Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Genocide Museum

My wife and I visited the Genocide Museum in Kigali which I blogged about in my alternate blogoverse. Here is my posting below and I will comment further underneath it.

I am a keen student of history. I wish more of our world leaders studied history. On the other hand I like to live in the now and try to move forward while learning from what has gone on in the past.

We had a free day in Kigali today so we decided to visit the Kigali Genocide Museum. Many people had suggested that this would be a must see in Kigali so we went. I really didn't know what to expect.

We found the museum on the map. Because safe taxis don't come to our neighbourhood we decided to walk to central Kigali where we could get into a decent taxi and get there that way. We stopped at the Cafe Bourbon for a latte and chocolate croissant by which time we actually felt energetic and decided to walk the rest of the way. Like most things in Kigali there is no straight line between two points and while it looked like we were half way there already, what the map didn't show was that we were at the top of one large hill and to get to the museum we would have to descend to the bottom of the hill and then walk up half way up the next hill. This is complicated by the lousy map we have and the lack of street signs in Kigali. The guide did say that we could see it across the valley.

Eventually we arrived at the museum. What impressed me the most was the number of Rwandans in their best clothes heading up or coming down the hill from the Museum/Memorial to pay their respects to their dead relatives.

The Museum itself is surrounded by a number of themed gardens related to life before, during and after the genocide. After passing through these gardens you then visit the mass graves. The remains of 300,000 people mostly from Kigali are entombed there. The graves are covered with flowers left by relatives. At the end of the garden is the Wall of Remembrance which is about 50 metres long. They are trying to put of the names of all the dead, however they have only managed to fill two panels and there is a lot of wall to be filled.

After this we went into the Museum. This contains a history of Rwanda before during and after the colonial period. It then explains in great detail the events of the Genocide. This is underscored by filmed interviews of survivors and historic news footage. There is a room of pictures of the dead, and a room full of some of the skulls and bones. Many of the skulls have bullet holes or machete marks. There is another room devoted to the children who were murdered.

The second part of the Museum is devoted to other genocides including the Armenians, the Herraro of Namibia by the Germans (which I never knew of), the Holocaust, Cambodia and the Balkans.

The goal of the museum is to maintain awareness of genocide in the hope that this will never happen in the future. I always thought that by now we would have found a way of resolving disputes that doesn't involve killing people. I continue to be disappointed.

We walked the long climb home somewhat somberly. The streets we walked through were humming with activity and it seems that the Rwandans are at least trying to live in the now.

This article in the Globe last weekend rekindled my memory.

As you can read, there is a dispute threatening this new Museum over whose rights were the most abused or who got genocided the hardest.

Now having your friends, relatives or ancestors shot, macheteed, gassed or starved is not pleasant at all, no matter how many or how long ago. I suspect if we go far enough back in our family tree we will come across an ancestor whose rights were egregiously abused (in my case you might have to go back to the Norman Conquest!). More likely you are going to find an ancestor who participated enthusiastically in taking away someone else's human rights. The fact is as a student of history and unfortunately an observer of current events, I can't believe how badly we treat and treated our fellow human beings.

The Rwandan genocide occurred 17 years ago. Some of the participants are in jail. To distinguish them from other prisoners they wear pink pajamas, Some of them worked in the hospital doing chores. They looked somewhat old and not at all evil or dangerous. From all accounts I have read a lot of people participated in it either actively or passively. Not all of these people are in jail or exile, which means if you have a group of Rwandans over 30 there is a good chance that you are in the presence of someone who may have hacked someone up with a machete or been the crowd egging them on. It would be hard to imagine a group of people being whipped up into such a state of irrational rage, except that it has happened quite a few times in other so called civilized societies in recent memory. I try to put things in perspective by imagining how I might respond if something similar happened in Canada (and don't think it couldn't). Would I shelter those people being persecuted at risk to myself or my family; would I, if asked to participate, join in knowing that failure to participate might endanger me; would I even enthusiastically participate? I hope it would be the first but I don't know.

I kept thinking of the episode on Fawlty Towers where a group of Germans comes to Basil's hotel and he keeps on telling everyone "Don't mention the war!". On Monday after our visit, a Rwandan asked me what I had done on the weekend and I mentioned that I had gone to the Genocide Memorial. I then felt that I had put my foot in my mouth but he didn't react and I went on to talk about what I did for the rest of the weekend. The first time we really discussed it was with Jean our driver, who it turns out lost both his parents in the genocide. He went to a refugee camp in Burundi where his sister and he were adopted by a Burundian couple. He is currently suing to try to get back his parents' house in Kigali. Another time at dinner with one of the anaesthesiologists we asked him about the genocide. He put his head down, started to cry and told us that he was a genocide survivor and that 500 members of his extended family had been killed. I still don't know whether it was something we should bring up or whether is best left to brought up by a Rwandan.

Aside from the Kigali Museum, there are smaller genocide memorials all over the country. Every year, the genocide is commemorated with no just one day but 100 days of commemoration, equalling the 100 days of genocide. It is almost like the country itself has become a monument to the memory of the genocide. Rwanda however is so much more than its ugly past and I keep on wondering whether it is time to live in the present.

As an aside while swimming at the Serena Hotel my wife and I met Linda Melvern who has written extensively on the genocide and I am reading one of her books right now, trying to just make sense of what happened.

I read somewhere that the buildings at Auchwicz are now falling apart and there is a debate as to whether to restore them or not. I like history but sometime it is better to let evil just crumble into the ground.

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