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Witnessing Evidence

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

In her evaluation of the Murambi memorial, Susan Cook describes a “freezing” effect in which preservation of remains “[halts] the natural processes of change” and freezes the witness’ sight on a particular moment.[1] She writes, “With reference to the aftermath of genocide, then, preserving genocide sites entails making decisions about what to preserve (bodies, buildings, weapons, documents), and at what moment in their history.”[2] The decisions made on what to preserve at these sites emphasizes a historical framing around the genocide. The “frozen” site marks the turning point in the current narrative, the lowest moment of the linear descent from the pre-colonial “Eden.” The preservation of “debris of history” holds large consequences to historical remembrance because it partly signifies the genocide’s significance in Rwandan society.[3]

But at the same time, there is a risk to overemphasizing the national reading of these sites because of the role of survivors in preservation. Despite the tendency to view memorials from a national lens, Rachel Ibreck dissents partly from the idea that the RPF holds complete control of the memorial narrative by pointing out that survivors actually played a large role in the arrangement of bones in the first place.[4]Many of these sites became memorials in the immediate aftermath of the genocide through the efforts of survivors and local politicians. Before leaving Rwanda, forensic anthropologist Clea Koff and her excavation team returned to the Kibuye massacre site to help the Kibuye préfet set up a memorial consisting of two skeletons in a glass display case. The préfet already set up a memorial at the stadium that explained what happened on a large sign next to the uneven soccer field ground where a mass grave lay.[5] Only two years removed from the genocide, Kibuye’s local political leadership viewed the displaying of bodies as a part of memorialization.

Survivors played a large role in the preservation of many other large memorial sites. At the time of Susan Cook’s research at the Murambi memorial in 2000, local communities took responsibility for preserving and memorializing many of these sites.[6] At Murambi in 1995, local citizens took part in the lime preservation of remains. Similar survivor participation in preservation occurred in Nyamata and Ntarama. In a 1996 article reporting from the Nyamata memorial site, journalist Paul Ames interviewed a Hutu survivor who hid Tutsi in his home and subsequently fled the interahamwe. In 1996, a memorial existed in a tent beside the church consisting of bones gathered from the area. The Hutu survivor interviewed explained that they [survivors] did not immediately bury them out of necessity to show the world what happened. While they did begin the process of burying the bodies in more dignified mass graves, the survivors also explained that they viewed the bodies as evidence and necessary for display at memorials.[7] At Ntarama survivor Dancila Nyirabazungu serves as caretaker of the memorial, despite losing her husband and two daughters in the massacre.[8] She admits to distancing herself from feeling grief through her work and providing for her children. She viewed her work as contributing towards genocide prevention by explaining to visitors what happened.[9] Despite the nationalization of the seven largest memorial sites, survivors contribute to their preservation and presentation. The decisions for preservation partly originated in the local community. While reservation on displaying the dead probably existed in the community, the overwhelming fear of the world forgetting the genocide made preservation the main strategy for memorialization.

By preserving the genocide as a historical event, the sites create a “witness” experience. Susan Cook writes that the preservation of these sites demonstrates the fact that humans performed, stood aside, and collaborated in the genocide:

The three dimensionality of a physical location, the sight of hastily dug pits and mass graves, and the smell and look of human remains makes the locations where genocide has taken place haunting reminders that genocide is an artifact of human society, not a natural calamity. Genocide sites, then, often attain special status in the aftermath of violence as places that reveal the truth of what individual members of a society have done to their fellow citizens.[10] 


To witness the atrocity as a human project in a concrete “three dimensional” form causes the visitor to reflect and question whether the international community could have intervened. In this manner, the “freezing” of memory at these sites provides visitors with the illusion of bearing witness to what happened in 1994 and causes the visitor to look inward. Coinciding with the abandonment of the international community during the genocide, this model forces the foreign visitor in particular to reflect in a personal manner.

In addition to a reflection on international culpability, the “witness” experience provides a place for grief and a space for personal reflection. Visitors may experience a moral reflection as they visit these memorials because of the illusion in bearing witness that the preservation of bodies and artifacts promotes. Cook establishes this point by arguing that by witnessing the preservation of dead and other debris from genocide, the site pushes the visitor to reflect on an educational, religious, and moral level.[11] Pilgrimages to these sites becomes a way of paying respect to the dead, and for many Western politicians official visits to site of massacre provided an eye-opening re-evaluation of their own personal accountability. Clea Koff recalls Madeline Albright bringing flowers to the Kibuye excavation site in 1996.[12] The same Madeline Albright, who only two years prior obstructed any Western intervention, recounted in the documentary Ghosts of Rwanda of visiting Kibuye and seeing a skeleton the size of her own grandchild slashed with machete wounds. She expresses her remorse in the documentary that she did not propose an intervention, even though she claims it would never have passed.[13] Anthony Lake expressed similar thoughts upon visiting Nyarubuye.[14] Many memorial tours provide a structured moment for reflection. The audio tour at the Kigali Genocide Memorial invites the visitor to take a moment to reflect on the dead in the memorial gardens. At Murambi, the tour stops for a moment of silence out of respect for the dead prior to walking to the rooms of preserved bodies. In this manner the memory of the dead reaches out to the visitor, creating a gripping emotional response and a time for reflection.

For many Rwandans, the need to preserve the past has become a dominant expression of genocide remembrance. In a 2004 African Times article, Rwandan sociologist and survivor Jeanne Murekatete explains, “The Nazi genocide of the Jews was immortalized by abundant works of literature, cinema and various other art forms. We, on the other hand, don’t have much except the victims’ remains.”[15] For both Rwandans and foreign visitors, the preserved remains provide the most expressive and vivid link to the past. This link anchors the memory of Tutsi victimization in history and wards off attempts to silence it. Supporting this point, Rwandan Director of Culture Butoto Muhozo states in the same article, “To make these bones disappear would simply mean killing off the memory of the Tutsi genocide.”[16] The preservation serves a functional purpose as evidence in addition to a form of expression. As stated by Muhozo, the failure to maintain the sites would mean the failure to preserve the Tutsi memory. In her memoir on the forensic excavation of Kibuye and Kigali massacre sites, forensic anthropologist Clea Koff echoes this point. Her forensic team felt a pressure to recover as much as possible at these sites for future genocide tribunals. But Koff also remarks on the role of remains in fighting genocide denial, “Unfortunately, physical proof is necessary¾there really are people who don't believe there was a genocide.”[17] While constructed witness experiences, many Rwandans view the visiting of preserved remains by foreigners as a way of acknowledging that they occurred.

Phillip Gourevitch argues that there exists a gap between witness and body. But he also adds an interesting observation on the beauty of the skeleton and the role of the visitor’s gaze. Arriving two years later, Phillip Gourevitch opens his book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda with a description of the massacre site at Nyarubuye. The bodies had been left out as part of a memorialization process. He describes the skeletons as hauntingly “beautiful.” He writes, “The randomness of the fallen forms, the strange tranquility of the rude exposure, the skull here, the arm bent in some uninterpretable gesture¾these things were beautiful, and their beauty only added to the affront of the place.”[18] The exposure of the body speaks of man’s mortality, but it also in this context speaks of the individual. Men, women, and children with individual stories all died. Their bones become a reminder to this individuality. But he also writes of his awareness in a voyeuristic gap between himself and the bodies. He writes, “I couldn’t settle on any meaningful response: revulsion, alarm, sorrow, grief, shame, incomprehension, sure, but nothing meaningful. I just looked, and I took photographs, because I wondered whether I could really see what I was seeing while I saw it, and I wanted also an excuse to look a bit more closely.”[19] The role of the visitor’s gaze comes into question in the search for meaning within the bodies. The bodies remind the visitor of mortality, but this ends up conflicting Gourevitch as he tries to think of an appropriate emotional response to the victims’ suffering. Paul Williams writes similarly that the presence of bones may fulfill the visitor’s urge to actually witness the event.[20] The preservation of massacre sites creates the illusion of witnessing that fulfills this urge.

This illusion of witnessing may also cause the visitor to experience trauma. Frank Van Vree defines 'indigestible' images in the following manner:

As documents, they give proof of and epitomize the atrocious tragedy in its barest form, but as such they are...'indigestible', not letting themselves be absorbed by a story that takes the viewer away. They don't offer any comfort or opportunity for empathy or understanding, but evoke feelings of shock, shame, terror, and guilt¾images we want to banish from our world…like the mutilated faces of solders of the First World War, the chopped heads of the Rwanda killing fields, or the people jumping from the Twin Towers.[21]   


The bareness of the horror in such images shocks the viewer from accepting redemptive narratives. The weight of hopelessness and suffering transferred from image to viewer discomforts and unsettles. Talking about the role of image in Rwandan documentary film, 100 Days, filmmaker Eric Kabera makes a connection between image and trauma for the viewer that may relate to the emotional experience of Rwandan memorial site visitors. He remarks, “Every time you see a glimpse of a decomposed body on the street of Kigali or Nyamata it brings trauma. At times it brings about an initial blackout. You think to yourself that you don't want to see it and you don't. But ultimately the image is there for people to remember and be remembered.”[22] It is through personal memory that the outsider connects with the image of the dead. The images may stay with visitors, or at the very least they may return after an “initial” blackout. When they do, the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness preserved at these sites may become the visitor’s lasting memory of the dead.


[1] Susan E. Cook “The politics of preservation in Rwanda,” in Genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda: New Perspectives, ed. Susan E. Cook (New Brunswick, N.J: Transaction Publishers, 2006), 284.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Young, The Texture of Memory, 119–121.

[4] Young, The Texture of Memory, 110.

[5] Clea Koff, The Bone Woman: Among the Dead in Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo (London: Atlantic, 2004), 121-125; hereafter cited as The Bone Woman.

[6] Cook, “The Politics of Preservation in Rwanda,” 289-290.

[7] Paul Ames, “Rwanda’s Unburied Past,” Columbian, November 25, 1996, sec. Region/Nation/World.

[8] “Genocide survivors guard the remains of the murdered multitudes,” The Associated Press. Date Accessed: 2013/01/27, www.lexisnexis.com/hottopics/lnacademic.

[9] “Many of us may have only a vague recollection of the atrocities that took place,” Pittsburgh Post - Gazette, September 24, 2000, sec. WORLD.

[10] Cook, “The Politics of Preservation in Rwanda,” 284.

[11] Cook, "The Politics of Preservation in Rwanda," 284-285.

[12] Koff, The Bone Woman, 48-49.

[13]  Ghosts of Rwanda, directed by Greg Barker (2004; British Broadcasting Corporation, Silverbridge Productions, and PBS Home Video: distributed by Paramount Home Entertainment).

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Rwandans And The Need To Preserve The Bones of the Dead.” African Times. Los Angeles, United States, August 15, 2004.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Koff, The Bone Woman, 86.

[18] Phillip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, 1st ed (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998), 19.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Paul Harvey Williams, Memorial Museums: The Global Rush to Commemorate Atrocities English ed. (Oxford; New York: Berg, 2007), 40.

[21] Frank Van Vree, “Indigestible images. On the ethics and limits of representation,” in Performing the Past: Memory, History, and Identity in Modern Europe, ed. Jay Winter (Amsterdam, Netherlands: Amsterdam University Press, 2010), 278.

[22] Piotr A. Cieplak, “Image and Memory,” French Cultural Studies 20, no. 2 (2009): 202.