From a Genocide Memorial: Historical Lessons for Africa

A nation must be willing to look dispassionately at its own history.

Willy Brandt (1913 - 1992) German statesman’s declaration on the 25th anniversary of the end of World War II

December 6, 2014; it was a Saturday and I was unpacking my luggage after a trip to Rwanda. As I went about my chore; I could hear the political campaigns and chants emanating from the television (this was the election season in Nigeria). I was alarmed at the vociferous and unguarded political sentences echoing from the microphones being held by politicians at this particular rally. The alarm was rooted in the fact that one just returned from a country where in 1994 an unprecedented decimation of human lives took place (stoked by decades of embers of hate speech) to say the least. I watched as the politicians made fiery comments and I was perturbed that political figures; the electorate looked up to; could deliver speeches which could be misconstrued by some voters, who would latch onto every word.

Succinctly put, anytime I watched or read political speeches and rallies and read newspaper advertorials during the elections, I could pick out comments which were insidious and inflammatory. Now, inflammatory political speeches when unchecked; tend to be catalysts and pre-cursors for the atrocities that are bound to follow. Organised atrocities, decimation (which means the killing of every tenth person in a population) or genocides don’t just occur and are not just happenstances. And on the African continent, Rwanda is one country where the different stages of genocides have been catalogued, recorded for all to see and read (and once you’ve visited one of the genocide memorials, you detect hate speech from a planet away). Now with a continent with several nations bereft of a national or collective record-keeping culture; it is quite gratifying to hear, see and visit such a place that keeps history.

Reading (newspapers and online) or watching (the television screens) as genocide unfolds with its manifold oddities is one thing (an experience from a safe distance). But being in the tick of things (on ground during a pogrom) is a different experience which remains imprinted in the memory of the witness for a lifetime (as I have gathered from a friend in Nigeria; who was in Rwanda as a young reporter shortly after the 1994 genocide. This widely travelled lady still finds it difficult to tell me what she saw; never read any of my articles on the genocide and might probably not read this one). As an avid reader, student and aficionado of political and diplomatic history, World War Two and genocides; the more I visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial, the more I struggle to comprehend what happened between April-July 1994. It is safe to say that when other African countries celebrated Easter and watched the USA 1994 World Cup; the land of a thousand hills was awash with marauding machetes, clubs, smashed skulls of babies, women and men, decomposing cadavers and the rivers and streams had pretty much changed colour to red (literally and figuratively. Do watch the Ghost of Rwanda on Youtube).

When I returned to the Kigali Genocide Memorial on Friday, the 11th of September 2015, I was surprised to find the complex serene. As a writer, I thought how perfect (the memorial was jam-packed with people crying, grieving or been consoled on my first visit in April 2014 during the Kwibuka 20 remembrance). With the serenity that welcomed me; I took a quickened by very meticulous tour of the memorial. This tour was quickened; for I had an appointment to catch up with. What you’re about to read are the exact graphic thoughts I scribbled in my diary (with some explanations) as I made my way through the hallways, corridors, rooms and stairways of the Kigali Genocide Memorial.

Going through the first hallway, I read about segregation, passport and papers; Belgium added race to Rwandans identification cards in the 1930s.  I read about the Hutu 10 commandments. I saw pictures of decomposed bodies which littered the ground like biscuit wrappers. Large numbers of corpses littered shallow mass graves; in latrines or just lying in the open.

I walked into another room with hundreds if not thousands of pictures; pinned to shelves or clipped on wire.

I wrote in my diary; pictures and pictures of faces-some black and white pictures but a lot were coloured pictures. Pictures of slim people; people with afros, dark glasses, people in suits, ties. Pictures of people posing in the comfort of their homes, offices, in their compounds. A man holding his baby; a whole family’s portrait; newly weds. In my exact words; I penned this: strange but sometimes you cannot look into the eyes in the pictures. Like they are talking to you. Mother and her child; a boy. In my exact words (O God, what happened here?). I moved around looking at pictures of innocent people, innocent poses. Those poses of the 70s, 80s and 90s.

I walked into another room with several boxes of skulls. Some skulls were cracked apparently macheted or clubbed in 1994.

I wrote in my diary: First box 27 skulls. Second box- bones. Third box-skulls, Catholic crucifix, two different pairs of baby sandals (left leg), smoking pipe, cracked skulls. Fourth box- 27 skulls (some cracked). Fifth box had bones. Sixth box had 27 cracked skulls.               

I walked into another room-the personal belongings room

I wrote in my diary: women’s wrappers, more women’s wrappers, a Superman bed sheet, a stained shirt with Ottawa imprint on it. Shorts, shirts, jeans, torn trousers, tracksuits.

This room also had a huge plasma TV screen hung on the wall and I could see a documentary. On this particular day, as I looked and walked about and scribbled notes; three Caucasians were watching the documentary on the screen. And suddenly one male left his friends (another male and a lady). I wondered why but had an inkling he couldn’t take it any longer. After scribbling, I turned my attention to the screen. A lady on the screen was speaking in Kinyarwanda and I read the subtitled words. Paraphrasing her, the genocide in 1994 destroyed her life but her children might feel the effect but not her grand children. She said “killings happened and the country was quiet”. Another lady described how she had to get a job. It was painful to watch (I couldn’t watch any longer; I went upstairs). When one thinks about it, Kigali Genocide Memorial is not for the lily-livered or even for the strong-hearted.

I walked into the children’s room. A room that would open ajar the floodgates of your childhood memories. A room that must be accustomed to wailings, sobs and rhetorical questions.

I wrote in my diary the names of the children: Francine Murengezi Ingabire, age 12, favourite sport-swimming, favourite food-eggs and chips, favourite drink milk and Fanta tropical. Best friend-her elder sister Claudette. Cause of death-hacked by machete.

Bernardin Kambanda, age 17, favourite sport football, favourite drink: tea, favourite food; rice. Character-clever at school. Cause of death-killed by machete at Nyamata church.

As I moved to the next room, I came across a plaque with an inscription which went thus “families have given their latest and often only photos of their children for the memorial windows”.

I continued to read the biographies of the children. I went past Fabrice Murinzi Minaga, age 8; David Mugiraneza age 10; Ariane Umotoni age 4; Nadia Chanelle Ruterane Kanyange age 8; Fidele Ingabire age 9.

It got to a point I could not write the names any longer. I have always wondered whether this was due to the fact that I had an appointment or because I could not bring myself to continue but think that if these teens and children (looking innocent in their poses) were alive; they would have achieved or in the process of achieving their purpose. There is always another time to re-visit the memorial. Let me point out that, an entire day must be set aside to visit any genocide memorial in the world. This enables one to reflect and absorb the essence of such historical museums in its entirety.

With thoughts running through my mind; I walked out of the Kigali Genocide Memorial building; into the basking sun (I probably looked up to the Heavens for answers) and wandered in the compound taking pictures and a short video. I took one more picture of the Kigali Genocide Memorial entrance and placed a call for my next appointment.

Here are some thoughts. History isn’t and cannot be wished away. In Nigeria’s case, history must be in the educational curriculum and must be taught in our schools. What is a nation with future leaders who don’t know their history and how would such leaders lead? Africa and Africans must tell her own stories and history. The consequences of not doing so are dire (distortion being the least).

Like Philip Gourevitch opined in one of his articles on Rwanda The Life After; published on May 4, 2009 via The New Yorker “People’s hearts and minds need some time to heal. A very long time indeed. They will probably need a whole generation, and the memories will keep lingering.

Twenty one years after the genocide; you cannot but think of how young Rwandans; are coming to terms and coping with the past. And when I talk with some young Rwandans, I find myself still grappling with the enormity of their different stories. A piece by Ange Kagame via Huffington Post on Wednesday September 21; titled: Victim to Victor: The healing power of forgiveness in Rwanda; gives an insight.

She opines that the conflict rose from decades of mental conditioning, which led people to kill their sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers and children. When we are taught about conflict or tragedies, we always learn about them in a limited way. We learn about what happened, the death toll, the tragic impact, but rarely do we highlight the enduring and gallant spirits of those who have been able to overcome these unthinkable circumstances with their dignity and hope intact.

She went further to posit that; to ensure our conflict is not passed from one generation to the next -- for the sake of the story of Rwanda -- forgiveness is the only way to draw strength from tragedy individually -- and to heal collectively.

Sam Branson the founder of Sundog Pictures in the United Kingdom wrote a piece in which he visited and shot some documentaries in Rwanda. One of the individuals he spoke to was Yves Kamuronsi.

Yves Kamuronsi who works for Aegis Trust in Rwanda as Country Director and who has been involved with Aegis and the Kigali Genocide Memorial since 2004; was part of the team that created the memorial exhibition, which is now visited by thousands of people every other week.

His words are quite profound. He went thus; “for me, and other survivors of the Genocide, the memorial is home. It’s where we come to visit and remember our loved ones. It’s a place where all survivors actually meet so that they can have a conversation with their loved ones. We remember the good times we spent together before the Genocide and imagine what might have been if they had survived. In this way, the Kigali Genocide Memorial helps survivors to go forward. It helps survivors to live again”.

And his vision for the Kigali Genocide Memorial is for it to become Africa’s most visited memorial. He went thus; “I want the memorial to be the leading centre for remembrance and peace education on the continent. I want students, leaders and researchers from around the world to visit the memorial to learn about what happened in Rwanda and take home a message of humanity”.

The German politician; Karl-Heinz Hansen is quoted as saying “a people not prepared to face its own history cannot manage to face its own future”. Needless to say, Africa (Nigeria included) has to tell her own stories, face and preserve her history (no matter how gory or unsavoury). This is the only logical way we would know where we are coming from (our antecedents); the mistakes we made and how not to make such errors. The triumphs we achieved and how we can accomplish more feats.

Kigali Genocide Memorial- Pictures

Dolapo Aina, Lagos,Nigeria||


Photo Credit: Dolapo Aina

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