Remembering the Rwandan Genocide Through Public Spaces

By Ana Sofia Hibon
Social Connectedness Fellow 2017

Parliament of Rwanda

 

In downtown Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, stands a tall building, scarred with gunshot holes and grenade wounds. This is not an abandoned structure. It is the Parliament of Rwanda, where dozens of government officials attend work everyday.

This was the site of the first massacre of the Rwandan Genocide on April 7th, 1994. Over the next 100 days, approximately one million members of the Tutsi ethnic minority and moderate ethnic Hutus were targeted and killed by state-sponsored extremist Hutu militias. This catastrophic event was the culmination of decades of anti-Tutsi sentiment, exacerbated by extremist elements of the Hutu majority. Meanwhile, the country’s colonial past cast a shadow over the Western response.

23 years later, the Parliament of Rwanda is not the only building that remains as a tangible memory of one of humanity’s darkest moments. Several sites across the country were deliberately left as they were following the genocide, most notably churches, such as the Nyamata Church, where 10,000 people who sought refuge were slaughtered. There, sunlight pierces in through the holes left by bullets more than two decades ago. The clothes and belongings of the victims are on display, as are some of their remains.

I visited Rwanda during this year’s commemoration week, which took place from April 7th to 14th. During my stay, I saw foreigners tour these sites with local guides and learn about what took place during this time in history. I also witnessed Rwandans visiting the memorials, paying respect to those who were lost during the genocide. These respects were paid in the form of flowers, messages, and pictures, left by survivors and relatives of the victims at their loved ones’ final resting spots.

“By going there [to the churches], you’ll feel what happened. These are not curated, they are not museums, they are true memorials,” said Jean Marc, a 32-year-old survivor who recommended that I visit the Nyamata and Ntarama churches (his name has been changed here to protect his identity). Like many others, I was overwhelmed by these raw memorial sites, but also deeply moved by the resilience of the Rwandan people.

In these spaces, history is alive, and the country’s ongoing process of Kwibuka (remembering” in Rwanda’s national language, Kinyarwanda) continues. Survivor groups themselves have advocated to maintain certain places as they were 23 years ago.[i] In other cases, memorials were put in place by the government as part of the nationwide reconciliation and genocide prevention project, also called Kwibuka. These sites serve not only as memorials, but as places for gathering and building connectedness amongst survivors, intergenerational victims, the perpetrators’ relatives, and younger generations of Rwandans who   about their country’s recent past.

Education is a crucial aspect of Kwibuka. At the Ntarama Church Memorial, in Bugesera, workshops with young students are held in the same rooms where Tutsi men, women and children were murdered. Students are given a space to absorb what took place, to discuss it, and to express what they are feeling by leaving messages on the walls.

This July Rwanda will commemorate 23 years since the conclusion of the genocide. While the country has made great strides towards reconciliation, the healing process for many Rwandans is still a work in progress. In 2012, 26.1% of Rwandans still exhibited symptoms of post-genocide trauma. Nevertheless, Rwanda has a lot to teach us about collective remembrance, reconciliation, and trauma recovery, with their  memorialization of public spaces as one example.

As Joseph Nkurunziza, Director at Never Again Rwanda writes, “ very wounded society needs to search for solutions from within itself.”[ii] For example, tangible artifacts and spaces can aid the healing process of people scarred by trauma. And like Rwanda, other countries can use public spaces to heal societies, create collective memory, and connect communities at the local and global level.

Discussions around this topic are already taking place in different places around the world, including, for instance, in New Orleans. Take ‘Em Down NOLA, established in 2014, is a coalition that advocates for “real racial reconciliation” through the removal of “all obvious symbols of white supremacy” in the city of New Orleans. Their petition demands the removal of Confederate monuments, as well as street names and public buildings named after white supremacists. Recently, the City Council of New Orleans removed the first of four Confederate statues that it committed to take down in 2017.

It is important for society to consider how public spaces contribute to or deter reconciliation and social connectedness. In doing so, we must recognize that participatory initiatives are essential for legitimate healing and community building to take place. And above all, those who are wounded or marginalized, and therefore most vulnerable to isolation, must be given equal voice in the discussion.

For more information about Rwanda’s post-genocide reconciliation work and participatory approaches to healing and community justice, please visit www.gacaca.rw.

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[i] Ibreck, Rachel. “The Politics of Mourning: Survivor Contributions to Memorials in Post-genocide Rwanda.” Pg. 331. Memory Studies 2010. SAGE / University of Bristol, 2010.

[ii] Nkurunziza, Joseph Ryarasa. “Societal Healing and Reconciliation in Rwanda: A Long but Essential Trudge.” The New Times Rwanda. 2 Nov. 2016.