The following is a paper I wrote for the service learning class "Rhetoric of Social Movements." I use the blogs I wrote in Rwanda and a few articles about public memory to investigate the strong rhetorical functions of preserved trauma sites. This is a draft, and I'm trying to integrate more research and rhetorical concepts to the emotional and descriptive aspects. I would appeciate any and all constructive feedback and I hope it can be some form of new information for you.
A tomb has been added to the interior and as we
walked down into it there are skulls and bones with various wounds from
gunshots or machete, each with a very obvious cause of death. There is one
coffin far below and the victim of one of the most horrific rapes of the
genocide is buried there. The story of how she was raped until she died was so
graphic and brutal that I couldn’t bear to write it here. Her special burial is
there to commemorate all of the women who were deliberately raped and infected
with HIV as a weapon of genocide. There were more crypts outdoors filled with
caskets that held 5 sets of remains and were draped with purple fabric. On the
other side were more skulls and bones laid out and facing the center as if they
were staring at the visitors. Survivors of the genocide visit this site often
to look for the remains of their relatives, while still aware that they might
never be identified.
Murambi Technical School Genocide Memorial Site
In the first room, my body was in too much
shock to look at details, but in the second I took the time to really look at
the bodies surrounding me, frozen in their final moment of terror. They still
have hair, and some are missing fingers and teeth. Some of the faces are so detailed that I
could see the fear on their faces. I turn to leave and my eyes fall upon a
small body no longer than my arms with its skull completely flattened. I began
to weep. This was the kind of weeping that makes you feel like you can’t
breathe and your entire face is drenched in tears. I’d had enough, but the
guilt and intense sorrow made me feel obligated to pay respect to every person
in every room. The next room had a table with flowers and a poem dedicated to
the children who had died there. It read:
By now the
children who live next door to the
genocide site were so excited to see Mazoonga
(Kinyarwanda for foreigners) they ran out screaming with joy, but their screams
mixed with the images of child corpses gave me nightmares later. We passed two
more hallways like the first, but I didn’t go into any more rooms. We walk to the backyard and the guide points
out where the mass graves once were. There is a sign indicating that this is
where French soldiers
a volleyball court over the graves to hide how many were actually killed. Next
to it is the empty pit where hundreds of children were buried alive. The tour
ends back in the museum lobby and we were all asked to sign the guestbook and
leave a note on the wall. There are messages from countries around the world
expressing their remorse and “Never Again!”
Remembering Genocide: Trauma Sites in Rwanda
With a size of about 10,000 square miles, you could cover Rwanda with your pinky finger on a world map. Although it’s small in size, this country experienced one of the most horrific attempts at extermination of the century. After decades of tension and random outbreaks of violence, April 6, 1994 marked the start of 100 days of genocide, killing one million people while the rest of the world stood by. Foreigners fled and the international community did nothing to stop it, stating they didn’t want to intervene in civil war. And for those three months, Rwanda was forgotten. Since then, Rwanda has had several efforts to punish perpetrators and rebuild their society post-genocide. The aftermath brought up many questions: What were they supposed to do with the thousands of unidentified remains and the sites of mass genocide? How much do we want to remember of this dark history? Using my notes from visits to the Nyamata and Murambi Genocide Memorials, this essay will explore how Rwanda has preserved sites of mass killings as genocide memorials and the different functions that they serve. Genocide memorial sites in Rwanda are direct evidence of the traumatic events that occurred in 1994 and function rhetorically to rebuild the country’s sense of community, create personal connections to visitors, and establish the international community’s relationship to the Rwandan genocide.
Nyamata Catholic Church Genocide Memorial Site
After driving from the city center of Kigali through the small towns, we arrived at what was once a Catholic Church. 10,000 people fled to the church in hopes that the militia wouldn’t kill on holy ground even if they made it through the barricaded iron door. However, our guide Valenti begins by telling us the story of April 10, 1994 when the militia arrived. They started by killing any who were outside of the church’s doors with their work tools such as machetes or
hammers. This was a strategy used to preserve
ammunition. Those inside could hear the massacre outside and barricaded
themselves in the church. The men pushed against the doors and used their
bodies as human shields against the windows to protect the women and children
inside. At this point in the story, Valenti pauses to point out the giant dent
in the concrete and hole in the iron door. He continues to explain how the
militia received grenades from the government. I look up and see holes in the
ceiling, shrapnel from the grenade used to blow up the door to the church and
against it. These small pieces of evidence
along with the story put my imagination on overdrive.
Inside, the benches are covered with the clothes of the victims: dirty, tattered, and full of bullet holes. Each in the group takes their time to inspect the details of the clothing. Valenti picks up various objects to point out the details and implies that we can pick up the clothing if we like, but my American instincts keep me from touching anything in the memorial. Halfway inside the church, I saw a tiny pink T-shirt with a faded cartoon on top of a pile, and my initial thought was how similar it looked to one my 4-year-old ni ece has worn, until I saw the bullet holes and bloodstains. The thought alone brought me to tears. Valenti lead us to the back of the church and explained the victims’ hopes that by grouping the children together in the more protected area, the murderers would have mercy on them. Then, he showed us the dried up blood stained on the brick walls from their heads being smashed into the wall.
Preserving the Nyamata Genocide Memorial Site as it was found in 1994 links current visitors and survivors to the past trauma. The simplicity of the site’s presentation, as if it was frozen in that point in time, serves as somewhat of an enthymeme, which allows it to speak rhetorically to any audience. Unlike most memorials that focus on transmitting past events to future audiences (Violi 43), the preservation of this site serves a wide audience from survivors who still live in the area to foreigners with no personal connection to Rwanda.
Before the decision to preserve the church in Nyamata as a memorial, there was much debate over whether the site should be preserved or reverted back to its use as a church. Since most who still lived in Nyamata were either survivors, perpetrators, or bystanders of the genocide, there were few who could continue to see the church as a symbol of God and the Catholic Church. They would have to pass the site everyday with the memory of what had happened there.
Nyamata’s strongest rhetorical message to visitors who are not personally connected to the genocide is that the innocent people who were murdered here were people much like you or someone you know. These were people who may have dressed like you and had beliefs like you. They believed that hiding in a church would save them, and that their neighbors wouldn’t be able to kill a child, let alone a group of children. They prayed to God until eventually being murdered by their own people. The powerful rhetoric of Nyamata is found within the stories told about it combined with the overwhelmingly detailed evidence preserved there that sparks visitors’ imaginations. Every person who visits Nyamata Genocide Memorial will have a different experience because each will connect to different details and remember different pieces of the story. The extent to which the site is preserved, down to bloodstains and shrapnel, create what Violi describes as a “felt reality” (44) that could not be imagined without standing in the site where it happened, like a kind of forced empathy.
For survivors, Nyamata was a place to visit their dead loved ones. Since most of the bodies found were unidentifiable, the survivors were denied a crucial part of their grief process: cleaning and preparing the body for burial. Since no one could claim the bodies, there was also no one to provide funeral services for the thousands of remains there. They asked survivors, relatives, and other community members to clean and prepare anonymous bones as if they were their lost relatives. This was a strong rhetorical tool that allowed the community to begin rebuilding with the message that before they could move forward, they had to recognize and grieve for all of those who died. Nyamata is also a place for family members to find closure in knowing that if a loved one died there that he/she has been buried with dignity.
Murambi was supposed to be a technical college, but was still under construction when the genocide began. It sits at the top of a hill in a very rural town called Gikongoro. The entrance to the site has been turned into a museum-like display. It documents from Rwanda’s pre-colonial history to current day and is filled with Rwanda’s history of colonialism. It emphasizes the fact that the Belgians created the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi and that all later propaganda was in retaliation to that initial separation. There is also a large portion dedicated to explaining France’s hand in the genocide through “Operation Turquoise” when they falsely promised safety to anyone who fled to Murambi and other “safe zones”.
The museum portion led us to an unfinished rock walkway and an outdoor hallway with a line of what were going to be classrooms. Our guide explained the exhumation process and that of the 40,000 people dumped in the mass graves, 800 were still intact. These were preserved with powdered lime and placed back into the classrooms where many hid and were killed. I walk to the hallway and catch a glimpse of a mummy-like figure through the doorway. This being my third genocide memorial, I didn’t expect my body to hesitate the way it did. I stood frozen in the doorway, and an indescribable heaviness came over me as I stepped into the first room and was immediately encased in the smell of a 17-year old corpse. It wasn’t really a stench, just a distinct and unforgettable smell. I step back outside and breathe in the fresh Rwandan country air and take in the beautiful lush landscape before stepping into the next room.
“Sleep my child and dream of days to come when
pain is conquered in love’s sweet embrace.
Why do these lands cry out, stained with our blood and tears?
All the hopeful years blossom into grief
Hurt more than words can say, dignity stripped away
Taking my everything, leaving me to mourn.
Someday I’ll wake to see, change drifting over me
When truth has told her tale, and her voice is heard
These rains wash over me, scars though they still may be
Forgiveness takes a step leaving me with hope.”
I finished reading, and noticed that the room is filled with children like the baby I had seen in an earlier room. My vision became blurry with my own tears after seeing the pure terror on each child’s face. Most are flattened from being beaten against a wall or pounded with a rock. Others are missing limbs or whole parts of their faces, and I’m stuck there unable to move. The guide came and lifted my bag off my shoulders and led me out of the room. She told me I’d had enough and sent me to look at the beautiful landscape and feel the warm sun on my skin.
The rhetoric of the Murambi Genocide Memorial Site lays heavy responsibility on the international community. The graphic visual evidence of preserved corpses and unfilled mass graves are meant to shock the visitor, while the stories implying that the international community is responsible for the genocide is meant to educate. The site’s rhetoric as a whole intentionally lays itself out as direct evidence of the world’s failure to intervene and France’s guilt in such a horrific genocide.
Murambi is an example of Rwandan’s need for the truth to be portrayed. With all of the betrayals in their history, from the Belgian’s segregation of Hutu and Tutsi, to the false promises of sanctuary at each genocide site, it is an obvious nationwide fear that history will be rewritten and the truth will be forgotten or called an exaggeration. It is a priority in their country’s rhetoric to have clear evidence of the truth. Murambi is Rwanda’s proof that the international community had a hand in the genocide, and France in particular played an active role in the training of militia and killing of innocent people.
The preserved corpses are unique to Murambi and have an additional expression of pure terror to the victims that bones and pictures could not. The smell is one that will haunt me and others who’ve written about the site (Sharp) forever, and brings about an even stronger “felt reality”. The smell and preservation of the bodies adds an additional moment of forced empathy to the site because visitors are put into the situation of someone who has discovered the bodies, smelled the remains, and viewed them in their tortured last moment. This is also the only site we visited that left the mass graves unfilled. Filled or unfilled seems trivial, but seeing the hole where adults threw children and covered them with dirt to be forgotten like animals is much more impactful than hearing about it. The intense physical reactions that visitors experience after visiting Murambi are an intentional result of the site’s presentation. Seeing and smelling the bodies in the place itself puts the visitor on a personal and unique grief process similar to when an individual loses a loved one, but in this case all those lost are strangers.
Unlike most other genocide sites, Murambi is not typically a place for survivors and it is often a site that people will only visit once. The graphic nature of the site makes it one that survivors rarely visit because it focuses less on memorializing the dead and more on shocking visitors with the direct evidence of what had happened there. The rhetoric in Murambi is more focused on telling the graphic history and laying blame on the individuals and outside countries guilty of genocide. The school has been set up with the intention to educate the local community, in a way reverting it to its original purpose while preserving it in it’s 1994 horror.
In the national plan for genocide memorials in Rwanda, the Ministry of Higher Education, Scientific Research, and Culture in 1996 stated that their primary goal for the sites is to “educate Rwandans in a culture of humanity and to advance the cause of ending genocide in Africa and the world” (from “Office National des Memoriaux du Genocide et des Massacres au Rwanda” cited in Cook 304). The genocide memorial sites in Rwanda are used to educate Rwandans in forgiveness and memorializing the dead.
In both sites discussed in this essay, regardless of whether the primary focus is to prevent genocide, lay blame, or make personal connections, there is always a call for forgiveness, reconciliation, and the need to move forward. In Nyamata, the guides mention the importance of remembering what happened so that Rwandans can walk out of the site and live their lives to the fullest for all those who’s lives were ended short. They use the language of “people” who died and avoid using the term “Hutu” without the word “extremist” afterward. When speaking of victims they didn’t only say “Tutsi” but also “Tutsi-sympathizers.” This distinction is important in distinguishing that not all Hutu were killers and more than simply Tutsi were killed. Even in a site heavily focused on the violence and guilt of the perpetrators, whether they are Rwandan or international, like Murambi, there is language implying the need to forgive. The entire poem on display in the classroom is about remembering the children and the importance of learning the truth so that the scars can heal and ends with “Forgiveness takes a step leaving me with hope.”
Nyamata, Murambi, and other sites throughout Rwanda use the preserved genocide sites to connect visitors to 1994. The combination of being in the physical space with the forensic evidence present and the stories of genocide told by the guides and in secondary sources can impress the images of what you see into your memory. This allows others’ memories to enter your own confirming that memory is social and created with others (Zelizer 215). Rwanda’s genocide sites utilize that idea to lead all visitors to empathize with the victims and create their own personal connections to the genocide that occurred there. This supports their message that the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 was a tragedy not only for Rwandans, but the entire world.
By framing their history using preserved trauma sites, Rwanda creates an enthymematic history that is difficult to disprove. By only displaying the evidence of genocide and interweaving them with personal stories, the sites create a history that can’t be disputed. It’s impossible to see the bullet holes, bloodstains, and human remains and think that the stories are exaggerated or made up because the evidence is right in front of you. The French can’t deny their involvement when the evidence of their betrayal at Murambi is so well preserved. Rwanda’s use of their genocide sites to frame their history of genocide is a powerful example of how memory sites can be used as an almost indisputable rhetorical tool because of the emotional impact and felt reality brought on by the direct evidence and stories of the sites. They utilize the sites to present the damage of genocide and ensure that they will not be seen as insignificant to the international community again.
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