20. Juli 2014

In the land of a thousand hills

Rwanda – the land of thousand hills. Imagine a small provincial town in the South of Rwanda, not too far from the Tanzanian border. Quite sleepy, houses scattered o lush green hills, in between sugarcane, coffee and banana plantations. Idyllic. A little outside of town, a bigger compound of what used to be a school; it was meant to become a vocational training institution once construction was to be completed.

But history unfolded differently – instead Murambi became the site of an unprecedented drama which unfolded here: the massacre of 50,000 people, of whom not more than about twelve survived. During the genocide in the spring months of 1994 Tutsis and moderate Hutu advocating against the repressive, racist governmental policies were concentrated in this school for almost a week – without electricity, sufficient water or food. Those leaving the school compound, trying to fetch water, risked their lives, as one of the survivors explains. After over five days with insufficient supplies, the building was attacked in the morning hours of the April 21st 1994 the by the militia and soldiers, with almost none of the victims surviving the killing.

As one of the cruelest sites of the Rwandan genocide, Murambi nowadays has transformed into a national memorial site; one out of the many throughout the country reminding the Rwandan nation and international visitors of what has happened during the dramatic months of 1994. And it does so in a very crude, exemplifying way: it not only allows the visitor to walk down the stairs into one of the burial sites where one will find long rows of shelves with remains of the victims – skulls bearing marks of the attacks, and all sorts of bones organised by sizealong with their bones – but also to see the piles of clothing belonging to those killed in the massacre, now ranged in another long row of shelves, partly still being stained with the blood of those who had to die for belonging to the ‘wrong’ ethnicity. In the former classrooms about a 1000 mummified bodies, which were excavated from the mass graves, have been put as a reminder of this dark period of the Rwandan history. People of all ages – one will see elderly as well as children and babies, partly still shielding their faces from the attackers.

As explained by the local guide, memorial sites in Rwanda serve the purpose of educating future generations of what has happened and countering denial of the genocide. For me, this was a shocking, almost traumatising way of reminding of what happened. What must Rwandan walking through these memorial sites feel? And who is the target audience of these memorials, national or international visitors? What speaks in favour or against the way of preserving collective memory in the way the Rwandan authorities decided to do it? These questions were swirling around my head in the hours following the visit, not being able to find any conclusive answers, and certainly not being willing to pass any judgment.  

Kagame’s governement is committed to re-uniting society, overcoming divisions and re-building the Rwandan nation, emphasising the key message of them ‘all being Rwandans’ – with some intellectuals nevertheless highlighting that the process of reconciliation might be enforced and brought about too quickly in order to be sustainable. Peace education is currently mainstreamed in the national curriculum. But whose history is taught? Who do the collective memories and memorials belong to? Important questions which might still have to be answered, with memorialisation nevertheless being one important facet of the country’s effort to re-built itself through processes of transitional justice.