I will never forget the first time I entered the compound of the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. It was my first full day in Rwanda, nearly seven years ago. The Centre’s main structure comprises a museum above the mass graves of more than 200,000 victims of the awful 1994 genocide. There are three experiences from my first encounter with the Kigali Genocide Memorial that imprinted themselves in my memory – so much so that every time I return, I am reminded of them. The first is the simplicity of the museum. The elegance of its simplicity allows people to both focus on the history of the 1994 genocide as well as grieve.
The inside of the museum is organized into three exhibits. The first section is on the genocide. Unlike the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, the its layout is similar to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. It attempts to illustrate the impact of the 1994 genocide by showing what life was like both before and afterwards. Visitors learn about the horrific policies that subjugated people, whose human rights were stripped away, and ultimately about their deaths, without losing sight of the essential fact that we are discussing fellow humans rather than just an atrocious event. I believe this is the most appropriate method for teaching people about about genocide. The act of the genocide is not what is important. It is the loss that the genocide brought: the people, cultures and civilizations that were stripped away by the horror. The main exhibit finishes with a display of photographs of the victims, their clothing and a handful of skulls and bones.
One of the museum’s other two exhibits covers various other genocides. An employee of the Centre once conveyed to me that the exhibit is not meant so much for international visitors, because there are other museums that better explain those particular genocides. Instead, the exhibit is intended to show Rwandans that they are not alone in the experience of genocide. Other cultures and people have survived similar horrors. This is a powerful message in the fight against people’s belief of being alone in their experience, which so many survivors feel. The Centre’s last exhibit displays pictures of children with captions describing their favorite food or activity. You instantly connect with the child as you imagine them being your son, daughter, cousin or some other young family relation. You almost forget that he or she was killed during the genocide until the last sentence of the caption , where it describes how and where they were butchered. Their innocence was taken away for reasons they would never have understood.
The next feature of the Centre is the gardens and mass graves. Unlike the museum, they exist in order to provide space for people to reflect and mourn. The gardens overlook the heart of Kigali, with views of skyscrapers seemingly representing a beacon of Rwanda’s progress since the horrific genocide. I remember talking to one friend at the Centre about how it seems almost too peaceful in the gardens. One can get lost in thought without realizing where they are. He quietly responded, “Isn’t that the point?”
Most people who have read news articles on international leaders visiting Rwanda have probably seen pictures of dignitaries paying their respects at one of the Centre’s mass graves. Since KGM’s creation in 2004, the mass graves continue to be the resting place of the genocide’s victims, with more than 250,000 bodies currently lying in state. Even though I have seen high profile individuals visit the site, such as Rwandan President Paul Kagame, there is one memory that dominates my mind. It is of a survivor who my Mother interviewed in 2012. He had lost his entire family during the genocide and he now occasionally comes to work at the Centre. The memory I have is of him bowing his head over one of the mass graves. Tears rolled down from his eyes, as time seemed to stand still. Unknown to me at the time, the mass grave contained the remains of his whole family.
The third and perhaps most important detail of the Centre is something I advise all visitors to experience. It is the continual spirit of determination and the hope for a better tomorrow. You see, the people operating the Centre are extremely special. The tour guides, cafe/bookstore employees, manager, director and nearly everyone else are to some extent survivors of the genocide. So many have horrific memories of the genocide and are faced with their individual nightmares of surviving and, too often, of witnessing their loved ones being killed. I remember talking to one staff member in 2012 about how he works just meters away from the mass graves that contain his beloved Mother. His response, saturated in strength was: “It inspires me to teach everyone I can about the genocide, so Rwanda and the world can know the horrors, in order to stop the next one.” Unlike most who say, ‘Never Again’, many members of the Centre have actively worked in conflict zones or lobbied international attention to bring about peace in those societies.
Working at the Centre carries an emotional strain beyond anything the mind can imagine. The wife of one of the Centre’s archive staff – both husband and wife are genocide survivors – told me she did not want her husband to work at the Centre. She believes it is too painful for any person to be forced to confront their horrors on a daily basis. He, on the other hand, feels that he absolutely must help spread information about the genocide. It is his mechanism of coping with what happened to him twenty years ago. These are the people, I tell visitors, you have to meet and talk with. Not only to learn about their individual history with the genocide, but to learn how they live with these memories.
The Centre’s staff are among the most magical and wonderful people I have ever met in my life. They work with pride that what they are doing is not only honoring the million Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus butchered in the genocide, but is also contributing to a global effort to end genocides everywhere. The love I have for these survivors is the main reason why I have continued returning to Rwanda ever since 2008. I have been adopted into many of their families. I see them as more than just friends; I see them as my true brothers and sisters. I advise all students of humanity to visit Rwanda, particularly the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. It is our responsibility to connect to our distant relatives who experienced this horrific past. There is no better place to start than with the people who give life and meaning to such a somber place.