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Lessons from Rwanda: Talking about genocide in church

From my time in Rwanda, I saw that people don't like to talk about the genocide in their recent past. Then I heard a church sermon there whose universal message of 'life after mass death' seemed perfectly fitted for a country full of one-time perpetrators and families of the murdered.

By William Collins Donahue / January 18, 2013

Christine Uwimana stands inside the home that she shares with her mother, Madamu Theresa (seated), in Kigali, Rwanda, March 21, 2009. Uwimana is a survivor of the 1994 genocide. Op-ed contributor William Collins Donahue worked at the Shoah Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving the stories of Holocaust survivors and perpetrators. He asks: 'Why is no such project underway in Rwanda now, while the memory is still fresh?’

Mary Knox Merril/The Christian Science Monitor

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Kigali, Rwanda

Officially, I’m here to study genocide memorials. Unofficially, I’m here to visit my wife, who is on a one-year assignment with a USAID-funded project run by the Rwandan Ministry of Health. She, along with dozens of other nurses, doctors, and health-care educators, is valiantly attempting to raise the level of health care in a country that largely lacks the infrastructure necessary to make good use of their high-level skills. But they all keep trying. Every day my wife makes her way to one of the many under-served hospitals in this beautiful “land of a thousand hills,” each with a murderous past.

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I’ve spent a lot of my scholarly career examining how Germans have come to terms with the Holocaust. In “Germany Confronts the Holocaust,” a course I teach at Duke University, I always tell my students it is important to know what is to be commemorated before thinking about the how. Moving too quickly to aesthetic or ideological considerations of remembrance can distract from the underlying crime against humanity. So I always take them first to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. I want them to get the “what” straight first.

Following my own advice, then, I made a visit with my daughter to the Genocide Memorial Centre in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. It is built, like so much else here, into the side of beautiful rolling foothills and is stunning for reasons I didn’t expect. It doesn’t add a whole lot to the horrific story many already know about the 1994 genocide in which almost 1 million Tutsis were murdered by the majority Hutu population. No one knows exactly how many were murdered; the Hutus were not as into record-keeping as the German SS.

What strikes you when you exit the cramped, dark exhibit is an opening to beautiful terraced gardens, complete with a gift shop and café. You are actually standing at the site of mass graves, but the adjoining wall features just a few names. Was it, like so much else in Kigali, still under construction, we wondered? But then we felt it, the jarring weight of the large blank spaces where the names of the dead should have been. Nobody knows their names.

When I was a graduate student, I worked for a short time with the Shoah Foundation, the documentary group inspired by Steven Spielberg in the wake of his unforgettable 1993 film “Shindler’s List” (1993) dedicated to preserving the stories of Holocaust survivors and perpetrators.

Why is no such project underway in Rwanda now, while the memory is still fresh? What I hear again and again here is that Rwandans are still (and understandably) deeply traumatized; they don’t want to talk about it, and certainly not with a strange Mzungu (white person). Kigali is overrun with do-good Mzungu nongovernmental organizations, and I’ve met with many dedicated, hard working, and sometimes despairing expats. None has anything conclusive to say about how Rwandans are coming to terms with the genocide. You get plenty of anecdotes and speculation, but answers are hard to come by.  

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