Sunday, July 15, 2012

Genocide sites

What is genocide?  I think it is importantly an act of imagination:  conceiving of a world without a group of people.  The Nazis had the term Judenrein.  It it the act of imaging the complete eradication of man, woman, child of a group, and creating the world anew.  A millenial conception -- an apocalyptic convulsion -- that eradicates a people in an act of permanent "cleansing." 

This is what distinguishing mass killing and mass death from genocide.  There are many terrible tragedies of human suffering.  But as Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Even a dog knows the difference between being kicked and being stumbled over.”   This is why what happened in Rwanda is a single genocide against the Tustis, even though many Hutus suffered and died, especially in the refugee camps in Congo.  But it is not right to seek to equate the latter with the former. 

How Rwanda has dealt with the burden of memory is impressive and inspiring.  There are many genocide  memorialies in many places in the country.  Many are mass graves.  But the more formal museums and memorials are what is impressive especially, for the makers of these museums uniformly seek to take the experience and transmute it into something that is a lesson for the present.  How do you learn from a genocide, not as an effort to preserve history alone and remember the one million victims, but also to understand what are the conditions that allow for the possibility that genocide is a viable answer. 

The main genocide museum in Kigali serves as a burial site for 250,000 people.  It also is an account of what happened in 1994, and the years leading up to the principal events.  The museum provides a moving account of the suffering of individuals, and it does a good job in trying to reduce the overwhelming numbers into individual stories.  It also invokes the memory of other genocides, especially the Holocaust (Shoah).  But it also tries to inculcate that justice and economic stability, along with social mobility, are the building blocks for a future of amity. 

There another "minor" site in Kigali, which is the memorial to the Belgian soldiers.  This memorial is on the campus of the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology.  There are three or four rooms with educational content.  There is a room where the soldiers died.  There are outside several pillars, one for each of the solders, each bearing a horizontal groove for each year of his life.

Unfortunately, people in the immediate area unfortunately are unaware of this memorial.  We asked at a bank, located no more than 500 meters from the site, if someone knew where the memorial was (we could not find it) -- no one had any idea of what we were talking about.  The site is not well marked, but it is a lovely memorial once one gets there.  We went there not so much because we identified with the Belgians as white people, but rather in honor more of UNAMIR and its frustrated, failed efforts to avert death. 

What's more important is not these static memorials.  The perpetuation of memory, of the individual stories of suffering and loss, is important. How do you take genocide and make it not just a source of pain and victimhood but as a source of dedication and inspiration to build a future?  This is the challenge for Rwanda and for the world. 

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