In this autoethnographic article, I examine the presentation of human remains at memorials commemorating the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, focusing on witnessing and voyeurism. Drawing on my own and others’ experiences visiting these memorials, I address the following questions: How do we represent humans who are no longer living? How do we conceptualize the humanity of human remains produced by violent means? This article examines these questions through an engagement with literary representations of Rwanda’s dead, specifically Boubacar Boris Diop’s Murambi: The Book of Bones and Koulsy Lamko’s La Phalène Des Collines (A Butterfly in the Hills), as well as analysis of my field notes and diary entries regarding my personal responses to genocide memorials I visited in Rwanda. Whereas previous scholarship has focused primarily on the intended function of the memorials and the anticipated response of their visitors, by concentrating on affective and aesthetic responses to the dead, I address something in between: the aesthetic perception of human remains, particularly in relation to the dignity of the people they were. At stake in this research is who is able to make a claim to humanity and under what theoretical guises.
I sit in Didier’s car, the air sweltering, my posture rigid. I try to pace my breathing, with a conscious and concentrated inhale…exhale…inhale…exhale, for I know that once I enter the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, I will finally see what I have only read about. I will witness—through the lens and post-production of misery tourism—violence, death, and genocide. And through my anticipation of this witnessing, I become increasingly aware that my research on genocide will never be objective again.
Once the car pulls through the plain archway—KIGALI GENOCIDE MEMORIAL printed in large, block letters—I focus my attention on the steady inflow and flux of air into my lungs, breathing in…and out…in…and out. It is all that I can manage, even as we step out of the car, and I look around, first, at the rolling landscape of Kigali—my first real and sustained picture of Rwanda, “the land of a thousand hills”—and then to the memorial itself, a tall, angular, cream-colored building.
All of my preparation, my reading, my research has anticipated this very moment, and yet here I stand, my breath quickening still, as we finally approach the memorial’s doors.
In this autoethnographic article, I examine my anticipation of and emotional response to memorials commemorating the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, particularly in regard to witnessing and voyeurism, and how these acts, in particular, contribute to my understanding of the humanity of human remains. Narrative representations of the genocide abound, evidenced in the creation of a wide variety of literary, filmic, and journalistic accounts of the 1994 genocide; each genre, however, experiences different expectations in regard to aesthetics.1 Whether the identity of the author influences or impacts the nature of genocide representation, however, is an understudied phenomenon and one that is particularly significant to me, as it speaks to my own positionality as a European American woman writing about Rwandan experiences.
Some scholars have argued for the benefits of an emic perspective in trauma writing, such as genocide narratives.2 That is to say, those who have experienced genocide can often meaningfully write about it. For example, trauma studies scholar Kalí Tal insists that “if survivors retain control over the interpretation of their trauma, they can sometimes force a shift in the social and political structure.”3 This argument, however, represents but one perspective in the debate surrounding cultural authenticity and genocide writing.
Another point of view recognizes the importance, and, further, legitimacy, of objective journalistic writing about genocide, originating from the international community and global media, as well as literary fiction, particularly that produced by the African Writers’ Project, “Écrire par devoir de Mémoire” (Writing in Duty of Memory). According to literary critic Shoshana Felman and clinical psychiatrist Dori Laub, such writing represents “a performative engagement between consciousness and history, a struggling act of readjustment between the integrative scope of words and the unintegrated impact of events.”4 Acclaimed Holocaust scholar Lawrence Langer supports this claim, arguing that “the fundamental task of the critic is not to ask whether it should or can be done, since it already has been, but to evaluate how it has been done, judge its effectiveness, and analyze its implications for literature and for society.”5
The discrepancy between proximity, authenticity, and aesthetic value, in such narratives, however, ultimately makes me ask: how do we represent humans who are no longer living? Further, how do we conceptualize the humanity of human remains, particularly those produced by violent and/or traumatic means? I examine these questions through an engagement with literary representations of Rwanda’s dead, as well as analysis of my own field notes and diary entries regarding my personal responses to genocide memorials I visited during my first trip to Rwanda.
At the time of my visit, twenty years after the genocide, I was working toward a master’s thesis on the literature of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. I was fresh from an intensive summer language program focused on Kinyarwanda, and especially eager to participate in a travel seminar to Rwanda, my first on African soil. I return to this experience now, not because it was a particularly successful academic excursion. It wasn’t. I return to the experience because I reflect on it often, even now as a student in a different academic department at a different university, working on a dissertation on language and commemorative practices among Rwandan communities living in Canada. I return in order to recognize that just as I interpret those I encounter in the field, they, too, interpret me, and to further reflect on how who I intend to be may not always reflect in their interpretation of me. I return because the experience represents some of my deepest insecurities and anxieties about my positionality as a researcher or, perhaps, depending on one’s perspective, a misery tourist.
By acknowledging myself in my research and using my own experiences as a source, I place value on autoethnography as a form of qualitative research. A critique of traditional ethnography, according to Jerry Stinnett, seeks to position scholars in the “messy reality of situated observation, observation and description that ‘are always from a particular, value-based point of view,’ even as many scholars claim objectivity in their research.”6 Accordingly, in what follows, I “scrutinize the self”—my self in my representation of others—in order to acknowledge the manner in which both entities are “culturally mediated and historically constructed.”7 In crafting a literary ethnography, I borrow from H.L. Goodall Jr., who refers to “writing that combines the personal and the professional (for example, autoethnography, autobiography), as well as work that may be rendered as a story (for example, fiction or nonfiction), or an account that derives rhetorical force from a blurring or blending of literary genres.”8 Indeed, literary ethnography helps to position me, who I am and who I want to be in relation to my research, while simultaneously representing the full humanity of both the researcher and the researched. Further, only by acknowledging our own humanity, I suggest, can we begin to illuminate that of those we claim to represent in our scholarship, or more appropriately, only by acknowledging their humanity can we recognize our own.
Here, I speak of the aesthetic perception of human remains, particularly in relation to the dignity of the people they were. In my research on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, I have long been troubled to find that victims are often classified in scholarship as “dead,” as “bodies,” as “objects of violence,” and ultimately anything but human. The use of such language exposes a gap in our vocabulary, in how we refer to humans after they have died. By representing them as passive objects, things that actions happen onto and around, we neglect to recall that human remains, as former human-agents, possess political capital. Indeed, anthropologist Katherine Verdery concedes that “bones and corpses, coffins and cremation urns are material objects,” but she continues:
Because corpses suggest the lived lives of complex human beings, they can be evaluated from many angles and assigned perhaps contradictory virtues, vices, and intentions. While alive, these bodies produced complex behaviors subject to much debate that produces further ambiguity. As with all human beings, one’s assessment of them depends on one’s disposition, the context one places them in…, the selection one makes from their behaviors in order to outline their ‘story,’ and so on…Their complexity makes it fairly easy to discern different sets of emphasis, extract different stories, and thus rewrite history. Dead bodies have another great advantage as symbols: they don’t talk much on their own (though they did once).9
Verdery’s argument becomes particularly convincing when we analyze the manner in which the genocide has been memorialized within Rwanda, where human remains are found on display in-situ, at various sites of violence, including former churches and schools, as well as at less organic sites of commemoration, such as the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre mentioned above. Of course, this unique method of memorialization is employed for a purpose, that is, the mantra that we must “never forget,” but it also creates a set of tensions around, on the one hand, human remains as objectified artifact, and, on the other, human remains as once-human agents. As literary scholar Nicki Hitchcott argues, “memories can become fixed through preservation and display and so the decision about what and how to preserve can also determine what and how we remember.”10 Aesthetics then becomes a useful tool through which to analyze memorialized representations of human remains, insofar as it deals with perception, particularly how an “object” is being received by an onlooker, in this case, a tourist or voyeur, and the various ways it is being classified, as “dead,” as “human,” as “beautiful.”
As I write, I find myself forced to confront my own fear of the “morbid,” the “gruesome,” the “ugly.” I ask myself: How do you prepare to witness the dead of Rwanda?
Our trip to Rwanda nears the end of the long, dry season. Although the days extend on, suffocating, sweltering, under the Rwandan sun, the skies open up at night in a tremendous downpour.
Before the rain arrives, the landscape changes. Where the sky was once a pure celestial blue, it becomes increasingly imbued with clouds; first, white wispy cotton strands blow into view, then increasingly immense, gray masses occupy the sky above. When the sun disappears behind an enormous, dark, enraged cloud, I no longer know what turned off the lights on the day: the impending night or the encroaching storm.
A loud and distinct rumble echoes across the valley, breaking through my thoughts. We have only just arrived at Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre, but I know our visit will last only as long the light will allow.
My colleagues and I enter the towering central building that greets visitors at Murambi, its endless windows looking out at the grounds, and from deep within them, our reflections staring back at us. The memorial is the site of the former Murambi Technical School, where Tutsis were lured under the pretense of safety, only to be killed, their bodies thrown into mass graves. Of the forty-five thousand Tutsis believed to have been hiding at Murambi, only thirty-five are thought to have survived.
We learn more about Murambi by reading informative wall panels, positioned around the memorial’s initial hallway. Turning the corner, however, we see large indentions in the museum’s floor, where, we are told, bodies were once displayed. Such movement of remains is not uncommon in Rwanda’s memorials, for funding frequently fluctuates, renovation seems almost constant, and certain methods of representation are found to benefit certain privileged stories.
Surrounding the otherwise empty room, its vacant tombs, are photographs of the deceased. I look at their faces closely, not because I hope to identify them, as Rwandan visitors might, but because I am too afraid to proceed forward.
The rain is coming, a distant crack of thunder reminds me. The memorial is closing, but I remain firmly in place.
Of all the memorials that we will visit, that I ever could visit, Murambi fills me with the most anticipation, the most dread. Though victims of the Murambi massacre were thrown into mass graves, their bodies were exhumed after the genocide. Due to the clay-like consistency of the soil and the temperature of the surrounding area, their bodies were preserved, their skin intact.
Skin clinging to bone and, in some cases, hair clinging to skin, one need not be reminded that they are human. Human bodies. Human remains. Humans. Their last expressions imprinted, forever memorialized, on their faces. Mouths stretched open in horror, to release one final eternal scream, arms extended defensively, legs curled up into the fetal position. Bodies sometimes rest together, mother clinging onto baby, baby clinging onto mother.
The damage most visible here was unequivocally completed in life, human life onto human life, not in the mishandling or movement of remains, human life onto human body. Facing the mummified remains at Murambi, laid out onto wooden flats, preserved by lime, means confronting humanity itself.
I am not prepared for that. I am not prepared to see myself in what I see. I am not prepared to not see myself in who I see. I am afraid of an absent connection between living and dead. I am afraid I won’t be able to see, to recognize their humanity.
From the memorial’s vast stretch of windows, we witness the first strike of lightning grace the sky, a thunderous surge of noise quickly following. We quickly move to leave the memorial’s central building. A plaque on the side of the wall reads, “If you knew me, and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.”11 With little time to reflect on the oft-quoted poem by Felicien Ntagengwa, we proceed to the memorial’s outer buildings, former schoolrooms, now the resting place for Murambi’s dead.
We prepare to enter the first room on our path. Shadows inhibit my view of the room’s contents, the dwindling light from outside, no help. Cautiously, I approach the open door, but I release a small scream, immediately jumping back, as something flies out at me from the dim void.
It is only a bird. The memorial’s curator briefly comforts me, but my heart rate refuses to slow. Hand on chest, eyes positioned attentively forward, I approach the room once more.
I do not scream. I do not spook. I look, and I look. I cannot stop looking.
It is not surprising that I was afraid of what I might find in Rwanda. Extensive research on the genocide, particularly the ways in which it was being memorialized and how it was being represented in literature, provided me with an explicit picture as to what to expect and anticipate. One of these pictures came from the African Writers’ Project, “Écrire par devoir de Mémoire,” which included Boubacar Boris Diop’s novel, Murambi, The Book of Bones, a response to his visit to various memorial sites in country. In it, his protagonist, Cornelius, witnesses the body of Thérèse Mukandori, a victim of rape and murder, one of reported fifty thousand reported victims of genocide at Nyamata Church. Mukandori’s body has since been placed within a coffin behind protective glass, but at the time of Cornelius’s imagined visit, her body is preserved as the Interhamwe left her. He states, “the young woman had her head pushed back and the scream extracted from her by the pain had been frozen on her still grimacing face. Her magnificent tresses were disheveled, and her legs wide apart. A stake…had remained lodged in her vagina.”12 In a similarly graphic description, journalist Philip Gourevitch opens his book We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families with a description of his visit to Nyarubuye Church, the site of a massacre that witnessed the death of an estimated twenty thousand Tutsis in mid-April 1994. He states, “at least fifty mostly decomposed cadavers covered the floor,” and continues, “the dead looked like pictures of the dead. They did not smell. They did not buzz with flies. They had been killed thirteen months earlier, and they hadn’t been moved. Skin stuck here and there over the bones, dismembered by the killers, or by scavengers—birds, dogs, bugs. The more complete figures looked a lot like people, which they were once.”13
However morbid, however gruesome the scenes described above are, the anticipated reality of what they depict did not concern me. Indeed, looking back now, I recognize that the bodies themselves did not frighten me, but I worried about my own reaction to them. Would I be repulsed by them, their smell, their being after non-being? Would I be afraid to witness them, to see their suffering, or, on the other hand, would I look for too long, try to find the dead that clings to life around me? Would I be like other misery tourists? I’d read that they seek a well-packaged translation of “memory of the genocide into education, peace, and democratic culture,” and, in so doing, “usurp…the memory of those who most need remembrance and acknowledgement.”14 In Koulsy Lamko’s La Phalène des Collines (A Butterfly in the Hills), Thérèse Mukandori returns to Nyamata as a ghostly butterfly, observing visitors to the memorial site:
I had paid tribute to the good people who had come and shed a tear, and felt a bit of my suffering meandering through their dazed souls. I had clearly heard the vengeful frenzy of the most agitated among them.…I had sympathized with the discomfort of those who by some strange association felt guilty.…But I had not failed to denounce the people who shamefully turned their heads away from an unpleasant and disgusting sight.15
Would I be like the misery tourists described by Lamko’s butterfly? Voyeuristic? Unsettled? Unseeing? All prospects terrified me. I did not know what kind of witness I would be, what kind of witness I should be, though I had plenty of examples of how I did not want to be.
Speaking to the merits of an effective witness, Diop briefly recounts his response to the memorial sites. He states, “I remember that in Rwanda, every time we went to visit places where there are still skeletons and bones of victims openly exposed, I felt the need to look for even the tiniest signs of life around us, just as one would open a window very slightly to let a little bit of fresh air into a place which is otherwise completely hermetically sealed.”16 Perhaps this is the most terrifying question I have asked myself yet: Would I not be able to see life, to see humanity, in the dead of Rwanda? I am not prepared to not see myself in who I see. It is because of this lack of intimacy with my own humanity, my misunderstanding of my own being, that I found myself ill-equipped to address the humanity of others.
As I was afraid of how I might respond to the dead of Rwanda, how I would receive their broken exteriors, I doubted my ability to recognize their humanity, and in so doing, I arrived at the worst genocide studies has to offer, the scholar who sees only that which upholds their understanding. Yes, that genocide studies scholar.
“Your story is my story,” the leader of our excursion to Rwanda earnestly insists at the end of our guide’s narration at Nyange Church Memorial. She continues with a solemn oath that each time she speaks of her pilgrimage to Rwanda, she would also recall Aloys Rwamasirabo, our guide and the sole caretaker of the memorial.
Separated by language, Aloys first speaks to us in Kinyarwanda, which Didier, our driver, translates into English. We, in turn, respond in English, and Didier translates back into Kinyarwanda. The process occupies a large part of our time at Nyange, a former church where Tutsis sought sanctuary during the genocide. It is during this window that I examine the memorial, really looking at it for the first time.
We stand in a small, lone brick building with walls the color of the Caribbean Sea, or, rather, what I imagine the color of the Caribbean Sea to be. Like the many others who hid in churches across the country, such as Ntarama and Nyamata, the nearly three thousand who gathered at Nyange Parish found neither safety nor protection behind its hallowed walls. Instead, they were trapped under and by them, when the Interahamwe, with the help of the parish’s priest, bulldozed the structure to the ground with the congregation still inside.
There were no survivors.
Indeed, what remains at Nyange is a pile of bricks, an outline of the parish that once was, and rows of mass graves, a reminder of the people that once were. I observe this all from the small window of the memorial building. Located directly outside the compound, there is another reminder of what once was, a bell.
I am told, through Didier, that the bell once stood atop Nyange, but the priest insisted it be removed before the church’s destruction. Now, it is balanced between four precarious wooden stilts, shaded by a corrugated tin roof, secure only in its imbalanced insecurity. A makeshift altar, a testament to the value of human life.
There were some who wanted to rebuild Nyange Church where it once stood, but others, like Aloys, did not want to rebuild where so many had died. Returning to the building once more, the walls vibrant, Aloys speaking to the room but to nobody in particular, I focus my attention on the memorial’s protected display cases.
Behind the glass, parts of the human composition are organized by shelf. The top shelf contains skulls, the middle shelf, femurs, and the bottom, humeri. Each skull is balanced on top of another skull, each femur on top of another femur, and humeri on other humeri, alike but different.
Skulls precariously balanced on top of other skulls. Missing teeth, crooked teeth, maxilla size, tilted to the right or to the left, but sometimes a cranium stands directly atop another, its teeth chomping down menacingly on what it finds below. The arms and the legs are less intimidating, less accusatory certainly, but some appear shorter, some longer, some more worn, some less used.
Maybe they are accusatory.
As we exit the building, music greets us from nearby. Behind the memorial, we see that a covered pavilion stands, erected after the genocide as a place of worship, as a place of life. Already packed with followers, the new church’s worship and praise songs echo across the compound. The children, however, curious about the abazungu “Westerners” in their midst gather around the memorial’s perimeter.
Our leader wishes to join the service, but I quickly dissuade her from doing so, already the spectacle during their time of prayer, an irreverent disruption to their devotion. Aloys’s story is not her story. Rwanda’s stories are not our stories.
And they don’t have to be, for I already have a story.
What Aloys’s story evoked in the person described above went beyond empathy, a feeling that connects people(s) together with a shared experience, a sentiment that follows Ivoirian writer Veronique Tadjo’s insistence that “what had happened there [in Rwanda] concerned us all. It was not just one nation lost in the dark heart of Africa that was affected.”17 Her response, however, reflects more than a mere recognition of our shared humanity. Indeed, Susan Sontag argues, “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.”18 Instead, her replacement of “your” with a distinct “my” is a mark of possession, possession of an experience that is not her own, and whether conscious of it or not, her declaration insists on a transference in the ownership of memory. Felman and Laub argue that “the listener to trauma comes to be a participant and a co-owner of the traumatic event: through his very listening, he comes to partially experience trauma in himself. The relation of the victim to the event of the trauma, therefore, impacts on the relation of the listener to it…The listener, therefore, by definition partakes of the struggle of the victim with the memories and residues of his or her traumatic past.”19
The seminar leader’s reconfiguration of Aloys’s narrative to include herself signifies that, to her, their interaction constitutes an experience of genocide—at least, in kind. Consequently, it becomes her memory and her experience of trauma that will shape the retelling of the story, and Aloys becomes but a secondary figure in his own account. Admittedly, the same phenomenon occurs in my story, which falls in line with Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou’s argument that dispossession “emerges as a crucial force of ontological modes of preconfigured bodies, subjectivities, communities, truth, and political economies of life,” and, accordingly, displaced or dispossessed subjects, such as Aloys, are encouraged to take “their proper place instead of taking place.”20 Indeed, though we may not have intended as much, we have framed our narratives so that Aloys’s story does not matter until we see ourselves in it. His humanity further remains unrecognized until ours is acknowledged also.
The seminar leader’s attempt to insert herself into the Rwandan narrative, however, both in her interaction with Aloys and her desire to attend the nearby church service, is admittedly humanistic in outlook, but it fails, insofar as it demands that she and Aloys share the same human experience to share the same claim to humanity. Human stories are useful in this regard, as they stage a narrative with which the listeners may or may not be familiar, but to which they can respond, from which they can learn, and with which they can grow. It means that even if I can live but one life, that I can work to understand and care for many more, because I do not have to experience what another does, to appreciate their feelings. In the instance of Nyange, however, a human story is inevitably left out: the story of the deceased.
Speaking of who can best represent the trauma of genocide, philosopher Giorgio Agamben asserts that “the value of testimony lies essentially in what it lacks…the ‘true’ witnesses, the ‘complete witnesses,’ are those who did not bear witness and could not bear witness…The survivors speak in their stead, by proxy, as pseudo-witnesses.”21 Agamben’s premise is rephrased in La Phalène des Collines, when Lamko’s ghostly butterfly, Mukandori, renames herself “The Queen of the Middleworld,” and upon hearing a survivor tour-guide at Nyamata tell her story, she becomes enraged, insisting that “the story of my life is mine and mine alone.” She further claims, “stakes here were monumental. I could not allow my story to be distorted. That is why I had quickly decided to grow a head, and a chest, and a belly and eyes and three pairs of legs and…butterfly wings. I chose to inhabit the body of a large scorched-earth butterfly…that would allow me to move from invisibility to visibility, from a state of disembodiment to one of embodiment.22
Insofar as my cohort and I were reliant on Aloys to shape our understanding of the genocide, more generally, and Nyange, in particular, we neglected to listen to the deceased before us, the stories their bodies told, the stories they couldn’t. Here, I intentionally use the pronoun, “we,” because I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that I am guilty of some of the same errors in witnessing, and even representation after-the-fact, of which I have accused the seminar leader—lack of imagination, an inability to remove myself from my own particular frames of reference, to name but a few. Insofar as I critique her, I must also critique myself.
Elaine Scarry argues that “pain and imagining are the ‘framing events’ within whose boundaries all other perceptual, somatic, and emotional events occur.”23 Without the help of an interlocutor, I feared independently conceptualizing the suffering of the human bodies displayed at the genocide memorials I visited; however, it was not only their lack of voice that prevented me from hearing their stories. Indeed, their physical presence creates a disruption all its own, “challenging our commonly accepted language and our thresholds.”24 According to literary scholar Alexandre Dauge-Roth, their pain cannot be rendered entirely, due to “the gap between the discourses defining our cultural “scene” and the “ob-scene” experience they try to comprehend and render.”25
They are unequivocally there; I see them. But I cannot always comprehend them. How do I engage with the humanity of human remains?
I look up at the vast stretch of Bisesero Memorial for the Genocide of the Tutsi. Built on a hill, which I am told is called Muyira, it is the most stylistic of the genocide memorials we’ve seen, perhaps precisely because it was built for commemoration whereas the other genocide sites had preexisting structures beforehand.
At the foot of the hill is an angular archway, stating “URWIBUTSO RWA JENOSIDE YAKOREWE ABATUTSI BISESERO 1994” (“Bisesero Memorial of the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi”). Proceeding directly through the archway, I see a large rock, surrounded by nine spears pointing defensively outward toward all those who approach it, a physical symbol of Bisesero as a site of resistance. If I turn left in the archway’s looming shadow, I find the first of five buildings built into the hill. This one, unlike the others, is a rectangular, gray, cement structure, resembling a bunker.
It is here I find Illuminé, our tour guide. She keeps her tight, curly hair short, and her eyes hidden by oval sunglasses throughout our visit. She is wearing an ill-fitting, button-down, peach-colored shirt, and on this dreary day, this somber hillside, it is the only color present. Despite her effort at modesty otherwise, her shirt demands attention. She is, indeed, illuminating.
She explains very early that, though she is learning, she is not confident about her English. She asks Didier to translate for her, and once he agrees, we proceed up the path toward the next building, a large, brick structure followed by another large, brick structure and another, and yet another.
In each building, we find room upon room filled with human remains, skulls presented next to other skulls and femurs next to other femurs. Solid, strong bone selected intentionally to represent the damage the machete does to the human body, the delicacy of humanity. Separated from their original composition, they are but human pieces now, unlinked from a particular body, unable to fit together as a whole. They are life, and they are death, and they are beautiful, and I can’t help but look at them. Anonymous faces, staring back at us from within their eyeless eye sockets.
We continue to the next building, and I see, in the first row of skulls, sitting a little lower than the rest, a damaged face, its teeth missing, its left cheek bone and jaw gone, its nasal bone fragmented, hanging from its forehead. I lean in close for a photo, but unsatisfied with the original image, I angle myself differently in relation to the skull.
As I do, however, one of my colleagues taps me on the shoulder. Quietly, she observes, “She looks super uncomfortable,” indicating Illuminé.
I look at Illuminé and see her looking at me, standing away from us, near the far exit. I look down at my camera and look back at her. Aegis Trust gave me permission to take photos at the genocide sites, and Aegis sponsored the memorials, but Illuminé did not give permission to photograph victims, nor did she authorize the memorials themselves, their display of the bodies, their lack of burial.
Embarrassed, perhaps even guilty, I return my camera to my bag, and I follow Illuminé to the next building and the next, listening as Didier translates her commentary from the French. I observe the victims and the survivors more humbly now. Looking only with my eyes, I know I will not forget what I see.
As we exit the fifth and final building, I notice the path grows narrower, leading to an enclosed mass tomb. I am told, through Didier, that it represents the dwindling resistance. First a large group of fifty thousand, the resistance sought refuge at Bisesero, hiding from and fighting off the génocidaires for three months in the woods, before they were ultimately defeated. At the genocide’s end, only fifteen hundred survivors were found at Bisesero.
The path, once wide, allowed many people to walk in unison, but at its end, only one person could proceed at a time. Looking down at the path now, I see that it does not climb up the hill in a linear fashion. It zigs this way and zags that way, symbolizing the Tutsis’ flee between the trees and away from their attackers.
Bisesero has no shortage of symbolism, I think, silently observing from atop the hill now. However, my thoughts are disrupted by the trip’s leader, who asks me to tell Illuminé that the country is beautiful.
“Aha hantu ni heza” ‘This place is beautiful,’ I oblige, looking at our guide, before she breaks eye contact nervously.
We soon begin to head down the hill, first Illuminé, then a colleague and me, and then Didier and the trip’s leader. As we exit the second building from the top, Illuminé slows her pace so my colleague and I can catch up to her. At first, she does not speak, nor do we. However, she soon stops walking completely and looks to us.
Struggling for words, she finally manages to begin: “My family…” She pauses. “My family…is here…I was nine.”
“Thank you,” I say, taking her hand in mine, just as the trip’s leader and Didier approach us. I want to hug Illuminé, but I don’t. I want to tell her that I understand, but I’m not sure I do. I recognize, however, that I am as close to understanding as I ever will be, so I leave Bisesero. Still an American scholar of African studies, a misery tourist in Rwanda, I leave.
Toward the end of the seminar, perhaps at a guest house, maybe at a restaurant, or just walking down the street, the topic of “misery tourism” inevitably came up. I asked the seminar leader if she thought of us as misery tourists. After all, our travels consciously and purposefully took us from one site of trauma to another under the auspices of learning something from another’s suffering. She balked at the title, perhaps not surprisingly, claiming that we had a much higher purpose than that of a misery tourist, seemingly echoing Sontag’s argument that “perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering are those who could do something to alleviate it…or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.”26 I was not so sure. I am still not so sure.
Indeed, my analysis is riddled by my own self-doubts and reflections as they pertain to my (in)ability to respond productively, humanistically, to those who I claim to represent in my research, both living and dead. My hesitation as witness has had a real and measurable impact on the manner in which I perform as a scholar, but to end my engagement there would be to deny my own subjectivity by accepting the label of voyeur. I admit that calling dead bodies “beautiful” may not alleviate their suffering, just as calling them “human” will neither revive nor resuscitate them. And though my narrative was never intended as a how-to guide on approaching human remains, and in many places might best be described as how-not-to, I believe we stand to learn something about humanity from the dead, whether it be acknowledging their claim to it or reaffirming our own.
Thus, I am familiar with Rwanda, with genocide, with humanity, but I know only that which I do not know. I recognize the degree to which these entities will always be incomprehensible, unknowable to me, and it is through this acknowledgment of my limitations, that I can begin to understand and approach my chosen research trajectory. Indeed, as Cornelius reflects on thresholds of knowing and un-knowing in Murambi: The Book of Bones, he observes, “Rwanda is an imaginary country. If it’s so difficult to talk about in a rational way, maybe it’s because it doesn’t really exist. Everyone has his own Rwanda in his head and it has nothing to do with the Rwanda of others.”27 The plurality of the human experience lends itself to the development of multiple bodies of knowledge. To assume that a particular experience is fully knowable, without having experienced it, would be a disservice to scholarship, a false claim of mastery.
Further, by attaching ourselves too firmly to the idea of what we will find, what we should find in and among the dead, in and among the living, we sacrifice our ability to discover anything at all. In Murambi, while discussing the burial of bodies at Murambi Technical School, Cornelius’s uncle, Siméon, insists that “above each grave we saw little puddles of blood forming. At night, dogs came to quench their thirst.” Cornelius responds, “Monsters drinking the blood of Rwanda. I understand the symbol.”28 But Siméon insists that his description was not a symbol, and, in fact, he saw the scene with his own eyes. Listening to another’s stories requires challenging one’s frames of reference, both accepting and opposing the metaphorical, inferring and abstaining from the imaginative, and, most important, growing comfortable with the uncomfortable and uncomfortable with the comfortable. In other words, if we ever grow too complacent, if we ever become too sure of the facts, it is likely that we have missed one or two. It is further likely that we do not understand at all.
My thresholds for knowing and un-knowing may not qualify me to re-classify the dead as anything but “dead.” After all, it is only through another’s suffering that I am able to recognize human remains as beautiful. It is only through another’s death that I am able to define humanity so openly, so explicitly; however, by moving outside of my role as passive observer, by learning from, growing with, and responding to Rwanda’s dead, I must assert here that they are beautiful, not because I see or do not see myself in them, but because they are. ■
Alexandre Dauge-Roth, Writing and Filming the Genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda: Dismembering and Remembering Traumatic History (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010); Laura Edmondson, “Genocide Unbound: Erik Ehn, Rwanda, and an Aesthetics of Discomfort,” Theatre Journal 61, no. 1 (2009): 65–83, doi:10.1353/tj.0.0135; Nicholas Mirzoeff, “Invisible Again: Rwanda and Representation after Genocide,” African Arts 38, no. 3 (2005): 36–96. https://doi.org/10.1162/afar.2005.38.3.36.
Roméo Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (New York: Da Capo Press, 2004); Immaculée Ilibagiza and Steve Erwin, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc., 2014); Joseph Sebarenzi and Laura Mullane, God Sleeps in Rwanda: A Journey of Transformation, Reprint edition (New York: Atria Books, 2011).
Worlds of Hurt: Reading the Literatures of Trauma (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 7.
Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), 114.
The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination (London and New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975), 22.
Pat Caplan, “Engendering Knowledge: The Politics of Ethnography, Part 1,” Anthropology Today 4, no. 5 (1988): 9. doi:10.2307/3032749
Writing the New Ethnography (Oxford: AltaMira Press, 2000), 190.
The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Postsocialist Change (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 28.
Death, Image, Memory: The Genocide in Rwanda and Its Aftermath in Photography and Documentary Film (New York: Springer, 2017).
Boubacar Boris Diop, Murambi: The Book of Bones, trans. Fiona Mc Laughlin (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006), 73.
Philip Gourevitch, We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda (New York: Picador, 1998), 15.
Amy Sodaro, “Politics of the Past: Remembering the Rwandan Genocide at the Kigali Memorial Centre,” in Curating Difficult Knowledge: Violent Pasts in Public Places, Palgrave Macmillan Memory Studies (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 83–86.
Koulsy Lamko, La phalène des collines: roman (Paris: Serpent à plumes, 2000), 24.
Boubacar Boris Diop, Africa beyond the Mirror, trans. Vera Wülfing-Leckie and Caroline Beschea-Fache (Banbury: Ayebia Clarke Publishing, 2014), 12.
The Shadow of Imana: Travels in the Heart of Rwanda, trans. Véronique Wakerley (London and Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2002), 3.
Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2003), 7.
Dispossession: The Performative in the Political (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013), 18, 20.
Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (Cambridge: Zone Books, 1999), 34.
Lamko, La phalène des collines, 28–29.
The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 165.
Dauge-Roth, Writing and Filming the Genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda, 55.
Regarding the Pain of Others, 42.
Murambi: The Book of Bones, 67.