For the past two years I have been working on an reference guide for students of the Rwandan Genocide and it was released this month in honor of the 25th anniversary of the atrocity. It is my pleasure to post the preface to this new work and in so doing share with you why I think study of the Rwandan Genocide remains important.
Alexis Herr, PhD
Twenty-five years have passed since the Rwandan Genocide, yet visiting genocide memorials in Rwanda today can make the past feel like the present. Fearful that the international community would neglect, deny, or even forget about the Rwandan Genocide, many Rwandans chose to display the victims’ human remains after the genocide to make certain the world could not forsake the past. While the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp have become the hallmark image of the Holocaust, rows of skulls stand as a stark and now iconic visual reminder of the Rwandan Genocide.
When I first learned about the Rwandan Genocide while pursuing a doctoral degree in Holocaust Studies at Clark University, the images of skulls lined up inside churches—the sites where many of the most violent massacres occurred—shocked me. Holocaust museum curators and historians often debate whether it is appropriate to display the bodily remains of Jewish victims, and there is no general consensus on the issue. Some argue that it is insensitive, inappropriate, and unethical to display Jewish remains rather than bury them, in accordance to Jewish tradition. Others insist that using a victim’s physical remains better communicates to visitors the immensity and horror of the genocide. It is for this reason that in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., visitors confront a large room of the victims’ shoes—an example of material remains—while in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland, in addition to exhibits of Jewish possessions, there is a room on display full of the victims’ hair—an example of physical remains—that was shorn upon entry to the camp. Both memorial museums face the impossible challenge of trying to communicate the immensity of lives lost and the dehumanization the deceased faced while simultaneously honoring the memory souls of the slain. Each museum has answered the following question differently: Is it ethical to display a victim’s bodily remains in order to memorialize the victims and teach about the tragedy? For Rwandans, the decision to display bones involved this and additional considerations.
It is now widely acknowledged that while Hutu hardliners (the perpetrators of the genocide) murdered 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus over approximately 100 days between April and July 1994, the international community failed to take decisive actions to save countless lives. Although the United Nations (UN) had troops on the ground in Rwanda since 1993, when the genocide began in 1994, the UN Security Council withdrew the majority of its troops. Survivors of the genocide must have thought, “If the international community turned a blind eye to the genocide, won’t they continue to ignore the genocide once the killing is finally is over?” The bold decision to use the bones, bloody clothes, and murder weapons in Rwandan memorials throughout the country made the world take notice. During the genocide, leading European, Asian, and American nations reasoned that Africans killing Africans on another continent did not concern them directly and thus abandoned the victims. After the genocide, photographers, journalists, and television programs spread images from Rwanda across the globe, and the aging white bones on display in ad hoc memorials throughout the country cut across ethnic, racial, and geographic divisions. Simply put, bones are not foreign to anyone.
While editing and writing entries for this reference guide, I kept asking myself, what does it mean to take notice of the genocide today, more than two decades since the killings began? What should be remembered and what can be learned? There are many insights one can gain from this reference guide, and a few stand out for me in particular.
First, the Rwandan Genocide is a reminder of the atrocities humanity is capable of committing. Overviews of the perpetrators, massacres, and bystanders included in this reference guide demonstrate that humans are able and willing to murder their neighbors for the sake of an ideal. This phenomenon is not unique to Rwanda and is a visible trend in genocide studies. For this reason, it is important to be vigilant against racial stereotyping. An offhanded comment can quickly be transformed into a powerful rallying call to kill.
Second, the history of the Rwandan atrocity demonstrates what happens when the international community forsakes people in need of assistance. The world knew what was happening and yet still chose inaction over action. Rwandans paid the price for the world’s silence.
Third, several articles in this book elucidate the inspiring stories of those who risked their lives to save others. The entries on rescuers and resistors reveal that not everyone supported the mass slaughter of Tutsis. Compliance or silence were not the only options.
Finally, this reference guide demonstrates that although we have failed each other in the past, that does not mean we cannot do better in the future. For example, the landmark court cases held by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) led by the UN—as well as Rwanda’s own endeavor to pursue reconciliation and justice in its Gacaca Courts—illuminate the legal and societal advances that have occurred since the genocide. Furthermore, the treatment of rape as a crime of genocide during the ICTR forever changed the landscape of genocide studies and law by confirming what we already knew: rape constitutes a crime of genocide. In order to improve prevention, intervention, and post-atrocity justice and rebuilding, for now and in the years to come, it is essential to learn from the mistakes made in Rwanda.
While some genocide memorials in Rwanda still use human remains to ensure that the past does not seem abstract or unimportant to the present, this reference guide presents the history of the victims, perpetrators, bystanders, witnesses, and resistors in order to encourage readers to understand what has happened and what can still happen if we fail to take notice and learn from the past.
I am grateful to ABC-CLIO for pursing educational projects such as this one that are centered on human rights. Particular praise is warranted for Padraic (Pat) Carin, Managing Editor at ABC-CLIO, for suggesting this project in the first place. I have been fortunate enough to work with him on other ABC-CLIO projects and feel lucky to have done so. This project has benefited from the excellent guidance of both Carin and Steve Catalano, Senior Editor at ABC-CLIO. And I would be remiss if I did not thank Professor Robert Melson for first teaching me about the Rwandan Genocide more than a decade ago and my husband Shayle Kann for his continued support of me and my work.