April 31, 2018
On April 6, 1994, the plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira, the Hutu president of Burundi, was shot down as it prepared to land in Kigali, killing everyone on board. News of the crash triggered what became known as the Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsis. In 100 days, a million people, mainly Tutsis were murdered, while the rest of the world stood by, a failure to take action referenced in the work by Chilean artist, Alfredo Jaar, Untitled (Newsweek) 1995.
Jaar flew to Rwanda at the time to witness what was going on, producing a series of works over the next six years. Untitled (Newsweek) lines up front covers of the American news magazine for 17 weeks during the height of the genocide, not one of which addressed the horror of Rwanda. The world did not step in to intervene.
Twenty four years later, I am in Kigali as part of a conference group entitled Historical Trauma and Memory: Living with the Haunting Power of the Past, headed by Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. The idea of being able to contribute anything at all of value to a country with such a devastating history is daunting. On the first morning, we are guided through the Rwanda Genocide Memorial.
In the museum section, the history which led up to the killings is laid out in wall texts and images. The Belgian colonial government required Rwandans to carry identity books which labeled people as Hutu or Tutsi, even though all Rwandans speak the same language, and the division is socio-economic rather than tribal. During the genocide, carrying an ID book identifying oneself as ‘Tutsi’ led to many deaths. Photos of those who lost their lives fill one room.
Outside, at a level below the museum, bland concrete slabs cover the mass grave. It has been dug to a depth of 68 metres, and contains the remains of 250 000 bodies. Flowers and commemorative wreaths have been laid on the pale grey surface.
It begins to rain. We continue on to a village in the Bugusera district, where perpetrators and victims live side by side, in community. Standing under an umbrella, a perpetrator tells us that at that time, he understood it as his duty to kills Tutsis. Now he has asked for forgiveness from his community. This is the unique aspect of post-genocide Rwanda. It’s as if an entire nation has accepted – or tried to accept – the genocide as ‘unexplainable’, a ‘nightmare’, a ‘bad dream’, a madness which seized the country but must never be allowed to happen again.
Part of the process of ‘never again’ are the remembrance ceremonies which take place across the country on April 7, 24 years after the onset of the genocide. This solemn day follows the ending of the conference, and starts with a ceremony under marquees near Nyamata, about an hour into the country from Kigali . There are speeches, the recounting of experiences by victims, the noon broadcasting of the Remembrance Day message by President Paul Kagame.
The crowd walks up the hill to Ntarama Church, now a genocide memorial, with vitrines of skulls, many with the slash marks of machetes, where thousands of Tutsis were killed when they tried to shelter in the church. The sadness and the power of the small pockmarked church is overwhelming. It is difficult to speak.
In the afternoon, back in Kigali, we join the crowds gathering outside Parliament to walk together to the stadium, a remembrance ceremony started by the youth some years ago.
The stadium is packed, with students in white and black filling the grass at the centre.
There is singing, and again, the recounting of genocide experiences by a young woman who survived. Then an older man. We cannot follow, as he is speaking in Kinyarwanda, but his face is somber. Then from the far side of the stadium, there is an unearthly howl, and we can see the crowd erupting. First aid workers are rushing over. The man continues talking. We learn later he is a Hutu who is recounting how he tried to protect some Tutsi children, but could not prevent their violent deaths. Like a Mexican wave of pain, a second person starts screaming, and others follow. People are rising in little groups all over the stadium to allow the aid workers to carry people out. It is unendurable.
The next day, I ask a group of young people who have assembled to discuss what it means to be the next generation after conflict if they feel it is a necessary part of the healing process to relive, or to hear again the account of violence the trauma of the genocide in such a painful way. They reply that it is. That it is a preventative against genocide every happening again. That they had bad government then, that allowed it to happen, and now they have good government. There is a strong sense of national pride.
Their statement for the ‘Other Voices Other Cities’ project, photographed at the site of the mass graves at the Genocide Memorial, is FROM HELL TO HOPE.