Activities at genocide memorials are not empty historic exercises: they contribute to reparation by acknowledging the immense loss of survivors; they empower young people to build a unified, safer nation through education programmes; and they are a warning to international visitors about the consequence of failing to protect people under threat of genocide, in places such as Darfur.
The Rwandan government did not build a single museum but rather created a national network of museums and memorials in an effort to make genocide denial impossible even in remote areas. Beginning in July 1997, the bodies of many victims were preserved, sometimes by mummification, in order to provide permanent evidence of the genocide. At Gikongoro, 170 km (106 miles) southwest of Kigali, where more than 50,000 people were killed, the former Murambi school has been converted into a genocide memorial site. In seventy-two unadorned concrete rooms, the remains of more than 27,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu victims are on display, having been chemically treated with both traditional and modern preservatives (Daily Mail and Guardian May 1, 2000). The government created such bone memorials in more than fifty churches, a serial monument that the Catholic Church–more than 65% of Rwandans were Catholic in 1994–resisted, wanting instead to return the churches to liturgical functions. The Church hierarchy was finally forced to accept the museums in early 2000.
In these “cities of the dead,” the departed remain in all senses, for they are not segregated from the living, in the manner of the cemetery (Roach 1996:47-55), but have taken over key venues of civil society such as churches and schools. They are not gone in order not to be forgotten. The stronger sense is of a healing that will come only if that which has returned in the past, namely racialized genocide, no longer returns.
Post-World War II genocides in the formerly colonized regions of the world have frequently been ignored. Rwanda’s memorials offered a tremulous beginning to the rewiring of the postcolonial network.
The Rwandan memorials call for one such new form of looking for this moment of globalization, one in which the viewer is not obliterated by the gaze but has the “right to look,” as Jacques Derrida has put it
Aegis is a genocide prevention charity. The word ‘Aegis’ itself means ‘shield’ or ‘protection’ and the Trust was established in 2000 to work on prevention strategies in situations of potential genocide. But Aegis works not only to stop crimes against humanity before they happen, but also to help people deal with the consequences of genocide long after the killing has stopped.
Aegis works alongside its sister organisation, The Holocaust Centre, sharing the vision that people of all backgrounds need to learn from the Holocaust that genocide must become a thing of the past. – Cherie Blair
It may be surprising to learn that a UK-based charity, the Aegis Trust, was responsible for the creation and administration of the Kigali Memorial Centre. But, they argue, their experience in establishing the UK’s Holocaust Centre gave the Aegis Trust’s directors the best possible background and experience for the task. Kigali Memorial Centre was built on a site where over 250,000 genocide victims are buried. It opened in April 2004 on the 10th anniversary of the genocide and is a permanent memorial to those who fell victim to the genocide. It is a place for people to grieve for those they lost. It is a memorial and site for commemoration. And it is a place of education and learning for visitors from Rwanda and abroad.
The Centre’s role is in fact threefold: it aims to give dignity to survivors; to provide education about genocide, mainly for young people; and to preserve documentation and information relating to the genocide. The Centre in Kigali provides a compelling message for international visitors about what happens when we fail to fulfil our responsibility to protect those under threat of genocide – a story told most powerfully in the recently released BBC film Shooting Dogs – Cherie Blair
Aegis recognises the importance of documentation of the genocide. For the sake of future generations, it is essential that the story is told as fully as possible. Survivors’ experiences need to be acknowledged. They provide a dignified memory for those who perished. Children need to understand what happened and learn about individual responsibility. All of this is key to developing communities free from fear and mistrust. And the primary information gathered will clearly enhance future research into how genocide occurs.
That is why the Kigali Documentation Centre houses a research library, an archive, an audio-visual testimony archive and a GPS mapping project. To date, the Aegis data acquisition team has interviewed 2,573 people in Rwanda, identified 4,522 families in which members were victims, identified the names of 17,970 victims and the sites of 466 mass graves (each commonly estimated to contain 20-30 bodies). They have also collected 1,261 photos from the families of victims, which are being scanned to create a photo archive.
Aegis also recognises the paramount importance of restorative justice in Rwanda, and particularly through the Gacaca trials which are currently taking place. Based on the traditional local court system, Gacaca literally means ‘justice on the grass’. These trials are the Rwandan Government’s innovative means of delivering justice in a society where mass murder has been committed. Aegis is creating a visual record of the proceedings of these uniquely significant village courts, where perpetrators of genocide are tried and cross-examined by the very communities in which they committed their crimes. These film archives are housed at the National Genocide Documentation Centre as part of the Kigali Memorial Centre. The documentation of this process will provide invaluable material for research into justice processes and new insights into perpetrator mentality that can inform future preventative strategies.
In post-genocidal and conflict situations, this restorative justice is crucial. It means involving the perpetrators and victims in the justice process – to remember the atrocities committed, encourage repentance from the perpetrators and enable forgiveness from victims. It has had a part to play in bringing about reconciliation and understanding in a number of different scenarios, from South Africa to Columbia, often working alongside national criminal justice systems and international war crimes tribunals.
‘Never Again’ has become no more than a hollow cliché.
And what of now, to paraphrase Primo Levi, while we sit in our safe, warm houses reflecting on the lessons of the past? – James Smith
The participation of the Aegis Trust in building several Genocide Memorial Museums in Rwanda leads to the question – What are Genocide/Holocaust Museums for?
The Aegis Trust is a charity working for genocide prevention. Thus it would seem that their involvement in the museums in Rwanda are directly linked to their stated aim, in their reckoning these museums must directly contribute to genocide prevention. These new museums have a much clearer aim than similar museums of the past, Yad Vashem was built by Israeli survivors of the Holocaust who built it as a commemoration of their suffering as much as a tool for the future. Is it too bold a statement that a museum will directly help prevent genocide happening again, can any commemorative object have so much power? This is a complete departure from the traditional view of a museum or a memorial which although has obviously evolved greatly from the ‘cabinet of curiosity’ idea, still retains the idea of objectivity and independent thought.