Post from Rwanda: Preserving the dead

I read of an exchange that took place between a British journalist who arrived in Rwanda in 1995 and an aid worker who had seen atrocities taking place in one of the refugee camps at around the same time. They were discussing the merits of leaving corpses as they had fallen at sites of massacre as a memorial or an educational tool against the horrors of genocide. The journalist was resistant to the idea of leaving bodies. To paraphrase, he described them as being left forever in their state of violation as a monument to the crimes against them and to the armies that had ended the crimes. The journalist doubted the necessity of seeing the victims in order to fully confront the crime; in fact, he worried that because people are resistant to assimilating too much horror, even as we look at horrific things, we are trying to find ways to regard them as unreal. The result is that such memorials result in us becoming inured to horror rather than being informed by it.

The Rwandan government clearly disagreed. A year after 50 000 people were massacred at a technical college outside of Gikongoro in the south, a fresh mass grave was discovered. The government along with the national museum suggested that the 880 bodies be preserved and displayed as evidence of the genocide, and as a way of teaching young Rwandans about the need to be vigilant against it ever happening again.
The technical school was still under construction when authorities directed locals to shelter there, promising it to be a safe haven. The rectangular orange-brick buildings lie in parallel lines up a hill, the rooms still concrete shells and the window left unfitted. Inside each of the classrooms are wooden benches, bearing the bodies of the preserved dead.

The corpses are emaciated, having been buried for some time before being preserved, but they are still very human. (I use the word corpses because it is the word our guide used.) They are covered in white lime, like talcum powder, and the air in each of the rooms feels, well, powdery. Upon leaving, I felt like my skin had been coated, like I hadn’t washed the soap off properly after a shower. And the smell was like a combination of dry cleaning fluid and wet dog. Knowing that these people had once had sweaty, brown skin, that they would have gushed bright red blood from their wounds as they died, made them seem all the more ghostly.

I wanted to touch them. I had the same urge I have when I go to art galleries and see oil paintings with their globs of paint raised from the surface, wanting to touch but restraining myself. The difference here was that it wasn’t a textural curiosity; it was closer to the reaction I have when I see someone trip in the street; I reach my hand toward them to help them up, to make sure that they’re okay. The corpses have thin, distinct fingers curled inwards. The women’s wide pelvic bones press hard against what is left of their skin. Children who look like they are sleeping on their sides have their arms bent upwards and their hands tucked beneath their chins. There are thin, with bare ankles that look like they belong to old frail men, but could easily have belonged to someone like my strong 32-year-old partner Scott, who I followed quietly from room to room.

When we entered the room with the babies and children, I found myself thinking of my plump, smiling nephew halfway across the world in Melbourne; and craved to wrap my grown-up hand around his soft, pliant leg, just to know that he was alive and well in the world.

Where I saw vulnerability, Scott saw suffering and pain; the chunks taken from heads with nail-studded clubs, the missing hands and feet that had been hacked off, the gaping mouths. He saw the blood flowing, he imagined the incredible pain of the injuries, and thought about how terrifying it must have been for those who waited through the four days of killings before it came to their turn. And I confess that I too imagined what it would feel like to have a machete driven through my leg, just above the ankle, imagined the sound it might make, like a butcher heartily thumping a meat cleaver into a carcass.

I didn’t know if I was proving or disproving the journalist’s theory.

I asked the guide how Rwandan’s felt about the memorial. He explained that some thought it was the right way to ward off any repeat of the genocide. And it is unsurprising that there is a sense that Rwanda needs proof of the crime: the international community sat on its hands during those hundred days in 1994 while it decided whether it was indeed genocide, or whether it was only that ‘acts of genocide may have occurred’. The guide said that of those who didn’t like it, there were typically two groups of people: those who had family who died at Gikongoro and wished for their dead to be laid to rest, and those who had perpetrated crimes and wished for the memory of such crimes to be erased.

He said that, as yet, there had not been a way to identify the bodies on display, but that there were plans to conduct DNA testing in the future. I wondered what this would mean for the families who might want to bury their loved ones and whether the nation’s greater good would prevail over individual wishes.

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  1. How awful. I’ve no idea whether I’d find it real or unreal though I suspect that in order to cope I might find myself detaching from the reality of what happened to these people. People with lives and hopes and fears, people like me. That these people experienced such brutality is the nightmare of those of us left to grapple with the “why’s” and “how’s”. Just reading about it sends prickles up the back of my neck.

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