Voices of Rwanda: healing the wounds of genocide
A high tech oral history project goes beyond recitation of injustice to the heart of a people.
Taylor Krauss sticks out more than most white people here, on the dusty dirt road that runs in front of his home and office. Expatriates jokingly dub this part of the capital city “NGO Row”; Mr. Krauss’s business is neighbor to the German Agro Action Fund, across the street from the Red Cross, down the road from Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health, and a quick walk to any number of other nongovernmental organizations dedicated to improving the standard of living in one of Africa’s poorest countries. The nonprofit he runs, called “Voices of Rwanda” (VOR), seems somehow out of place.Skip to next paragraph
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Like hundreds of expats here, Krauss came because of the genocide. The murder 15 years ago of 800,000 Tutsis, a minority ethnic group, and the aftermath of the killings have brought attention and aid money to the schools, hospitals, water systems, and economic programs of this tiny country just below the equator.
Krauss is here on a different kind of mission. He wants to help the country heal with history. Two years ago, he founded VOR, an oral history project, hoping to compile the most comprehensive collection of individual stories about the genocide. In the process, he’ll build what may be the world’s most technologically advanced oral history archive – and he’ll do it in the heart of Africa.
Krauss has collected over 500 hours of stories from those who lived through the genocide – from young women who lost their entire families to a man old enough to remember when money was introduced to the country. The goal is to preserve a record of history – but VOR collaborators are motivated by more than knowledge.
Antoinette (VOR records only first names, to protect individuals’ security and privacy) is the sole survivor of her family. Born in western Rwanda, her grandfather was killed in the first wave of anti-Tutsi violence, in 1959. She was attacked in 1990, during pogroms that preceded the genocide, and survived the massacres in 1994 by hiding beneath corpses. She told Krauss her story, on the condition that she could also share the bigger history of her family before the violence.
“My legacy is a rich one if you let me go back in time and start from my grandfather’s history.... [N]o one else can talk about that. The one telling stories was my dad. But they killed him and my siblings,” she says in her testimony. “I think the reason I have strength to talk is, if I die without telling my story here ... my family’s name will disappear from the root.”
Krauss might never have met Antoinette had he not needed to mend a jacket nearly a decade ago as a Yale University film student. “I walked into a tailor shop, and the guy who was supposed to repair my zipper ... pulled out a book, ‘Dachau 39.’ He said, ‘Look, I’m in this book.’ ” The tailor pointed to a picture of a young man in a German concentration camp. Krauss, who is Jewish, grew up hearing about the Holocaust, but never quite so directly as in this tailor’s shop. “He said, ‘If you want to hear my story, go to the Fortunoff Video Archives at Yale and listen to it.’ ”
The Fortunoff Video Archive of Holocaust Testimonies was the first comprehensive collection of interviews with survivors living in America. Founded in 1982, the archive helped pioneer the discipline of oral history. Intrigued by the tailor, Krauss, then a junior studying film at Yale, paid the archive a visit. “I sat down and listened ... and somehow, the history of the Second World War, of the Holocaust, changed to me. It made sense to me, because I had to confront this individual in front of me on this TV screen.”
Krauss visited Rwanda as part of a documentary film crew in 2004; everywhere he went, people wanted to tell them their personal stories. “I thought, ‘With all these organizations that are investing in Rwanda, building roads, doing HIV research, setting up museums, why isn’t anyone recording history like this?’ ”