Rwanda: Please do not step on mass graves (Road Trip pt. 2)

A sign at the Kigali Memorial Center

Let me first say that Rwanda is much more than its 1994 genocide. It’s been 15 years since that terrible violence tore the country asunder, and everyone agrees that the place has changed a lot. With his pro-business policies and development efforts, President Paul Kagame has gained the accolades of Western donors and diplomats (even though there have been strong criticisms from other quarters). Even if it has come at a price, stability reigns, at least superficially. My first impression stepping off the bus from Kampala in the Kigali bus station as the sun went down was that Rwanda is the tidiest, quietest country I’ve been to on this continent. All the motorcycle taxi (“moto”) drivers wear matching helmets and green safety vests. Things are clean (plastic bags are banned in Rwanda). Loud music does not blare, hawkers do not assault.

However, many people reading this blog entry – and many first time visitors too, including me – will be understandably preoccupied with the country’s bloody history when they hear the name “Rwanda.” Being there, I wanted to gain some insight into what happened. But in the end, I think I learned a lot more from reading books like Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families and Mahmood Mamdani’s When Victims Become Killers than I did from actually spending ten days in the country.

I visited Kigali’s genocide memorial after being in Rwanda for about a week. It’s a sort of white mansion on a hillside. It sits above a green valley studded with modest, corrugated-metal-roof neighborhoods, looking out on the hill that holds the city center and some of the new high rises. When I arrived, there were some white people on the lawn in front of the building. Some of them were crying. I steeled myself for what would surely be an emotionally taxing visit.

The memorial includes a two-storey museum, a series of gardens and several levels of mass graves. More bodies are added to the graves every year as they are discovered around the country. The museum comprises several different rooms. There is a section on Rwandan history, describing the way the Belgian colonizers divided society and pitted Hutus and Tutsis against each other. Then there is a section describing the events that led up to the genocide, including samples of the propaganda that egged people on. It’s not a historiography worthy of When Victims Become Killers, but it paints the outlines well enough.

Next is a section on the genocide itself, which includes extremely graphic images of slaughtered people, examples of the weapons used, and video testimonials from survivors. This section is interspersed with works of art. Further on, there is a room full of photos, placed there by family members, of people who were killed.

Upstairs is an exhibit about other genocides: the Holocaust, Botswana, Armenia, Cambodia, the Balkans. By this point, the descriptions of carnage become a bit of a blur.

The final room is dedicated to giant pictures of several murdered children. Next to the pictures are descriptions of their favorite things, their last words, and the way they died. This is probably the saddest room of all.

The memorial is undeniably important. It’s a permanent testament to what happened in Rwanda and, like the preserved massacre sites in the countryside, it prevents anyone from ever denying that the killing happened.

So I don’t want to be misunderstood when I say that there are aspects of the memorial that made me uncomfortable – and not in the way that the designers intended.

For while the memorial and the preserved sites in Rwanda are undeniably important, they are also undeniably an “experience.” And for better or worse, these places offer an experience that tourists seek. I think what people want, subconsciously, is the feeling of profound emotion.

To that end, the memorial is packaged in a very specific way. There is a gift shop on the premises. It sells “Save Darfur” t-shirts. There is also a café. The memorial gardens have corporate sponsors.

A beverage distributor has branded the memorial gardens.

As I walked through the exhibit, I realized that people do not only come there because they want to remember and bear witness – which they most surely do – but also because there is a part of all of us that wants to feel. We want to end up on the grass outside, inconsolable, when we’re finished. As Andre Benjamin once asked:

What could make a [person] wanna lose all faith in
Anything that he can’t feel through his chest with sensation?

The memorial offers an extraordinary opportunity for this. The viewer – and here I am referring especially to the non-Rwandan tourist – gets a cathartic emotional rush from seeing all the carnage. It’s an intense grief that can be appealing because it so acute and justified.

But might this be mostly a selfish emotion? I think that’s possible, especially when one has no personal connection – or only an imagined connection – to the genocide. I struggled not to cry walking through the memorial (failed in the end) by reminding myself of that. There’s a temptation to make the pain into your own. The reality is, though, that I cannot truly imagine the pain of going through Rwanda’s violence. My tears could too easily be for myself – for imagining what it would be like to lose my friends and family to mass murder. Thus, there may be narcissism to the grief one feels – to indulging in your own personal well of sadness, and imagining that you are experiencing the grief of the victims.

I think there is, as Mamdani has suggested in the context of the Save Darfur movement, a pornographic quality to looking at picture after picture of mutilated bodies. In Rwanda, I heard about an American guy who was living in Tanzania and came for six days exclusively to see the memorial and the many preserved massacre sites where there are still bones and clothes lying around everywhere. This guy was 20 years old and had been to every concentration camp memorial in Europe, as well.

It sounds, unfortunately, like genocide tourism. And what do we really gain from that?

In some ways, the mass graves terraced below the memorial building were the most powerful testimonial. Perhaps the most disturbing thing in the whole exhibit – the thing that hinted at the absurdity, senselessness, and utter incomprehensibility of the genocide – is the sign in the picture at the top of this post. The existence of mass murder and rape is stunning, and the vastness of the grief these acts create cannot be encapsulated in a museum exhibit.

Better to observe the silence of the dead, and urge humans to do everything possible to prevent such violence from reoccurring.

Mass graves below Kigali's expanding skyline

2 thoughts on “Rwanda: Please do not step on mass graves (Road Trip pt. 2)

  1. I respect and comprehend your point about tourism nourished by people who need something external to make them feel alive. However, weeping in the presence of such tragedy can be the exact opposite of narcissism. It can be weeping for the folly of the human condition. As a human, I am connected to this when witnessing and feeling.

  2. “To show how the unthinkable becomes thinkable is my central objective. It is this fact that needs confronting, not because of what it can tell us of Rwanda and Rwandans, but because of what it can tell us about ourselves as political beings–as agents with a capacity to tap both the destructive, and the creative potential in politics.” Mahmood Mamdani. “When Victims Become Killers”.

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