The Memorial Center: The Genocide

As I walked in the main museum at the Genocide Memorial
Center, I focused on breathing.  I wasn’t
sure what I was going to encounter and I wanted to take in as much as
possible.  There are three exhibits in
the museum: one about the genocide, about other genocides in history, and about
the child victims.  I walked down a set
of stairs into the first exhibit, which catalogues the genocide.  The first portion explained the history of
the country and the colonization by the Germans and Belgium.  Prior to their arrival there were over twelve
different tribes in Rwanda, who cohabitated peacefully.  The colonialists simplified this into three
major ethnic groups the Hutu, Tutsi and the Twa (pygmy minority).  They then assigned strict physical
characteristics to these groups and assigned social power to the Tutsis.  

Next the exhibit discussed Rwandan independence and the
escalation of violence since that period.
This led to a civil war in 1990, between the Hutu militias and the
Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).  During
this time thousands were killed and ethnic tensions escalated.  The Hutu leadership began laying the
groundwork for an ethnic cleansing.  Then
in 1994, Hutu President Harabiyama’s plane was shot down on its way back from
Burundi.  The Hutu extremists blamed the
Tutsis for the incident, and used it as a catalyst for the genocide.  The mass and systematic executions over the next
one hundred days highlight that this genocide has long been planned and was not
a sporadic event. During this time over 1,000,000 people were killed.  

The exhibit discussed various responses to the
violence.  It highlighted the
international communities silence and inaction, and how France at one point had
funded arms for the Hutu militia.  It
discussed the work of Romeo Dellaire, the UN lt. General who cabled New York,
demanding additional troops and aid, but was rejected.  It also discussed the heroic acts of both
Hutus and Tutsis who protected people during the war, such as one Hutu women
who was known for her witchcraft, so she hid Tutsis on her property and when
the Interhwahme came she told them not to come on her property or they would be

Then right next to portion about the helpers, there was a
glass panel that read “He who saves a single life, saves the world.” It’s a
passage from the Talmud, which I heard many times growing up, but that I was
surprised to see here in Kigali.  In the next
room was a stain glass window, which represented the struggle during the
genocide, and the option the international community had to do something, but
ignored.  The son of a Holocaust survivor
created it.  

The next portion of the exhibit discussed the reconciliation
process, the gacaca courts, the orphans, and the trauma that the population
experienced.  One image state that “A
National Trauma Survey by UNICEF estimated that 80% of Rwandan children
experienced a death in the family in 1994, 70% witnessed someone being killed
or injured, and 90% believed they would die.”
I didn’t know what to do with that piece of information.  I cannot imagine a reality where 70% of
children have witnessed some extreme forms of violence, and the long term
mental issues this would create.  In the
end the exhibit discussed the hope for the future and the things that still
need to happen in the country.   

The exhibit opened into a large circular room with large
wooden sculptures of figures in movement, three smaller rooms surrounded the
main piece.  I pressed the last button on
the audio guide, for this portion, and the British voice forewarned that I was
about to see photos, hear testimonies, see human remains, and artifacts. I keep
thinking Ill get used to this part of my work, but my heart started to beat
faster, as I turned into the first room which had six triangular apses.  Each apse had rows of string with photographs
clipped to them. The photos were dedicated by surviving family members.  I felt their eyes looking at me, some had
names attached and some didn’t.  I sat
down on a bench and watched the screen in the room, which had rolling footage
of survivors talking about their families.
Most of them had lost all of their relatives, one woman said she had
sixty relatives before the genocide, and five survived.  

Then there was this man talking about his mother, he said
his mother was his greatest love and that during the war he started to run out
of food.  At this point he started to
cry, he said his mother had snuck to his home, and apologized that she could
only find so little, then she handed him vegetables and passion fruit (which
are a common here).  His mother told him
to eat the fruit so he could be strong, then she said she loved him, and
left.  That was the last time he saw his
mother, and he said today he still cant eat passion fruit, because it reminds
him of his mother.  This broke me a
little.   It reminded me that genocides are not made up
of monsters and victims, but people just like me, just like you. The reality of
a mothers love, is no different in Rwanda, than anywhere else in the
world.  These are very human, painful,
intimate stories of suffering.

I walked into the next room, where the remains were kept,
and was suddenly thankful that I had the museum to myself.  There were seven glass cases, with
immaculately cleaned, and neatly organized remains.  Three contained bones from legs, and each of
the other four held twenty-four human skulls, arranged in orderly rows of eight.  This time I got emotional in a pure and
involuntary sort of way.  Tears started
to stream down my face, my heart beat fast, and I choked over my breath.  It didn’t make sense, looking at these pieces
of humans, the skulls gorged and broken by machetes, and the legs marked with distinct
scratches.  It felt physically painful to
look at, and at the same time I felt really obligated to stare at them and
commit the image to memory.  These were
people who had torturous painful deaths, done to them by people from their own

I messily wiped the tears away with the back of my hand and
walked into the next room.  This
contained artifacts which were found with the bodies in the mass graves.  I was managing to get myself together, when I
saw a little blue vest, which could not have belonged to a boy older than
three, then hanging behind the vest was a superman bed sheet.  I imagined the little boy, clutching his
sheet, being taken to his death.  The tears
returned.  I sat down on the bench in the
room, placed my head in my hands and let the little drops of water hit the
ground.  After a few minutes I got up,
took my photographs, and as I walked out of the main exhibit I saw one more
quote on the wall by a survivor which read “When they said ‘never again’ after
the Holocaust, was it meant for some people and not others?” The words clawed
at my conscious and I thought to myself, this is why I am here, this is why I
came, this is why I need to stay.


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