Friday, May 29, 2009

Remembering when “the world withdrew”

Visiting Rwanda's Genocide Museum: Part one 
by Alex Wynter in Kigali.

Unlike the extraordinarily brave reporters who risked their lives to cover what they could of the Rwanda genocide on the spot, I lived through it in the comfort and safety of an international newsroom in London. But it was a newsroom with a small difference: a wholesale television news agency which dealt in raw video containing the sequences broadcasters felt unable to air on the grounds of “taste”.

My memory is that we realized something exceptional was going on in Rwanda. But did we spend much debating whether it should be called “genocide”? I honestly don’t recall. And that probably testifies to the intensity of the debate.

There was lots of news in the world at that time, spring 1994. Some real, some not so real: historic elections in South Africa, the war in Bosnia, “OJ”, and a dozen other things we instinctively knew our editors cared more about than Africans killing Africans in a country most people had never heard of.

Any journalist, any humanitarian, any politician who visits Kigali’s wrenchingly upsetting genocide museum, set on a hill above several large terraces of mass graves, should be prepared to be confronted with the consequences of the international community’s moral failure over the Rwandan genocide when, as the exhibition’s commentary puts it, “the world withdrew”.

It’s not so much the physical exhibits: the glass cases full of neatly arranged skulls, the boxes of pangas and clubs with which people were killed, the clothes victims were found in, the blood-stained identity cards that marked people as Tutsi and doubled as death warrants, the testimony of survivors played on TV monitors around the halls.

Or even the detail in the commentary about how exactly people were butchered. They were not just cut down with machetes. Genocide victims were often thrown into cesspits and stoned until they lost consciousness and stopped struggling; people’s tendons were cut so they could not run away as they waited to be killed; women were raped by men known to be HIV-positive; parents were forced to kill their children before being killed themselves.  

You’re mentally prepared for these things. Sort of. 

But in one masterstroke of design, the Kigali museum manages, in effect, to reverse the process that necessarily precedes all such mass slaughter: the dehumanization of its victims, which thanks to Hollywood the world now knows were described as “cockroaches” in Rwandan “hate media” (mainly radio). At the centre of the circular building is a photogallery of personal family pictures of the dead – digitized, neatly reprinted on standard 6 x 4 paper and hung on wires with small metal pegs. An entire exhibition hall full of them: row upon countless row, thousands upon thousands, perfectly embodying the human individuality and variety of the murdered subjects. College portraits, wedding photos, christening photos, pictures taken at parties and on family outings. Each shot, in its own way, a monument.

It is utterly heartbreaking to look at these photos in the knowledge that all these people were savagely killed for no reason whatever; impossible to linger in the photogallery for long without feeling overwhelmed. 

Quite rightly, photography inside the museum is not allowed. But outside you can take pictures and wander freely around the immaculate gardens and what, at first glance, look like small parking lots but which turn out to be mass graves. As (to this day) burial pits are found in Rwanda, the dead are brought to Kigali and given a dignified place in which to rest – as they were murdered – together. The concrete bunkers are closed with plain metal lids until full, then sealed for good.

Bouquets tied with mauve ribbon, the Rwandan colour of mourning, speckle the grave lids. Simple messages in Kinyarwanda read things like, “We will never forget you”. At an ornamental fountain, a traditional clay statue of a mythical creature clasping his paws over his ears represents anxiety. A commemorative flame dances in the breeze on the hillside.

Across the valley is essentially the same cityscape you vaguely remember from television news in 1994, except then the view might have been through a telephoto lens, of a killing field. Now the crest of the far hill is dotted with cranes as new high-rise buildings go up in the centre of Kigali, a city that displays a spectacularly impressive level of civic pride and is full of hoardings for things like BlackBerry mobile phones. 

Part 2 of this blog will appear in the coming days


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