“If you really knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.” From one of the plaques in the Kigali Genocide Memorial.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial, as well as others throughout Rwanda, was created for two purposes: To provide a place for Rwandans to go to remember their loved ones, and to teach the younger generations about their history, so that they remember and understand what really happened and how it informs the values of their society and the path for development that their country has chosen.
Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of the memorial is that did not only educate about the Rwandan genocide, but also about other genocides in our history. There was one room dedicated to educating about the Holocaust, another specifically to teach about Nazi extermination camp at Treblenka. Other exhibits included Namibia, Armenia, Cambodia, and the Balkans. This inclusion of tragedies other than their own served, for me, to situate their crisis in a wider context, to remind us that despite our promises to one another after the Holocaust that “this would never happen again”, that it has, both before and after, happened again and again and again. Genocide is not something that happens to someone else, and it is not something that happened in the past. Human populations continue to seek the exterminate one other for ethnic, religious and political reasons and, despite our best efforts to prevent it, Rwanda reminded us we have not yet succeeded in preventing it. The exhibits about genocide around the world were in the second-to-the last area that we passed through, reminding us as we neared the end of our journey through history that we are all part of one experience and that we make a choice each day, in whatever we do, to fight for, and celebrate together, our common right to live and to be happy, or to close our hearts to the reality that we are all one.
The memorial is comprised of a series of exhibition halls wandering through the building, each of which is dedicated to different aspects of the experience. There were photos, videos with survivors speaking about their experiences, and how it affected them then, as well as howit affects them now. Informational texts was provided for every photo, in three languages: Kinyarwanda, French, and English. The entire exhibit is an exquisite documentation of a profound wound upon the heart of Rwanda.
The three rooms that touched me the most, leaving me in tears : (1) a room filled with pictures hanging on little hooks on stretches of wire. People bring pictures of people whom they lost and the display is set up so that pictures can be continued to be added over time if, and when, loved ones come across ones that they find. 1 million people were killed over the course of 100 days in Rwanda. Prior to that, killings and prosecution had been occurring for several years, and attempts at reconciliation between the persecutors and their victims had failed. Propaganda continued to teach people to fear their neighbors, people with whom they had previously been friends. Thousands had already fled in prior years to surrounding African countries as well as to the West. It was the ones who remained at home who died during those 100 days, the ones whose faces hung off little hooks for me to meet for the first time, and then to bid farewell.
The genocide actually occurred after a reconciliation agreement had been reached but it had obviously been being planned for some time. The goal was to exterminate an entire generation of a people. Lists of names of who would be killed were prepared in advance so that when the killing began the perpetrators would know where to go and one commentary noted that even the killers were surprised at how successful their campaign had been. No one had imagined that so many people could die in such a short period of time, in such horrific manner, and, in many cases, at the hands of their own neighbors.
(2) In contrast to the room of personalized remembrance, there was also a room filled with class cases that contained actual remains of some of the victims. Some housed, laid out in neat little rows, the skulls of many of the victims. Many of them were crushed, cracked, broken. In between these cases was one filled with long bones, this time they were not displayed separately in rows, but were piled one upon another, as they would have been in the mass graves. Unlike the Holocaust where all remnants of the victims were erased through systematic cremation and disposal of the ashes, the people remained, bleeding, crushed, broken, burned, tortured, for all to see and yet… the world did nothing…
(3) The last series of exhibits (after the exhibits about genocide around the world) were dedicated to the children who had been lost, so that we would not forget them and could mourn the people whom they might have become. Huge photos of individual children hung on the walls, with their first names proudly displayed. Below each was a plaque that gave the child’s name, his or her age, favorite past time, favorite food, best friend, and sometimes their final words were known: “Mama will come for us…”
In my experience here thus far, Rwandans are a kind and gentle people. That the genocide happened at all here, and happened as it did, reminded me that it is not something that happens to someone else, it happens to us all, and it can always happen again, unless we remain vigilant in our fight for peace over war.
Ubu twita cyane ku kurebo icya abantu bekeneye aho kureko icho bari cyo.
“Now we look at what people need and not at who they are.”