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.

Courtesy of Alexander Gibbons/Voices of Rwanda
A survivor’s moment: Taylor Krauss (right), founder of Voices of Rwanda, records testimony from a Rwandan genocide survivor. Those who speak are allowed to do so uninterrupted – the average interview runs 10 hours and delves as deeply into family history as tales of trauma.

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.

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?’ ”

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.

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.’ ”

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