“We must not be left to utter the words ‘never again’, again and again” Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary general: Commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide.
The recent commemoration of the Rwandan genocide has catapulted the 1994 massacres back into global media interest. On the 7th April 2014, in order to mark the twentieth anniversary of the genocide, a 100-day project of commemoration was launched – a period that symbolically and soberly reflects the 100-day period during which approximately 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally murdered in Rwanda.
Commemoration reminds society of genocidal atrocities, ensuring that the memory of such events is preserved in the collective consensus of society. Moreover, marking the anniversary of monumental moments in history – including the Rwandan massacres, the Holocaust and both World Wars – provides an opportunity for increased learning and knowledge concerning the events that occurred. Therefore to remember and remind society of what happened – before, during and afterwards – remains crucial if atrocities such as the Rwandan genocide are to be part of collective memory and history.
Despite the obvious positive and constructive effects of commemoration, memorial days are often precisely that: a day. A traditional act of commemoration may be marked by a specific day – for example Holocaust Memorial day, which is marked on the 27th January each year. However, can we really expect to remember such complex events in a holistic manner if we only allocate a single day of commemoration? Though it would be unlikely to suggest that the majority of people will commemorate the Rwandan genocide for 100 days, the very fact that the length of the genocide is mentioned is a useful way to remind people of the length of such events. Often, war stories and notable events feature in the news for a couple weeks or so, gathering initial attention so that a response from the global community may be elicited. However, it is an all too familiar story that frequently these major news stories fall from global attention despite the atrocities continuing.
The notion of the 100-day commemoration process actively confronts people with the duration of the Rwandan genocide. The 100-day period functions on a dual basis; not only does it highlight the longevity of the genocide but, paradoxically, it demonstrates the strikingly short amount of time it took to murder nearly one million people. The rate of killing during the Rwandan genocide is one aspect that is so shocking about the events that unfolded. It is startling to note that, had the rate of killings continued for a longer period of time, more people would have been killed in Rwanda than during the Holocaust. The 100-day period of commemoration, therefore, represents a departure from traditional modes of commemoration.
In Rwanda, thousands gathered at the Amahoro football stadium in Kigali to remember and respect the memory of the genocide, including dignitaries and local Rwandans. Twenty years previously, Amahoro – which coincidentally means ‘peace’ – became a site of refuge for thousands of Rwandans against the violence that was occurring across the county therefore making the ceremony, for many attending, even more emotionally charged.
Adding to this emotion, actors re-enacted scenes of violence, essentially encapsulating scenes that were firmly fixed in the memories of many of the ceremony’s attendees. Crying and wailing could be heard as people watched the performance; some were so overwhelmed that they fainted and had to be carried out to receive medical attention. This passionate form of commemoration is markedly different to forms of memorialisation that one expects to witness in the UK, where commemoration services are usually sombre and reserved. However, the re-enactment appeared to function as a cathartic process – a release not just of individual emotions but also allowing for a sense of collective mourning, a nation mourning a generation lost.
Reading the many articles circulating online to mark the anniversary in the UK, I noticed a distinct difference in approach to the service in Kigali. Of course this is inevitable. However, what this difference highlighted for me is the ways in which different nations commemorate important global events. The theme of UK commemoration – in the written form anyway – appeared to focus mainly on a sense of renewal. The Guardian especially featured numerous articles which evoked a forward-looking (almost) optimistic tone. For instance, the issue of increasing levels of women’s rights (an issue that had to be addressed due to the huge number of widows left in the aftermath of the genocide). Titles including, ‘Rwanda’s women make strides towards equality 20 years after the genocide’ and ‘Sweet dreams: Rwandan women whip up popular ice-cream business’, demonstrate how it seems to be women taking Rwanda forward, re-establishing lives that had been brutally ripped apart.
In the context of Women for Rwanda’s interests and concerns, I couldn’t help but read these articles with slight caution. Yes, it is true that following the genocide women now make up 64% of parliamentarians, and there are as many girls as boys gaining both a primary and secondary education. Important issues, however, still remain. During the massacres, up to half a million women were raped – 76% of which are now living with HIV as a result. The issue of rape remains a contentious issue in Rwanda. As a result, victims’ families and the wider community often reject these women. The Guardian article, ‘Widows of the Genocide: how Rwanda’s women are re-building their lives’ articulated the struggles of these women, providing examples of associations (such as Avega) and recognising the position of these women in Rwandese society.
The role of commemoration is not only to remember the past; commemoration allows us to remember those who are still living with the memory of the genocide. Though it is undoubtedly important to remember those that lost their lives during the Rwandan genocide, it is also vital to remember those still suffering from their persecution. Remembering those women whose voices may never be heard remains an essential endeavour of the commemoration of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Written by Harriet Drake