On the twentieth commemoration of the Rwandan genocide, official remembrance reveals the concentration of state power within the office of President Paul Kagame, and unity and transformation dominate the national narrative. But the reactions of ordinary mourners defy these political parameters.
The first time it happened was during a survivor’s testimony. Until this point in the programme, the national commemoration of the Rwandan genocide, held in Kigali on 7 April 2014, had proceeded perfectly. The audience of 30,000 had preserved a reverential silence, standing dutifully for the arrival of dignitaries, maintaining a remarkable stillness and composure in the crowded stands. There was no talking on cell phones, no eating, and, when people conversed, they whispered into each other’s ears, so as not to disrupt the solemnity of the mega-event.
In one of the stands of the Amahoro stadium, someone had begun to scream. The crowd’s attention shifted to the source of the disturbance. Journalists trained their cameras in its direction, and my neighbours seemed perplexed, shaking their heads or muttering in consternation. The outburst seemed anomalous, the expression of a single mourner overcome by grief. But then it happened again, elsewhere in the stands. Others began to scream too – agonized cries that went on for minutes, until ushers in fluorescent bibs descended and carried them away, sometimes four a person. They held their limbs as they flailed and, for the women, pulled down their skirts to protect them from further exposure. “It is the trauma,” one audience member explained. “These people are remembering.”
For the rest of the service, the screaming continued, forming an alternative soundtrack to the speeches, videos and performances. The message was clear – that the brutalisation of those present superseded the rectitude of the proceedings, that the survivors would not be consoled by the presence of dignitaries, or the broadcasting of pithy video montages. Their suffering defied the abstraction of interpretive dances and rap songs that buoyed up the day’s programme. Their outbursts were undignified, histrionic and visceral – and they presented a powerful rejoinder to the state’s commemoration campaign: “Kwibuka 20: Remember-Unite-Renew.
The organisers of Kwibuka 20 have learnt from commemorative campaigns for other genocides. In a world in which museums and sites of mass violence have become tourist destinations, there is an emergent global iconography in the remembrance of atrocity. Lit candles symbolise hope and mourning, family photographs mark the humanity and individuality of the victims. Displays of lost ones’ possessions help to personalises their mass annihilation, and to give meaning to the inconceivable volumes of death. Piles of spectacles, shoes and hair feature in numerous Holocaust museums around the world, while the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre displays the clothes of victims recovered from mass grave sites. One exhibit features trousers with an elasticated waistband and the diminutive waistcoat of a child’s church apparel.
The displays of human remains are a controversial feature of Rwanda’s genocide exhibitions – skulls and bones are arranged in neat order, backlit and encased in glass display cabinets. Similar displays once featured at Ugandan sites of civil war commemoration, but were removed after locals voiced their opposition, insisting that the bones be buried. Skulls remain a prominent feature of genocide memorials in Cambodia, as do the identity cards and photographs of prisoners admitted to the Tuol Sleng prison. Identity cards that highlight the fixity of racial derogations are also a feature among the displays at Auschwitz and Yad Vashem, in which the bureaucratic dimensions of the Nazi Holocaust are writ large. Because of the relative lack of photographs and documentation of the mass murders, the Kigali Memorial Centre leans less heavily on photographic evidence of the genocide as on its artefacts of perpetration – guns, machetes, sharpened sticks. A padlock and chain are presented in a Perspex box, with an explanatory note about their use in tying two people together, who were then buried alive. Their remains were later recovered, still interlocked.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre includes an enlarged image of an identity card, issued by the Belgian authorities to classify Rwandan inhabitants according to racial divisions. All those whose families owned more than ten head of cattle were classified as Tutsi, while the labouring classes were termed Hutu. Those outside of the means of production, the “pygmies” in national racial descriptors – were classified Twa. These ethnic designations were intended to be fixed for eternity, and Rwanda’s rule to be conducted along the lines that they drew. In many accounts, the genocide was an inevitable outcome of this racial division, established by the Belgian colonists, and animated by subsequent political regimes who designed the political and economic control of the nation on their basis.
One feature of Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre foregrounds the influence of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Along with Auschwitz, renowned for its preoccupations with Polish victims and its exaggerations of the influence of the Polish resistance, the Washington Holocaust Museum is perhaps the world’s most controversial genocide museum. Its curators have been accused of using the Holocaust as a sounding board for American jingoism. After passing through an exhibition about the Final Solution, featuring photographs of mass graves shot in grainy black-and-white, the visitor encounters a wall of super-saturated colour images of Holocaust survivors, who have remade their lives after immigration to the United States. The Washington Centre stands accused of ‘Disneyfying’ the Holocaust – imposing a saccharine ending in the belief that the Centre’s visitors are not able to tolerate anything else. While the Jewish theologian Richard Rubenstein wrote of the “death of God” after Auschwitz, in the narrative of the Washington Holocaust Museum, after Auschwitz, divine presence manifested in the form of a Green Card.
Similar strategies are at work in the official framings of the Rwandan genocide. The exhibition at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre ends with portraits of survivors, highlighting acts of individual resistance, and emphasising the collective heroism of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which seized control of Rwanda from the hands of Interahamwe militia after the hundred days of fighting during which the genocide took place.
All national museums and memorials serve political ends. It is not incidental, for example, that the Cape Town Holocaust Centre draws parallels between the racial classifications of Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa – providing visitors with a local frame of reference for the pernicious effects of racial bigotry, and the power of political systems to authorise hatred. But in the case of Rwanda, the national narrative of the genocide is so particular, its framing so univocal, because the single history which is permitted is that which is state sanctioned.
And the official version of legacy of the Rwandan genocide is a seductive one – a nation rising from the flames of hatred, reborn anew. This version is a salve to the international community, which turned its back on Rwanda during the genocide of 1994, a fact which every speaker at Amahoro stadium mentioned. This version of Rwanda’s history, of reconciliation and rebirth, seems like justice. Again and again, the story is framed as one of national transformation. Photographs feature victims standing side by side with their perpetrators, national news teams capture footage of Kigali’s squeaky streets, and government officials cite the extension of a broadband connection to all thirty of the country’s districts as evidence of the freeflow of information.
Presiding over all of this, with immense gravitas, is Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s ‘benevolent dictator’ (an expression of toxic doublespeak that flaunts either a misunderstanding of, or disdain for, democracy). As the head of the RPF that wrested control of the country from the Interahamwe in 1994, the leader of the Tutsi resistance, Kagame is Rwanda’s statesman/messiah, credited in large part for the achievement of the national miracle.
At the national commemoration ceremony, each of the speakers paid tribute to Kagame’s leadership, thanking him for forging the path of togetherness and prosperity for Rwandans. Kagame himself emphasised the national achievements of post-genocide Rwanda, including advancements in healthcare, education and gender equality, and the steady economic growth of the nation. “Twenty years ago, Rwanda had no future, only a past,” Kagame said in his speech at the memorial. “Genocide shows humanity’s shocking capacity for atrocity. It shows Rwanda’s capacity for renewal.”
The streets of Kigali may resemble an African Brugge, but the city’s atmosphere is closer to that of Moscow – with the omnipresence of soldiers and an atmosphere of rigid regulation and obedience. And in the discourse of political leaders, principal among them Kagame, is discernible the old Soviet approach of needing to scramble a few eggs to make an omelette. Together with this is a remarkable ability to determine and enforce new rules restricting the autonomy of your citizens. The mayor of Kigali, Fidele Ndayisaba, issued a public declaration in which he suspended all entertainment for the week of the genocide’s commemoration, including discos, cinema and sports, with little doubt that the city’s inhabitants would abide by his degree.
In the two decades since the genocide, the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front, under the leadership of Kagame, has established an authoritarian grip on state power. It has curtailed media freedom and persecuted political opponents. Subsequent to the 2003 elections, in which accusations of electoral fraud and intimidation clouded Kagame’s win of 95% of the presidential vote, the EU Mission to Rwanda concluded that “Political pluralism is more reduced than during the period of transition [in the years after the genocide”]. Opponents of Kagame and his political party are often portrayed as genocide apologists, a crime in Rwanda but one which is defined so broadly as to include any act which challenges the official version of history and the RPF’s authority. Political critique is often packaged as potential recrudescence to genocide, and its proponents are persecuted on these terms.
Kagame alluded to his opponents in his speech at the commemoration, leaving his audience with little doubt as to his unbending will, and his capacity to martial the resources of both the national and international communities to achieve his objectives for Rwanda. “My dear friends”, he entreated the audience, “our approach is as radical and unprecedented as the situation we face. The insistence on finding our own ways sometimes comes with a price. Nevertheless, let us stick to the course.”
Part of this course is, as the lyrics of one commemorative songs implored, to “turn scars into smiles”. In the service of nation-building, Rwandans are entreated to remember the past, but to move forward into the future, placing their faith in the power and benevolence of their leader. For the mourners at Rwanda’s national commemoration, who refused to enact the solidarity, upliftment and reconciliation that anchored the official versions of the genocide, this course of action holds little consolation. DM
Rebecca Hodes is a medical historian based at the University of Cape Town.
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