Guilt paralysed me as Mama Lambert began to speak to us about the village and how it was affected by the terrible events of the genocide. Imprinted into my consciousness is the way in which she welcomed us as her family, who were there to support her in this difficult time when she would be confronting the perpetrators of genocide within her village. It was some of these men who played a part in the killing of her husband and five of her children, and she bore the hope that the location of their remains would be revealed in this meeting. As she spoke, it wasn’t the affection that her words bore which struck me, but rather the overwhelming realization of my lack of purity of intention. Upon our arrival in the village, I experienced a cloud of uncertainty as to our purpose for visiting this village and as a result, the nature of our interaction with the community. This feeling was confirmed as Mama spoke. I realized that I had not approached this visit with the intention to support her in this difficult time, but rather to further understand the process of the search for reconciliation within Rwanda society. I was reminded of the article by Gary Baines who describes the “struggle tourism circuit”. Was I complicit in this dilemma? How were these intentions to manifest themselves in this interaction with the community of Nyanza? This was further exacerbated by the unspoken expectation that was being placed on me as a member of the international community. The village members constantly acknowledged the presence of the group when perpetrators were perceived to be giving false information about their participation in the activities of the genocide, indicating that any lies being told would not go unnoticed, that though they were an isolated community, the world was not going to ignore the actions pursued in the genocide by these men. There were no doubt perceptions about the responsibilities which we take with us as members of the international community. Fundamentally this experience posed questions about my participation in this course as a whole. Was I merely partaking in the processes of dark tourism? If not, what was I going to do upon my return to Australia? Would I allow an advancement in understanding about the terrible actions committed during the genocide to have a debilitating effect on me? And if not, in what way would I allow is course to guide my future endeavours?
I’ve found it difficult to reflect on visiting the Murambi Memorial and attending a meeting with the Nyanza community: victims, family and prisoners for acts of genocide. My sense of difficulty stems from my feelings of numbness when confronted by these situations, which I feel I will never understand. Additionally, a feeling of self-awareness hung over me: through the sense of responsibility or agency that I assumed as a member of the “international community” throughout the day.
The attack on the hill where the Murambi Memorial is located, on the 21st April 1994, was a brutal, calculated act of genocide. More than 50,000 bodies rest either in the cemeteries, mass graves or body rooms of the site. Visitors may enter these body rooms to stand with the mummified bodies. Forever preserved in a semi-decayed state; children, babies, women, men lay on benches with their fatal skull cracks, machete wounds and tufts of hair on display. Standing in the place felt intrusive, a feeling that, after all these humans suffered, they remain unburied spectacles of the evils of the genocide. They should not only be defined by the circumstances of their death; just as Tutsi victims; rather as humans who had unique lives, families and friendships. My gawking at their dead bodies and thinking, “how awful was this mindless killing” will never translate into a true respect for these people.
Why is it necessary for their bodies to be displayed? The audience is local and international. These bodies are politicized objects to remind the local population of the evils of the past and international visitors of the consequences of their inaction in 1994. This narrative is conveyed further where a sign over a mass grave states, “French soldiers played volleyball here.” The implication of the French in aiding Hutus then posing as rescuers through ‘Operation Turquoise’ is strongly criticized at Murambi. Similarly, text in the site’s museum section describes international inaction as an “irreversible failure.”
Again I assumed this position of outsider at a community hearing of genocide prisoners in Nyanza. A reality of the social interactions of post-genocide Rwanda, these hearings see the victims and the families of the convicted attempt to gain some closure through prisoner confessionals of details of the genocide. Seated on the grass a few meters from the testifying prisoners, trying to amuse a baby as its young mother got a talking-to by fellow women while exchanging glances with the convicts, I was painfully aware of my, and the Monash group’s presence at this profound, painful hearing. Here we were the spectacle. I wonder if we acted as a form of greater accountability and importance for the prisoners to share details or as a hindrance to the truth, intimidating or creating a distraction for the convicted.
Either way, I felt extremely uncomfortable and intrusive; both at Murambi and Nyanza, the discomfort of spectacle dominated my reactions and reflections. Questions linger on how these spaces, the memorial frozen in time and the Nyanza community seeking healing, interact with their worlds, local and international. But these spaces are not about me or my experience. They represent far more complex notions of culture and humanity than I will ever understand, demonstrating the challenges facing Rwanda and its politics regarding the genocide both internally and externally.
Every person’s truth is different. As individuals we each
have a unique way of looking at things that is determined by the life we are
born into, its location, our upbringing, the morals we learn from our parents
and peers, and the collective choices we make as conscious human beings. Taking
all this into account I would like to confess some of my own biases up front,
so you will be better able to understand the form that my narrative will take:
I am a young woman, born into a privileged country; I am a trained and tried
field archaeologist and a self-confessed agnostic; and although I have
travelled extensively – often into deprived or devastated communities – my
personal life has been devoid of any true horror.
So far I have spent three days in this beautiful country.
And it is beautiful. The valleys, rivers, fruits and colours create a
spectacular setting that further complicates the horrors of the past that we
are here to study. In some ways I find the beauty of Rwanda offensive – the
child in me wonders silently how it can be that such beautiful people can do
such ugly things in such stunning settings? In the same way that I want it to
be stormy outside every time I feel pain inside – it never feels appropriate
that the sun is out when it feels like my world is being shaken, but it almost
always is. Yet at the same time I think that maybe the beauty of Rwanda, as
seen in the warmth of its people, their apparent dedication to hospitality,
their bright smiles and shining eyes, their willingness to discuss and share
their painful histories, their sense of community and attempts at
reconciliation will help them to move forward.
Today these two opposing ideas were physically played out in
front of me when our group visited a small town named Nyanza. We were invited
to visit the community at a time when a group of ten perpetrators of the 1994
genocide would be present to apologise to their victims and the families of
those they had wronged. We arrived before the prisoners (the perpetrators are
still serving prison or probation periods) and were introduced by Mama Lambert
to members of the community: people whose entire families had been murdered and
who were themselves victims of physical, sexual and/or psychological torture.
As I shook the hands of these brave people – for to carry on after all they
have seen and suffered they must be brave – I was emotionally and physically
shaken. In the last forty-eight hours I had seen countless bones and bodies,
but to me they were artefacts of violence – they had ceased to be living beings
capable of truly moving me on an emotional (as opposed to an intellectual)
level. This was different – these were people – living breathing
people with real pain in their eyes and scars in their hearts. I imagined the horrors they must
have overcome and was humbled by their willingness to meet, and interact with,
the men who had committed them… I imagine I will always be in awe of the beauty
of their attempt to move forward, towards truth and rehabilitation, and away
from the horrors of their collective and individual pasts.
On our third day in Rwanda, we embarked on a three hour bus journey to
Murambi. This section of the country is home to a tragic chapter of
genocide history. In the complex over 18,000 people were killed on
April 21st, 1994. The Murambi Genocide Museum documents this past
though various exhibits throughout the space of the unfinished
The informative section of the museum was interesting to navigate.
Although the majority of the history presented was familiar, the
language used in some informative panels was of particular interest.
Generally speaking, the genocide in Rwanda was depicted as black and
white, both socially and politically. In a social sense it was most
pertinent through the framing of the genocide as the “Tutsi genocide”,
with little discussion of Hutu moderates. Politically, the previous
and current government were projected as simply positive and negative.
The previous governmental leader, Habayarimana, was completely
vilified. The explanation excluded the MRND’s shift to a multiparty
political system and that prior to the President’s death, he attended
peace talks in Arusha, Tanzania. Conversely, the Rwandan Patriotic
Front was heroised in both lingual and pictorial forms. A section of
the text read “the RPF saved thousands of lives”. However, there was
no mention of the retaliatory war crimes committed by the RPF during
this period. Furthermore the visual depiction of RPF leader and
current President, Paul Kagame, framed him to be gallant and
authoritative. This experience led me to evaluate the narration
throughout this museum had significant bias. It was clear that at
Murambi the Rwandan history was written in a way to serve as a tool of
political legitimisation for the current Tutsi minority government.
Another section of the museum included survivor testimonies specific
to the Murambi area. Within their narratives reconciliation was a
consistent theme. However, the definition of how it could be achieved
differed greatly. Belie Mukandamage expressed she wanted peace to
achieve this, “What else should we work towards apart from peace? …
The justice I would like is the right to live and live with others in
harmony”. Father Modeste Mungwarabena felt differently, “justice is
the path for reconciliation and reconstruction and should be seen as a
mark of respect for all those who suffered a horrific death”. This
poses a difficult question – how can reconciliation be achieved on a
societal level, when each individual path to this is unique?
The difficulties that come with this question were enshrined in our
experience in the local township of Nyanza in the afternoon.
Imprisoned perpetrators were brought to the community where they
played a direct hand in the genocide. The families of the deceased
victims were present to hear a voluntary public apology. Language was
a barrier for our group, but much could interpreted by our eyes rather
than ears. Some perpetrators seemed sincere, whilst others caused
controversy and outrage by the survivors. At the conclusion of the
testimony, the ‘Mama’ of the group rejected the apology, on the basis
of the lack of truth and sincerity. It seemed that these people would
never experience reconciliation within their own community, largely
because there was no sense of justice, or at least a sense of peace
for the ones they had lost.
At the conclusion of the day, our journey towards Kigali was
topographically stunning. However, it was met with a sense of
juxtaposition in my mind. How could a place so beautiful be home to
such historical darkness? Furthermore, will its people ever align with
the peaceful nature of the landscape and experience the reconciliation
they so greatly deserve?
Today was rather unusual. The eventful day started very early in the morning when we left Solace for Murambi Memorial at 0600hrs. The memorial is located on an isolated hill about three hours from Kigali. The site consists of four parts, namely: the mass graves, exhibition area, rooms with preserved bodies and a narrative of Rwandan genocide history.
The narrative revealed that about fifty thousand victims were killed on site, which was a secondary school under construction at the time. The hill is located amidst other hills more elevated than it is, which makes all activity visible from afar. It is reported that Tutsis seeking refuge were sent to the hill under false promises of protection when they were being gathered for an easy kill. On the other hand, this became an advantage for the Tutsis who then launched a successful resistance for a few days. In that short period, victims became perpetrators for their survival. Later on, the French army established Zone Turquoise on the same site, which was meant to shelter rescued Tutsis but became a genocide sanctuary. This reveals the active role of international perpetrators as accomplices and in trying to destroy evidence of the genocide. To date, more corpses are still being reburied in the mass graves. This shows that the memory is still fresh in some victims’ lives therefore mourning and healing might take longer for the whole nation.
The reality of the genocide really struck me as I walked by the rooms where the preserved bodies are laid. The smell in these rooms was quite unbearable and it humanized the exhibition for me. I felt an overwhelming sadness and anger. Although I realize that such exhibitions are meant to remind everyone of the negative impact of genocide, these feelings made me question the effectiveness of these exhibitions in facilitating reconciliation when they arouse such feeling in an outsider.
From Murambi we drove to Nyanza village where we attended a Gacaca hearing. These hearings are the government’s initiative to aid healing for victims and provide a relief from guilt for the perpetrators. According to an official at the hearing, Gacacas are meant to ease the reintegration of perpetrators after release from prison and to reconcile affected families. As perpetrators still serve their full sentence, reconciliation could be a considerable success for Rwanda.
Just like the memorials, there were no female perpetrators at the Gacaca though there was a female guard. Interestingly, one perpetrator confessed to participating in the genocide but stated that he had not killed anyone. This implies a crime for which many Hutu women could easily be convicted. Such occurrences further biased stereotypes of victims and perpetrators in the memory of the genocide.
The officials emphasized that everyone uses non-offending language. While it is very understandable considering the sensitivity around genocide it also portrays the Gacaca as a controlled state initiative where people cannot freely air their feelings. Unfortunately, I could not fully follow the hearing due to language barrier. However, I gathered frustration and anger in the victims from their non-verbal cues. Mama Lambert, for instance, was shaking with emotion as she spoke to the perpetrators. Nonetheless, the Gacaca was symbolic of transparency and lessons for the future as everyone including young children and outsiders attended.
Today was always going to be a big day. Apart from the fact that we had to wake up at 4:30 at the latest for breakfast at 5:00 to be on the bus by 6:00, it was the day we were due to visit the Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre as well as head over to Nyanza to see perpetrators of the genocide talk to their victims and ask forgiveness. I suspect most of us had to remind ourselves just how lucky we were to witness this event as we collectively hauled ourselves out of bed at insane o’clock in the morning. Special props need to be given to the staff at Solace for not only getting up to make us breakfast at such an early hour, but also making packed lunched at that same early hour.
Driving through the beautiful Rwanda countryside is both breathtaking and a little jarring at the same time. It is hard to imagine the carnage of the 1994 genocide occurring in such a beautiful and vibrant country. Given what has happened in Rwanda’s recent past, one almost expects there to be a visual scar on the countryside to remind everyone just what occurred. What is even more jarring are the people. Since arriving in Kigali on Monday, the people we have met have been nothing but kind, friendly and welcoming. It is almost impossible to imagine these people possibly picking up a machete to slaughter their friends and neighbors almost 20 years ago. Arriving at Murambi and meeting Gaspard, one was quickly reminded that this did indeed happen and once again you were going to be confronted with the cold, hard facts of the genocide. As another group of tourists had arrived before us, Gaspard took them through the site’s more confronting aspects after welcoming us to the site, leaving us to wander the museum by ourselves. Personally, I found the Murambi museum much more English-speaking friendly than the Kigali museum. Where the English text in the Kigali museum was incredibly small, the text at Murambi was the same size as the Kinyarwanda and French text. Unlike the Kigali museum, which generally covered the history of the whole genocide, Murambi also spoke of what happened at the site. Once we all went through the museum, Gaspard returned to take us through the classrooms and to the mass graves and cemetery. The cemetery was similar to the one we had seen at Kigali. What was unique at Murambi was what was in the classrooms in the old technical college. Going into the first classroom we were met with the mummified bodies of the victims of the massacre at Murambi. While seeing the bodies was confronting, what got to me was the smell. While I have personally never experienced the smell of the freshly killed, it was easy to imagine what it must have smelt like on April 21st, 1994. It was physically impossible to stay in the rooms for too long without feeling the urge to throw up. Following the tour, Gaspard shared his testimony with us. He wasn’t a survivor of Murambi, but he was at Nyanza, the church we visited yesterday. It was nice to get a different narrative on what happened there.
After lunch on the bus, we travelled to Nyanza, where we met up with Mama Lambert to see the perpetrators who were in prison from her village speak to survivors. When we arrived, the perpetrators had yet to arrive, so we spent the time interacting with the survivors and their family members. A lot of attention was paid to the littlest members of the group, with our fearless chief showing us all how to properly make adorable Rwandan children smile. Just as we were getting into the festive spirit, the perpetrators arrived. With Charles translating, it was easy to follow the first few minutes of the proceedings. After perhaps the third perpetrator, Charles had to sit down and we were left in the dark as to what was being said. In some cases the emotional responses of the survivors was enough to give an idea of what happened, but apart from that it only exacerbated our status as outsiders. It was an amazing experience, despite our lack of understanding and I am glad we left early to see it.
DAY 11: Kibuye
CLAIRE P. Arriving at Lake Kivu at the only ‘living’ memorial we were to see … Continue reading DAY 11: Kibuye
DAY 10: Kigali (CNLG)
EMMA F.M. Listening to Yvette’s story today, I started to doubt. Could reconciliation – as … Continue reading DAY 10: Kigali (CNLG)
DAY 9: Avega, Agahozo-Shalom
STEPH K. As part of understanding peace-building efforts in Rwanda, we visited two sites where … Continue reading DAY 9: Avega, Agahozo-Shalom
DAY 7: Nyamata, Ntarama, Gisozi
SAMANTHA G. Purple bunting waves in the wind as I walk through the grounds of … Continue reading DAY 7: Nyamata, Ntarama, Gisozi
DAY 6: Kigali
SARAH L. Venturing to Rwanda to study the genocide, and the implications in transitioning to … Continue reading DAY 6: Kigali
DAY 5: Lilieslief
LENA Mv V. Is truth enough? On a sunny Sunday morning on the outskirts of … Continue reading DAY 5: Lilieslief
DAY 4: Soweto
MASERAME M. I cannot remember the last time I was in Alexandra Township. The one … Continue reading DAY 4: Soweto
DAY 3: Pretoria, Voortrekker Monument, Freedom Park
JESSIE B. The Voortrekker Monument is momentous in its role, both as a part of … Continue reading DAY 3: Pretoria, Voortrekker Monument, Freedom Park
DAY 2: Johannesburg, Apartheid Museum
SCARLETT T. Having a rather underwhelming amount of previous knowledge of South Africa’s political history, … Continue reading DAY 2: Johannesburg, Apartheid Museum
DAY 1: Johannesburg, Constitution Hill
SAMANTHA G. Sitting on a hill overlooking the city of Johannesburg is Constitution Hill, the … Continue reading DAY 1: Johannesburg, Constitution Hill