In memory of murder
Can art help ease Rwanda's pain?
Rory Carroll visits Kigali's disturbing new monument to the genocide
The Guardian, Wednesday March 24 2004
At first sight it could be mistaken for a hacienda. Perched on a hill overlooking the city, it is a big, solid, obviously new structure with a terrace, a garden and a long granite wall. Move closer, though, and you notice unexpected touches: thousands of names engraved on the wall, windows made of stained glass and a ground floor that is effectively buried underground. The sunshine does not follow when you walk down the steps into the entrance of Rwanda's official house of pain: a new memorial centre in the capital, Kigali, for the genocide of 1994.
Ten years on, Rwanda is erecting its first proper memorials - and racing to complete them by April 7, the anniversary of the first day of slaughter, when centres like this one will open their doors to survivors, perpetrators, scholars and tourists. For those who have kept guard over mass grave sites lest the remains - proof of the genocide - disappear, these centres offer a chance to end their vigil and rebuild their lives. "Now I can do something else," says Emmanuel Murangira, 48, an unpaid sentinel for hundreds of bodies in Murambi, south of the capital, where a memorial is under way.
The Aegis Trust, a Nottingham-based genocide prevention charity that is setting up memorials at the request of the Rwandan authorities, hopes the design and exhibits in Kigali will be on a par with Holocaust museums in Berlin, Jerusalem and Washington DC. But fusing a museum with what is in effect an art exhibition to depict historical events in Rwanda is a fraught exercise, simply because the genocide was so recent. Make it too vivid and survivors who visit could be upset or even traumatised. Veil too much and you sanitise what happened. Accuse too harshly and you undermine the peaceful but fragile co-existence prevailing in Rwanda since Tutsi rebels ousted the extremist Hutu regime, which orchestrated the massacre of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days.
Trickiest of all is whether to mention the Tutsi reprisals during and after the genocide, since the former rebels are now the government. "We don't want to start historical arguments that the country is not ready for. Though we do expect a very strong reaction from people who visit the memorial," says Stephen Smith, who founded the the Aegis Trust with his brother James after visiting Jerusalem's Holocaust museum.
The Kigali centre is Rwanda's de facto national memorial. Its hilltop site was chosen by a former mayor of the city in the late 1990s. Coffins containing the remains of up to 50 people each were stacked five high in eight concrete graves, totalling thousands of people, and on the slope above, a Rwandan architect designed the building. Some residents grumbled that the $1m would have been better spent on practical needs such as municipal drains.
The building might have remained a shell had not Belgium, Sweden and the Clinton Foundation stumped up $1.5m to finish the job. (Britain's department for international development sponsored memorials outside the capital.) Several months ago, Kigali city council commissioned the Aegis Trust to have it ready by April 7. Smith is positive, if not effusive, about the external architecture the Aegis Trust inherited. "I think it is a very creative space. I like the idea of being forced to descend into a cavernous space. To me it feels crypt-like."
The sound of traffic at the bottom of the hill fades as the visitor walks up the slope. The stacked coffins are now overlaid by polished black terrazzo, which is lined by a black granite wall, 2.5m high and 70m long, displaying the names of 20,000 victims. At night, torches will be lit, the flames visible for miles. A word that did not exist in Kinyarwanda until 1994 - jenoside - hangs from a sign near the entrance.
Steps lead down to a large mound of jacaranda wood with engraved reliefs depicting everyday Rwandan scenes, titled Life. But as you move through the memorial, other sides of the sculpture become visible - those depicting rape, beatings and killings. The team of sculptors included survivors and relatives of perpetrators.
The first zone, Before Genocide, is a dimly lit passageway with images dating from 1894-1994; the emphasis is on images rather than text since many visitors are likely to be illiterate. These show one of Germany's more obscure colonies at the turn of the century, independence in the 1960s and life continuing much as before in a small, unremarkable country in central Africa. There is just one ominous note: the Germans' use of taller, lighter-skinned cattle-owning Tutsis to reign over the shorter, darker peasant Hutus - divide and rule that poisoned ethnic relations.
The second zone, Warnings, shows how the horror was avoidable. Here are a copy of the fax sent by Romeo Dallaire, the UN peacekeeper commander, asking his superiors in vain for permission to seize weapons caches, and the quote from Colonel Theoneste Bagosora, Rwanda's alleged Himmler, vowing to prepare an "apocalypse". At the top of a stairwell is a stained glass window depicting dark, brooding clouds of midnight blue. Made by an Auschwitz survivor, Roman Halter, and his son Ardyn, both based in Britain, the stairwell window represents Rwanda's lost chance to escape its fate had the international community responded to the warnings.
The third zone, Genocide, is a passageway of harrowing stills and film clips showing just how fast events moved on April 7 1994. Within hours, road blocks sprang up around Kigali, trapping inhabitants. Images deemed too graphic to broadcast a decade ago show people being decapitated, bodies twitching on the road, the wounded struggling to rise. Some survivors involved with the memorial wanted to include simulated sounds of clubs crushing babies' skulls, but they were overruled. Instead there is a glass case displaying machetes, clubs and guns, and survivors talking to camera about being raped and mutilated. One interviewee is in silhouette not because she is embarrassed, says Smith, but because she did not want to give her attackers, some of whom are free and may visit the exhibition, the satisfaction of seeing the effect of a shotgun blast to her lower face.
The fourth zone, Responses, tries to lift spirits somewhat by focusing on the heroism of those who hid fugitives, resisted death squads and retained their humanity at a time of depravity. That is followed by a section called Aftermath - its name changed from "reconciliation" after survivors said today's peaceful co-existence should not be mistaken for forgiving and forgetting. There are exhibits about refugee camps, reunited families, the impact of HIV/Aids, self-help groups and the rounding up of thousands of alleged killers.
Of the reprisal massacres of Hutus by the Tutsi rebels there is not a word. Not surprising, perhaps, since the rebels now run the country. Smith does not use the word censorship but he makes it clear it was the decision not of the government but the Aegis Trust. "In this society at this time it's akin to Britain in 1945 talking about the bombing of Dresden as a war crime."
Genocide survivors disagree on whether victims' remains should be buried with dignity or displayed as a warning. The Kigali memorial hopes to have pioneered a compromise in a quiet, dimly lit room where the bones and skulls of hundreds of adults and children are just about visible through a smoked glass floor which is called a grave. A neighbouring room displays artifacts recovered from bodies: shoes, watches, rings, identity cards, trousers.
On the top floor there is a raw, minimalist exhibit of dozens of photographs of children with brief captions. One girl gazes from a cot wearing a white dress and an uncertain smile. All we are told is that her name was Irene Mutoni, she was two years old, her farvourite food was banana and rice, her favourite toy was a stuffed dog, her first word was daddy and she died drowning in boiling water.