On Genocide Memorials

Today we visited the Genocide Museum in Kigali. There are scores of memorials throughout the country, but the museum in Kigali has a three-fold mission: as an archive of artifacts and documentation; as a center for education and prevention; and as a burial ground. The remains of around 280,000 human beings in interred on the museum’s grounds, in vast crypts topped with simple concrete slabs. Three new ones have been built since I was here in 2007. The work of properly burying the dead goes on as more mass graves are discovered.

I recall that one of the students who was with us in 2007 was appalled at this, what she called “genocide tourism.” I am not sure if she was upset at the idea, or of being “forced” to go through these memorials (the one in Kigali and the even more raw and powerful memorial at the Nyamata church in Bugesera) because she was part of our group. On the one hand I can understand her sentiment. It’s not easy to reconcile the idea of visiting these types of museums and memorials as something “to do” while on vacation. One feels a sense of this when leaving the space. You’ve just toured an exhibit that chronicles, in vivid detail, the planning and swift implementation of a genocide of a million people in 100 days. How do you talk about it after leaving? It’s not like seeing Caravaggio at the Chicago Art Museum. Yet the act of touring the exhibit is the same. As in 2007, I left the museum with a profound sense of discomfort.

But I think that is the idea. For the rest of the world, what happened here in the years leading up to 1994 and during those 100 days, the genocide is something to be studied and understood from a safe distance; words on a page; an archival document; a typed testimony; the subject of a lecture. And much of the exhibit here in Kigali is similar to that, with the addition of photographs and some video testimonies of survivors, for example.

Toward the end of the exhibit, one moves from facts and abstractions–the colonial history; the documents; the planning of the genocide; the hate propaganda; the political factors–to realities. One dimly lit room is unadorned and features several glass cases with neatly arranged rows of skulls and piles of bones. The skulls reveal how gunshots, machetes and clubs ended lives. Another case contains these implements. Inside many of the cases are other artifacts, also neatly arranged in the center: identity cards (which the militias used to identity their victims); wallets emptied of cash; photographs; a crucifix.

I have been thinking about these displays, in particular the rows of skulls neatly lined up. I have been wondering why this arrangement is done (here and at other memorial sites). It seems at first cold and clinical–like walking into a room full of anthropological specimens. Perhaps it is simply respectful to have these displays so tidy–each one with its small bit of space in the case. Maybe its meant to convey a sense of equality, although if one takes the time to look closely, one realizes how very different each person was just by looking at the unique features of each. Perhaps its meant to convey a sense of both uniqueness and sameness. I’m not sure. But going into that room, as difficult as that was, made me think about all I had already seen and brought the point home in the strongest possible terms: perversions of economic and political power led to this result and looked the other way as it was happening.

As a scholar of politics, of course I am interested in the political events and circumstances that led to the genocide, and the consequences that are shaping the future of Rwanda and the world right now. But the value of this memorial, this museum, is far more profound than anything one can read about in a book. I’m just not sure how the two really intersect, except perhaps solely within the mind and heart of the person who studies and experiences the genocide in this way.

And so these places are important, especially perhaps because they leave the visitor–even one like me who thinks he “knows” about the genocide–speechlessness when he leaves.

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~ by de cive on January 4, 2010.

One Response to “On Genocide Memorials”

  1. Daniel, I have many choice words for your former student’s reaction to the “genocide tourism”. Suffice to say as a Jew I trust you will never take her to Auschwitz – a place both profane and sacred. She would only add to the former.

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