Saturday, August 1, 2009

Kigali Genocide Memorial Center

Yesterday I spent a few hours visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center. Opened in 2004, the center sits high on a hill on the outskirts of Kigali and also serves as the burial ground for some 250,000 victims of the genocide.

The primary exhibit is of course about the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Any summary I give would be inadequate, the issues at hand are complex and the history long, but the Wikipedia pages on Rwanda and the Rwanda Genocide seem to echo the museum's. It is clear that there is much deserved resentment on the role of both Belgium and France in the genocide. Belgium in creating the tensions between the Hutus and Tutsis and France for it's role immediately before and during the genocide in aiding the Hutus.

I will admit to that being an odd feeling, having grown up in France I obviously identify myself with it in many ways and it is hard to comprehend what was going through the government's mind as they lent aid and protection to the killers during the genocide. It certainly explains why Rwanda as a country is moving away as quickly as possible from it's French history and traditions. Rwanda recently changed it's national language from French to English and everywhere it is clear they no longer want to associate with France. I wonder how long it will be before the Rwanda Franc is renamed as well.

Another part of the center covers some of the other genocides across the world. This was an eye opening exhibit as well, some were completely unknown to me and it drives home the point that genocide in the modern age is not a problem just in Africa but across the world.

But the most moving part of the center by far were the various memorials. Rooms filled with personal pictures of the victims of the genocide really brought it all home for me. For whatever reason it is harder for me to identify with pictures from WWII, black and white, they seem of a distant age, removed, a tragedy, but history. Here were rooms filled with color pictures of men and women alike, not in dresses of the 40's but in modern clothes, in modern settings, living lives just as we do today. Somehow that just made the experience that much harder for me and I found myself incredibly moved. This wasn't just some tragedy of the distant past, but of the present age.

Yet another exhibit took this to another level. Filled with pictures of children of the genocide and how they died it made you wonder how humanity could sink so low. An entire generation lost in a way, children that will never see adulthood. Here I think the other exhibit on genocide really helped to temper the feeling that this not an African or Rwandan problem, but a problem of our race as a whole. The reaction is so strong, so guttural upon seeing these images that the psyche wants to escape from any possibility of responsibility, involvement or our own potential for similar atrocities. But the reality is that all races and cultures have done similar things and accepting that fact and coming to terms with our horrible potentials for systematic killing is the best way to prevent its repeat.

The gardens around the center, despite being the burial ground of a quarter million victims, provide a respite, some time for reflecting upon the center's contents. I found the center to be really amazingly put together, it is tactful in its presentation and thought provoking, bringing you closer to the facts of the tragedy and the challenges we all face as a shared humanity.

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