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Please do not step on mass graves

I went to the Kigali Genocide Memorial today. The Swiss owner/manager of my tiny pristine hotel dropped me off on his way to an errand, looking slyly at me before he gave his opinion of living under Kagame's rule. "They want us to switch to right hand drive cars," he said. "They're all really ugandans."

That conversation and the memorial tangled themselves into a twisted question mark for me about the telling of stories. The story of the genocide was at first untellable, no one listening as Dallaire and others of UNAMIR attempted to tell the world what was going to happen, what was happening. Now there is an official story, embodied in this oddly tidy, tasteful, comprehensive memorial, and many mumblings of untold and unheard stories.

The official story is laid out in the carefully designed and thoughtful exhibits of the memorial. First, three rather massive slabs of mass graves. Women in uniform aprons sweep away the vegetation that falls from the forest of remembrance. The cemetery is simultaneously horrifying and sanitized -- long slabs of concrete that hold uncounted, unidentified bones and bodies -- but one only knows this because one is told. The gardens around are painstakingly symbolic -- the garden of unity (Rwanda before colonization); the garden of division (Rwanda during the genocide); the garden of reconciliation. Three of the 11 or so gardens set around the main building, each of them with some highly symbolic clay figures inset. An elephant on a mobile phone, for example, symbol of not forgetting and communication with the modern world. The only really jarring note: a sign saying "please do not step on mass graves."

That flow matches the story told on the posterboards and artifacts of the main exhibits. Pre-colonization Rwanda: united. Colonization by the germans and then the belgians: concepts of racial divisions introduced. Tutsi minority made the elite who oppressed the Hutu majority until independence, when the flip happened, creating rifts that resulted in deeper Hutu extremism inside Rwanda and the Tutsi and Hutu moderates gathering strength for conflict in Uganda, Zaire and other neighbouring countries. A few signals of Hutu intent to massacre Tutsis that were ignored by the global community, heavier conflict, the ill-fated Arusha peace accord, the defanged UN peacekeeping force, then the story we all know. 100 days of genocide, a civil war that resulted in Paul Kagame's RPF victory, scattering of Interahamwe into Zaire, overthrow of Mobutu, creation of DRC, several more years of rebel incursions, a reasonably secure Rwanda under Kagame's leadership, and dispersal of the extremism into DRC where it festers and waits.

Even this simple chronology is so spiked with questions. This version of the narrative has Tutsi and Hutu designations as being classes, not races, until the Germans (with their obsession with eugenics at the time) and then the Belgians observed that some of the Rwandans looked different from others (tall, lanky, thin nosed Tutsis vs. shorter, wide-nosed Hutus) and constructed fixed identities, designated with official cards. If they couldn't decide which "race" someone belonged to, if he had 10 cows or more, he was a Tutsi. I have read elsewhere that pre-colonization, in fact, these designations were fluid, and that a Hutu could become a Tutsi by acquiring cattle or other wealth, that there were protective partnerships between these classes throughout history. But less than a century ago, these "races" were constructed and privilege granted accordingly. Mere decades of oppression and constructed "tribes" leading to something that was treated by the world as "centuries of conflict."

And and and... of course, there was undoubtedly class conflict between these designations pre-colonization. This version of the story is so tidy, like this memorial. All of the pieces in place, but missing some fundamental messiness. LIke my guidebook that translated Interahamwe as "those who stand together." Dallaire's book has it as "those who kill together." Abdu translates it for me was "those who attack together," which makes sense to me.

I was intrigued by but weirdly unmoved by the whole experience, even the room filled with skulls and leg bones, the 100s of family pictures of people killed. I was so conscious of a carefully told, cautious narrative. Aware that the wall of heroes -- the old woman, for example, who hid and saved 17 Tutsis by using her reputation for harboring evil spirits to scare away the Interahamwe -- is missing Paul Rusesabagina, probably the best known Rwandan globally after Kagame, the hero of Hotel Rwanda and the 1200 or so people held secure at the Milles Collines.

I dug some into this -- it seemed a bizarre oversight, to omit the "schindler of the genocide" from this exhibit. And got deeper into the feud between Kagame and Rusesabagina that I'd seen hints of when Rusesabagina was accused by Kagame of being a terrorist a couple of months ago. There is a strong faction in this country who loathe Rusesabagina, who spill a lot of fury trying to discredit him, prove that all of the claims of his heroism are false, that he was in fact a friend of the Hutu extremists and harbored people at the hotel merely for his own profit. A couple of years ago, Kagame's PR guy co-authored a book viciously countering every claim made in the film.

The more I read, the less clear it became. One interpretation is that Kagame is worried that Rusesabagina could be a credible opposition -- so seizes every opportunity to discredit him, just as other possible opposition leaders are sent off to be ambassadors to India, murdered in other countries. Like the general in Uganda who owned the half-built hotel in kasese considered to be possible opposition to Musceveni, murdered by "a prostitute" last year. Maybe Kagame just wants to be the only hero of the genocide, for whatever reason. Maybe Rusesabagina really was a corrupt opportunist. Certainly, Kagame's authoritarianism has a tight grip. "We have security," shrugs the Swiss expat. "But there are things going on, people disappearing. Who knows." The deeper I dig, the less clear it becomes. Truth is slippery, contexted, positional. Different truths from different angles.

I've been taught over and over to ask who is telling the story, and what is it achieving. This memorial is clearly this government's story. And what is it achieving?

This is the experience of this memorial for me, unsettling, but not for the reasons I expected. Not until I get to the last room, almost an afterthought, with a dozen or so minimal profiles of children lost in the genocide.

Irene Umotoni, age 6, and her sister Uwamwezi, age 7. Favourite toy: a doll they shared. Favourite food: fruits. Behaviour: Daddy's girls. Cause of death: a grenade launched into their shower.

David Mugiraneza, Age 10. Favourite sport: Football. Dream: to be a doctor. Last words: "Maman, the UNAMIR will come to rescue us." Cause of death: beaten to death.

Fabrice Cyenezo, 15 months. Food: rice and milk. Animal: Cat. Enjoyed: making gestures. Favourite word: Auntie. Killed in Muhoro church.

Hubert, age 2. Last memory: saw his mom dying.

Francine: Age 6 Last words: Mom, where can I run to?

The final words of the exhibit: Sinigizi impfubyi. I did not make myself an orphan. The one essential truth.

Posted by CateinTO 05:29

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Again, Cate, you took me right into the experience you describe. I, too, was reading with some detachment as you described the horror and history--and then lost it with the simple descriptions of the lived experience of the children.

by Pamela Meyer

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