodies from Kigali are interred there, most unidentified (as a long wall with only a couple of thousand names recording actual identifications attests).

Shrouded coffins in mass grave, Memorial Centre - Sept 2009

The Kigali Genocide Memorial contains oral testimonies collected from different Kigali city quarters, along with human bones and skulls that have been treated for conservation. Accounts of personal tragedy and of personal heroism – by Tutsi but also by moderate Hutu, a crucial point emphasised by current-day government messaging – are given prominence. Weapons used during the genocide — clubs, the infamous machetes (or pangas), clubs, even swords — are also preserved there. The Kigali Genocide Memorial also contains personal possessions such as photos, rosaries, identity cards, shoes, clothes – all abandoned by victims as they tried to flee.    The almost-clichéd natural reaction is for people to murmer ‘never again’ as they survey the means of such cruelty; but the additional wing of the museum reminding us all of how often this does happen provides a salutary reminder that mere sentiment is not nearly enough.

A curious little side garden reinforces this message. A cascade of three small gardens set down the gentle slop of the land, each with an ornamental centre-piece around a pool, provides a pre-during-post time series of the genocide. In one, a little carved figure of a hippo symbolises the Rwandans’ desperately urgent need to communicate to a largely unheeding world at the time – the hippo holds a cell phone. Unfortunately, Bill was burnt from Somalia, Kofi was too self-servingly political, and the French were just cynical…

Anyone there...? Anyone....?

My second visit was accompanying a few newly-arrived colleagues. They were interested, they were moved, but they also took only half as long as Sorny and I did to have ‘been there, done that’ — then on to the next tourist stop.

This third visit provided a more personal perspective. I had joined about 150 other people standing in the hot sun was to observe three white-shrouded coffins being placed into one of the mass grave vaults in the grounds of the Memorial. We were all there as part of the interment ceremony for the bodies of relatives of Benjamin, one of my colleagues at the project in Rwanda. Their remains had only recently been discovered and identified – Benjamin’s father and two of Benjamin’s brothers. Several survivors were present – three siblings, and their mother. We heard, from the speech given by a neighbour at that time, that the Interahamwe had come searching for the father on 31 May 1994 in Kigali and, having failed to find him, killed two of his teenage sons. When the father heard this dreadful news, he wrote a letter asking the remaining sons to look after their mother and their youngest sibling – Benjamin – and then he gave himself up, to protect his remaining family. He was murdered on 2 June 1994. Then the bodies were dumped and lost for over 15 years.

The ceremony was sober and the family’s faces were composed for most of the proceedings. As the coffins were lowered into the vault, family tears quietly flowed…

Preceding the burial, we had attended a funeral mass at the large, airy cathedral in downtown Kigali. White and purple are the colours of mourning in Rwanda; the female family members were dressed in lacy white mourning clothes, while the sons wore dark suits, white shirts and red ties. While the ceremony was all in Kinyarwanda, the pattern of the rituals brought back memories from my childhood; catholic myths and customs go deep! The one difference was how spirited the singing was of some of the hymns, with clapping to the beat in a couple of them.

Not a bad send-off to bring closure to yet another personal-level tragedy, in a town which saw so many 16 years ago.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Andie T permalink
    March 1, 2010 5:56 pm

    This is so beautifully written Dad….

    Love Andie

  2. André Santos permalink
    December 20, 2011 8:22 am

    Dear “Kiwi in Rwanda”,

    As I get prepared for my wife’s and my own first trip to Rwanda, all the information on the tourism sites about the gorillas, the vulcanoes and the parks caused me to wonder about how the issue of the genocide was being treated in the country. Your article above was very enlightening on the subject and also very touching. Congrtuations!
    André from Brazil.
    PS: I wrote a paper on the genocide and would like to exchange a few words with you, if you are in Kigali next February.

    • John T. permalink*
      December 20, 2011 10:14 pm

      Dear Andre,
      thank you for your comment. I will not be in Kigali in February, but if there is some information I can help you with, please feel free to send me an email at john(dot)tull@gmail(dot)com. And I’d certainly be interested to read your paper on the genocide if that is available.
      Cheers, John

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