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.
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He knew that setting up an archive was a huge undertaking, but he’d been part of ambitious projects before. After college, he worked as an associate producer on Ken Burns’s epic documentary “The War.” “I took a lesson from my mentors there not to shy away from projects just because the scope seemed unimaginable,” he says.Skip to next paragraph
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The challenge wasn’t just the sheer number of stories he wanted to gather; it was language, culture, human capital. His translators would manage the emotional nuance of the interviews, correcting Krauss when he made cultural faux pas and translating his questions not just literally but socially, to make listeners comfortable.
It doesn’t always work, says Krauss: “One woman said that when she looked at my face, she got very angry. She saw a white person, and she thought of the French. She knew the French had trained the interhamwe [militia]; she remembers seeing the French there, during the genocide.... I felt I had wronged her just by being white.”
Still, Krauss insists that interviews be conducted by outsiders. Many survivors express anger at the international community for failing to intervene during the genocide. “We as outsiders represent the outside world, finally saying, ‘Yes, we are ready to hear your stories,’ ” he says.
But Krauss leans on Rwandans for most everything else. The material he collects has to be transcribed into Kinyarwanda and translated. But he couldn’t find native speakers who could type, says Krauss, “so we had to teach people to type so that we could hire them.” He put down his camera and became a touch-typing instructor; he gave his four best students full-time jobs; the other 26 got certificates to get office jobs.
The biggest challenge was how to design the interviews. Krauss settled on a process that can be grueling. “We are there as long as a person wants to speak,” he says. “Often people will speak for hours, unprompted, uninterrupted.” Interviews last, on average, 10 hours; they include rich, sometimes funny stories about people’s lives before the genocide. One man, Michel, describes in his testimony his first trip to Kigali: “I had never seen an electric light. I was wondering if it was the sun.”
Geoffrey Hartman, of the Yale archive, has seen some early interviews. “We ... were astonished at how well he did it, not only at how technically advanced but how sensitive it is and how powerful the testimonies were.”
This archive, Krauss hopes, will showcase the future of oral history projects. With a combination of open-source software, Krauss is upping the ante on historical archives. Every word that’s transcribed will be tagged and searchable; with Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, Voices of Rwanda can create individualized maps of survivors’ stories. “In one testimony, a person talks about being born in Kibuye, going down to Cyangugu, crossing the border into Zaire and staying at a camp there, then coming back and staying in Kigali,” Krauss says. “Every stop along the way that he mentions, including the churches he prayed at, are going to be plotted using GPS points. People will be able to look at a map, click on a church, and find five other people who spoke about that church in their testimonies.”
To what end researchers and others might put that information, Krauss can’t entirely anticipate. But that’s just the kind of “chutzpah” a project like this needs, say his earlier mentors. “You don’t know what you’re going to want to know about the past,” says Lynn Novick, director with Ken Burns of “The War.” “The more of it you can safeguard the better off we all are.”
That’s true not just for scholars, but for Rwandans themselves. Two of Krauss’ staff are survivors; they spend their work days transcribing stories that could well be their own.
“Once, one of the employees was sitting by her desk and crying,” Krauss recalls. “She said that in 14 years, she had never heard a testimony so much like her own ... down to the words the killer was speaking, the same words as when her mother was being killed. I told her to go home. She said, ‘No, I’m not going home.... I must know what happened. It’s good for me. It’s good for me to know I’m not alone.’ ”