In his book on the 1994 Rwandan genocide, “We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families,” Philip Gourevitch discusses the twin desires to look and also not to look at horrific things. He describes the way in which he wanted to look upon the unburied dead at the memorial in Nyarubuye, and also the way in which the horror of what had happened to them would be stuck with him forever once he had seen their skeletal remains. However, Gourevitch ultimately concludes that to look is better. Says Gourevitch, “the best reason I have come up with for looking closely into Rwanda’s stories is that ignoring them makes me even more uncomfortable about humanity and my place in it.” To not look–to not acknowledge, and mourn, and ask why–is surely worse.
I had my own experience of these feelings today, on our visit to the Kigali Memorial Centre (which is not the same memorial that Gourevitch visited). The memorial, where 250,000 genocide victims are buried in mass graves, is a powerful place. The first time tears pricked my eyes was while I was watching a short film wherein genocide survivors described their experiences. One of these was a woman who discussed the moment at which her husband was taken away from her. My mind immediately went to my own husband, and my stomach dropped at the thought of seeing an attacker rip him away from me.
This was a theme for me throughout the memorial. Hearing and seeing stories of parents, siblings, and spouses who were lost immediately made me think of my own. The victims were fathers, mothers, siblings, and friends. They were children. They were husbands. They were loved. This was especially clear to me in one particular part of the exhibit; there was an entire room full of family photos of those who had been killed. The photos were full of life: a bride and groom at their wedding, a proud and beaming father holding a baby, a mother helping her toddler to walk. As I looked at those smiling faces, I wondered if any of the people pictured were alive. Who was the victim in the photo? The woman in the beautiful yellow dress or the man with whom she exchanged a loving glance? Was that serious eyed man buried in the mass grave outside, or was it the face-making child on his knee? Had either of them made it?
The room also contained some letters to the deceased. One, signed by a woman named Helen, was addressed to the cousins who had not been able to grow up beside her. I almost missed reading her letter, as it had slipped behind another photo. After reading her heartfelt words, I became overwhelmed by a somewhat irrational anger. All of the people in these photos had been loved by someone. They had mattered. They did not deserve to slip behind other pictures. They deserved to be seen. They deserved recognition and mourning. I spent the rest of my time in the exhibit painstakingly scouring through every photo and moving those which were hidden into plain sight. That any should be overlooked was offensive to me. After all that had happened to them, they were owed our attention.
The next room inspired similar feelings in me. It was a display of human bones. Row upon row of empty-eyed skulls filled the exhibit. Some were whole, while others were missing chunks in the side–perhaps from the blow of a machete. One had a neat hole in it about the size of a quarter. I wondered if it had been from a bullet. The skulls were accompanied by an orderly pile of femurs–too many to count. As I looked upon these bones, I felt Gourevitch’s dilemma. I was simultaneously curious and horrified. Part of me wanted to turn away, but I made myself look at them for much longer than I would have liked. Just like with the photos, I felt as if I owed these bones my attention.
Part of the reason so much attention is owed is because of the neglect the international community showed in 1994. We knew that the genocide was coming. We had received inside intelligence. We had the opportunity to stop it, and we turned away. The Rwandan genocide is not just an African problem; it is something for which the world can be held responsible. Now, we are obligated to look upon the consequences of that abandonment.
A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with my classmate, Heather (who is here with me in Rwanda), about her visit to a Holocaust concentration camp in Poland. When describing the experience, she commented that she had found the beautiful view from the camp to be disturbing. “It felt,” she said, “as if things should not grow there.” The concept that there could be anything beautiful in a place where so many had been slaughtered was baffling. As I exited the museum and entered the beautiful memorial gardens, I understood what she had meant. Surely, nothing so beautiful could also be a mass grave. However, I realized that this was the point of the memorial.
Not only do we owe these dead our mourning and remembrance, but we also owe them something much greater. We owe them beauty. We owe them to rebuild, as the Rwandan people have done. We owe them a brighter future–one wherein such atrocities are things of the past. We owe it to them to look.