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Sites of Mourning

             * The following is a section from my I.S. chapter on Rwandan memorialization.

While sites of memory often attain larger collective meaning pertaining to the state, the literature also suggests that initially they held a functional purpose as sites of bereavement and mourning. In his analysis of World War I sites of memory, Jay Winter maintains that over time memorials deconstruct the horror of war and “reinvest” it with a collective meaning. He writes that through the memorial, “the dead are no longer individual people. They appear solely as names, inscribed on the war memorial. Their sacrifice thereby takes on the form of an expression of a general will, a collective spirit embodied in the state. In these memorials, the state affirms its right to call on its citizens to kill and to die.”[1] But Winter also suggests that reading these memorials as mere objects of the state glosses over their functional role as a site of mourning. People traveled to sites of memory because they helped them collectively mourn the anonymous dead. But as time passed and a new generation emerged that did not directly experience loss from the war, these sites of memory shifted to a more politicized and nationalist interpretation.[2] They initially served as a tool of bereavement, and only with the passage of time did they attain other political or social meanings connecting to the state or other historical narratives.[3]The proximity of the genocide as an event with commemoration makes Rwandan memorial sites differ from World War I sites. While many World War I sites initially served as sites of bereavement and then emphasized a nationalist narrative as generations passed, the intersection between the national narrative and personal mourning occurs simultaneously at Rwandan sites.

Commemoration each year begins on April 7, the day the genocide began after President Habyarimana’s plane crashed on the night of April 6. Every year at a memorial site chosen on a rotating basis, President Kagame delivers a speech during commemoration week that reflects the status of the nation. He has addressed everything from issues pertaining to France, the situation in eastern Congo, the necessity for national unity, and Rwanda’s economic development plan.[4] National commemoration officially lasts for one week, but survivor groups perform their own set of remembrance rituals and commemoration through the 100 days. On a local political level, district politicians often use commemoration to enforce their power or bring up community issues that relate to the treatment of survivors or the lack of attendance during commemoration ceremonies.[5] Like the long-term collective meanings explored by Jay Winter, these commemorations hold larger national meanings.[6]

Many Western politicians have paid their respects during April commemoration. For many Western politicians, the memory of the genocide plays a dominant role in the international political discourse concerning Rwanda. For American politicians like current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice¾instrumental in pushing against an intervention force during the genocide¾remembering the genocide invokes not only feelings of guilt but also motivation for future peace building. At the 2009 commemoration, Rice spoke about her personal memory of visiting massacre sites:

I'll never forget the horror of walking through a churchyard and schoolyard where one of the massacres had occurred. Six months later, the decomposing bodies of those who had been so cruelly murdered still lay strewn around what should have been a place of peace. For me, the memory of stepping around and over those corpses will remain the most searing reminder imaginable of what our work here must aim to prevent.[7]


Partly apologizing for her role in preventing a U.S. intervention force, Rice recalls how the memorials and commemoration ceremonies caused her to re-evaluate her role in U.S.-Rwandan relations. Commemoration has also become a stage for Western politicians to promote their economic development plans. In May 2009, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited the Nyamata memorial as part of launching his “African Governance Initiative.” He expressed his grief and incomprehensibility of the numbers of lives lost during the genocide. He pledged that genocide must never happen again, remarked on what he viewed as the country's transformation since 1994, and complimented the government for moving past Rwanda’s political status quo by exhibiting compassion for its people.[8] Both Blair and Rice’s remarks symbolize the way in which commemorating the genocide has become a part of the Western world’s relationship with the current Rwandan state.

But commemoration also becomes a time for the remembering of traumatic memories. Many survivors experience trauma during commemoration ceremonies that breaks the barrier between history and the present. Specifically, commemoration through mourning rituals brings the haunting memories of survivors out in the open. In a collection of testimonies commissioned by the Kigali Genocide Memorial, one survivor recalls that only during commemoration in April does he experience traumatic nightmares of interahamwe killing people.[9] Additionally, many of the commemorative rituals compress time between the genocide as part of the historical past and the present. Rachel Ibreck describes these rituals as including “long walks to memorial sites and all-night rituals replicate aspects of their [survivors’] traumatic experiences during the genocide.”[10] While the Rwandan government stresses unification, the trauma felt by survivors during commemoration symbolize how traumatic memories of the genocide remain fresh in their minds.[11]

Furthermore, these memorials function as sites of bereavement for survivors. During commemoration survivors will often partake in all-night vigils that may include reciting poetry, singing, and listing names of the murdered.[12] They may use the memorial site to lay a wreath or pray.[13] Considering the number of anonymous dead unearthed every year from newly discovered mass graves, the sites serve an important function in giving survivors a place to mourn loved ones lost among the anonymous bodies. The significance of having a site to mourn the dead actually extends mourning sites back to pre-colonial religious traditions in which the living felt an intimate connection to the dead. Longman and Rutagengwa write that both family members and whole communities practiced mourning rituals at commemorative sites (often burial sites) where they thanked the dead for looking after them by providing them with gifts.[14] When Rwanda was heavily Christianized in the 20th century, many of these traditions carried over to the church. Janet Jacobs reinforces this argument by also pointing out that the pre-colonial Animist beliefs of Rwanda included religious rites that called on dead ancestors for protection. Jacobs argues that despite the status of these memorials as sites of terror, they are also sacred spaces for the family of the dead. The tradition of this belief system makes it significant that survivors have a place to reconnect with dead family members.[15]

Additionally, identification whenever possible aids in the mourning process. Clea Koff saw a similar process of identification and mourning around Rwandan remains and relics much like the preservation of relics by widows and parents of WWI dead. She found that that the identification of the body helped family and friends mourn their loved ones. She writes, “a body disallows a relative from maintaining that the person is being held in a prisoner-of-war camp or that the person survived but can't get in touch. Similarly, in places where government or military propaganda continually denies that certain people were killed, the exposure of graves and the analysis of remains refutes the 'official story.”[16] Identification both helps the mourner to move on and acts as evidence of the crimes committed against their loved ones. In the case of genocide, identification may help the survivor respond to genocide deniers and begin the mourning process. Koff found that even the identification of clothes or a prosthetic limb became a significant part of the mourning process.[17] She cites one example during the Kibuye excavation of a father and daughter (who survived the massacre) who came looking for his wife's clothing. That day Koff and her team only displayed a portion of the recovered clothing, and father and daughter left empty handed and disappointed. Koff remarks that even though the daughter witnessed her mother’s murder, she and her father felt the need to come and claim “that bit of proof or that bit of memory.”[18] Koff found that the identification of the remains of a loved one helped mourners find closure.[19] While Koff’s account principally analyzes the documentation and preservation of evidence for war crimes tribunals and memorial construction, she illustrates how these sites functioned as sites of mourning for survivors.

            The intersection between the state narrative and personal mourning comes together again in the reburials that occur during commemoration. This reflects the sad reality that new mass graves are discovered every year. Reburial of remains found in the areas surrounding memorial sites occurs during the commemoration ceremonies. On a practical level, reburial serves a necessary function because bodies are often found in degrading mass graves hastily dug by perpetrators to hide the evidence of the crimes. Reburial rituals become a way of giving the dead a dignified burial. Ibreck argues that the state claims ownership over the dead in this manner by showing them the respect that the previous government lacked. She writes, “it [the state] treats the dead with care and respect, applies the conventions of burial and mourning and demands collective recognition of the victim's humanity. With this act, the past is symbolically laid to rest.”[20] But re-burial represents something more than a symbol of the state. Considering the magnitude of mass graves, reburial becomes a practical necessity every year because of the continuous discovery of mass graves. During my visit to the Nyamata memorial, I viewed a special mass grave that housed the bodies of over 100 people thrown in a nearby latrine. The bodies’ new resting place consisted of a headstone that included the names of every victim who could be identified. On a symbolic level, it restores the victim’s dignity to identify them and provide them a place to rest. To rebury those bodies in such a mass grave echoes Ibreck’s point that reburial serves both a practical purpose (the discovery of bodies called for documentation and identification) and a symbolic purpose by providing a dignified space for mourning.[21]

In addition, commemoration becomes an opportunity for perpetrators and opponents of the government to perform their own forms of protest. While it is important not to generalize the entire Hutu population as continuing to harbor thoughts of genocide, there have been many instances of violence during commemoration involving former perpetrators. Grenade attacks occurred around commemoration directed at memorial sites.[22] There have been high profile cases of mockery of survivors and personal threats, demonstrating that many of the anxieties and hatreds from the genocide still exist and thereby resurface around commemoration.[23] These tensions in the community illustrate some of the challenges to commemoration. The preservation of Rwandan sites of massacre occurs in deeply divided communities in which perpetrators and survivors live side by side. Unlike World War I memorial sites that became sites of pilgrimage, Rwandan memorial sites sit in the middle of a post-conflict struggle for reconciliation.

            Commemoration also breaks the political construction of the genocide by indirectly creating a political space for ordinary Hutu and Tutsi. Ibreck notes that survivors maintain a privileged position during commemoration. They may challenge the issues surrounding gacaca, noting the challenges in living in the community after giving testimony. They also may challenge the neglect of memorial sites or the reduction of gacaca sentences. Through voicing these issues, commemoration often creates a political space for survivors in addition to functioning as a site of mourning.[24] By not participating in commemoration, Hutu make a profound political statement. Longman and Rutagengwa found in their interviews that many Hutu felt that the commemoration ignored the suffering of Hutu refugees. They found this clash between competing memories especially prevalent in the northern districts, communities inhabited often by more Hutu survivors from crimes committed during the civil war and in refugee camps than Tutsi survivors from the genocide. This creates tensions during commemoration as Hutu find their memories of victimization silenced by the official commemoration ceremonies. One Hutu woman from their interviews in the northern town of Buyoga explained, “They commemorate the genocide of the Tutsi, but the experience of those who went to the camps [in Congo] is put to the side.”[25] A Tutsi survivor also from Buyoga added that only Tutsi survivors participate in commemoration while Hutu spend the time working in the fields.[26] Non-participation becomes a form of protest against the suppression of competing narratives. While many perpetrators may not participate out of guilt or for continuing to harbor genocide ideology, this one example demonstrates that many do not participate because their own traumatic narratives have been left out of the official commemoration of genocide. After the government’s announcement in December 2012 for a planned RPF liberation museum in the northern town of Mulindi, it will be interesting to see reactions from the local populace.[27] Finally, high profile sites of RPF massacres are not commemorated. At the site of the 1995 Kibeho refugee camp massacre, the memory of Hutu victimization by RPF forces is not commemorated. However, Tutsi victimization did occur at the same site a year prior during the genocide. Longman and Rutagengwa note that the Tutsi massacre has been commemorated, further signifying the official silencing of Hutu victimization from RPA crimes against humanity.[28] 


[1] J. M. Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History, Studies in the Social and Cultural History of Modern Warfare (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 94; hereafter cited as Sites of Mourning.

[2] Winter, Sites of Mourning, 94.

[3] Winter, Sites of Mourning, 98.

[4] Rachel Ibreck, “A Time of Mourning: The Politics of Commemorating the Tutsi Genocide in Rwanda,” In Public Memory, Public Media, and the Politics of Justice, edited by Philip Lee and Pradip Ninan Thomas (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 103-105; hereafter cited as “A Time of Mourning.”

[5] Ibreck, “A Time of Mourning,” 106-109.

[6] Ibreck, “A Time of Mourning,” 110.

[7] Susan E. Rice, “Statement by Ambassador Susan E. Rice: 15th Commemoration of the Genocide in Rwanda,” (speech, Kigali, Rwanda, April 7, 2009), Outreach Programme on the Rwandan Genocide and the United Nations, http://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/rwanda/commemoration/2009/index.shtml.

[8]“Former British premier says Rwandan genocide deaths ‘incomprehensible’,” BBC Monitoring Africa. London, United Kingdom, May 10, 2009.

[9] We Survived Genocide in Rwanda, ed. Wendy Whitworth, Nottinghamshire: Quill Press, 2006, 117.

[10] Ibreck, “A Time of Mourning,” 110.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibreck, “A Time of Mourning,” 107.

[13] Ibreck, “A Time of Mourning,” 110.

[14] Longman, “Religion, Memory, and Violence in Rwanda”, 132-133.

[15] Jacobs, “Sacred Space and Collective Memory”, 163.

[16] Koff, The Bone Woman, 82.

[17] Koff, The Bone Woman, 80–84.

[18] Koff, The Bone Woman, 83.

[19] Koff, The Bone Woman, 102.

[20] Ibreck, “A Time of Mourning,” 109.

[21] Ibreck, “A Time of Mourning,” 109-110.

[22] “Genocide memorial site bombed,” The New Times, March 26, 2007. www.newtimes.co.rw; “Grenade attack at memorial kills policeman,” The New Times, April 12, 2008. www.newtimes.co.rw

[23] Ibreck, “A Time of Mourning,” 114.

[24] Ibreck, “A Time of Mourning,” 108.

[25] Longman, “Memory and violence in post-genocide Rwanda,” 251.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Frank Kanyesigye, “Gicumbi to Host Liberation Museum,” The New Times, December 18, 2012. http://www.newtimes.co.rw/news/index.php?i=15210&a=61908

[28] See Longman, “Religion, Memory, and Violence in Rwanda,” 143. While it is beyond the scope of this I.S. to analyze the local reaction to official memory through fieldwork, my research benefited greatly from the works of many Rwandan specialists who conducted fieldwork on memory at the local level. For fieldwork on the role of chosen amnesia in community reconciliation, see Susanne Buckley-Zistel,  “Remembering to Forget: Chosen Amnesia as a Strategy for Local Coexistence in Post-Genocide Rwanda,” (Africa 76, no. 02 (2006)): 131–150. For an analysis of community political reactions during genocide commemoration, see Ibreck, “A Time of Mourning.” For an analysis of Rwandan attitudes to the government narrative, seeLongman, “Memory and violence in post-genocide Rwanda,” 236-261. For a framing analysis of the Kigali Genocide Memorial with genocide testimony, see Elisabeth King, “Memory Controversies in Post-Genocide Rwanda: Implications for Peacebuilding.” (Genocide Studies and Prevention 5, no. 3 (2010)): 293–309.