July 10, 2020

The New Age of Rwandan Genocide Commemoration

By Sara E. Brown

A youth choir sings as three men light the “Urumuri Rutazima,” or Flame of Remembrance.


 The "Urumuri Rutazima," or Flame of Remembrance, is carried away by torch.
The “Urumuri Rutazima,” or Flame of Remembrance, is carried away by torch.


In 1994, over the course of some 100 days and under the cover of civil war, nearly 1,000,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates were systematically hunted, tortured, raped, and murdered as part of an orchestrated genocide in Rwanda. Nearly two decades later, the importance of memory in Rwandan society is reflected by the efforts undertaken by the country and its diaspora population to ensure a culture of genocide commemoration. These initiatives have taken place every year since the genocide and are part of a continuously evolving and delicate process. Because this year will mark the 20th commemoration of the genocide, Rwanda has gone to great lengths to ensure a meaningful and lasting tribute to the genocide by establishing “Kwibuka20” (kwibuka means “to remember” in Kinyarwanda).

On January 7, 2014, Rwanda launched Kwibuka20, a national and international initiative to commemorate the Rwandan genocide. Over 250 scholars, officials, activists and diplomats sat in attendance at the Kigali Genocide Memorial as ministers, survivors, and performers took the stage. The formal ceremony culminated in the emotionally-charged lighting of the “Urumuri Rutazima,” Rwanda’s Flame of Remembrance. For the next three months, leading up to the official commemoration period beginning on April 7, Kwibuka20 will host, coordinate, and publicize commemoration activities and programs in Rwanda and around the world.

Kwibuka20 blends elements of traditional Rwanda with modern technology. By combing, for example, a diverse social media platform alongside traditional symbols and rituals Kwibuka20 pays homage to twenty years of memorialization efforts and the promise to continue to do so. During the official launch, the Flame of Remembrance was lit by hand, using traditional methods, accompanied by a chorus of youth, and covered in real time by the @Kwibuka20 Twitter handle. While past commemorations have utilized the symbolism of flame and memory, the Flame of Remembrance is also a feature on the Kwibuka20 website. There, along with educational materials, a portal for youth, and coverage of commemoration events taking place around the world, can be found the thirty-district “Kwibuka Flame Tour” schedule. In addition, the official Kwibuka20 YouTube channel features a short film on the genocide and the 20th commemoration themes of “remember-unite-renew.”

This branded, multimedia approach speaks to tech-savvy Rwandan urbanites and ensures the participation of a broad audience living beyond Rwanda’s borders, including diaspora communities, scholars, activists, and dignitaries. Content is provided in English and Kinyarwanda, a nod to the scope of their audience. At the same time, events in Rwanda maintain a familiar tempo, blending songs, testimony, and speeches from various dignitaries into each ceremony.

Commemoration is a delicate business. Just 20 years removed from the genocide, there is little physical and temporal space between the genocide and the population commemorating it. To visit the Catholic compound in Rwanda’s southeastern town of Nyamata, now a genocide memorial, is to visit the site of the killings. The past is forever intertwined with the present and Kwibuka20 reflects a deliberate effort to accommodate the needs of a diverse participant population. The Kwibuka20 themes of remember-unite-renew were clearly illustrated at Nyange high school in Ngororero District, the first stop on the “Kwibuka Flame Tour.” Three years after the genocide, in 1997, the school was attacked by armed extremists who ordered the students in one classroom to separate according to ethnicity. The students, realizing the men intended to harm the Tutsi students, refused to separate themselves. The extremists attacked, murdering six children and a guard. When the district came together on January 8th to pass on the “Flame of Remembrance”, the event commemorated the genocide of 1994, the massacre of 1997, and the heroism of the youth who united against ethnic extremism. Coverage of the event spread quickly, transporting a rainy afternoon in western Rwanda to smart phones and computers around the globe. The message, one of remembrance and hope, was clear.

Kwibuka20 represents a new phase of commemoration efforts in Rwanda, melding meaningful commemoration with content meant for broad consumption. Kwibuka20 manages to look both backward and forward, remembering the legacy of the genocide and creating hope for the future of Rwanda. The initiative builds on the resolve to “never forget” and fortifies the actualization of “never again” in Rwanda and throughout the world.



* The Times Of Israel has republished this post and it can be found here

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