The Skulls Of Bisesero: How to commemorate the Rwandan genocide
As we get out of the car, we encounter a survivor waiting at the entrance. He serves as groundskeeper, tour guide and site superintendent. He is a somber older man—well beyond Rwanda’s average life expectancy of 54 years. After some back and forth with our driver, Apollinaire, the attendant takes out his ring of keys and leads us down a side path to the simple corrugated steel shed that houses the skulls, femurs, humeri, tibiae, fibulae and other human skeletal remains, all cleaned and neatly sorted by type and arranged on wooden slats that remind me of concentration camp bunk beds. There is no attempt to reassemble the skeletons; they cannot afford expensive DNA testing that might make such matches possible. The skulls stare straight ahead, arranged in tidy rows. I find myself looking away.
In April of this year, the people of Rwanda spent a month commemorating the 1994 genocide, as they do every year. As we approach the 20th anniversary of the murder of more than three-quarters of a million Tutsi by their Hutu countrymen, I set out in search of understanding; but my goal was not to understand why this all happened or even how it came about. I gave myself what I thought was the more modest task of asking how Rwandans represent the mass murders to themselves and to foreigners. What do they recall and how do they do it?
As an academic whose work focuses in part on the public commemoration of the Holocaust in Germany and the United States, I could not help but be drawn to the Rwandan way of remembering its genocide. How do commemorations of the Holocaust compare with Rwanda’s presentation of its genocide?
I spent five weeks in Rwanda earlier this year to visit my wife, who is on an assignment with the Clinton Health Access Initiative, and my daughter, who is attending school in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. One weekend we escaped the trials of the capital city to enjoy the stunning beauty of Lake Kivu—or so we thought. After settling into our comfortable lakeside hotel, we set off on a journey we might never have taken had we known how it difficult it would be.
Touch and Go
Almost as soon as we leave the hotel we are careening along a mountain road that is little more than a wide dirt trail. The ruts and deep divots, unexpected mounds and sudden turns would be a challenge for a four-wheel-drive vehicle; it is touch and go in the beat-up little taxi we have rented from Kigali. Because of the constant jostling and rattling, my pacemaker thinks I am jogging, when all I am doing is holding on for dear life. Doing exactly what it was made to do, the pacemaker steps up the pace abruptly. My heart is racing, and my armpits are drenched. Later, our driver—the intrepid Apollinaire—tells us with a proud smile that none of his friends thought that his little car would ever make it to this remote shrine to the Rwandan genocide.
We finally arrive in one piece at a little town known both for mass murder and courageous resistance to the bloodthirsty genocidaires. We are in Bisesero, Rwanda. What we discover in Bisesero is that Rwanda is in no position to “commemorate” its mass murders because they are still too much in the present.
The grenade that was tossed in the neighborhood of one of Rwanda’s busiest bus stations in March is one reminder of this unfinished business. Commentators saw it as a provocation just as the country entered into its ritualized month of memory work—including mass rallies in the capital city, but also visits to local genocide sites, like the one in Bisesero.
We approach the shrine—for that is essentially what the Bisesero site is—in a state of apprehension and confusion. Spread out over the carefully trimmed shrubbery leading up to the canopied memorial space are sundry pieces of white cloth with purple patterns I cannot discern. They are fluttering in the wind, constantly in danger of being swept away. A boy is busy arranging and rearranging these pieces of linen. I had seen something like this at home in Kigali: our housekeeper regularly put laundry out on the bushes and trees to dry as well—everyone does. But here? It seems disrespectful.
In measured tones, the survivor shows us one of the makeshift murder weapons that hang unceremoniously on a post nearby—a stick with rusty nails sticking out of the top, all bent so that together they form a claw of steel. He then shows us the corresponding skulls, explaining calmly how each had met his and her end. The telltale sign was the kind of damage done to the skull: One was punctured by the nail-enhanced club, others by machetes, yet others by rocks. You could tell, he explained, by looking at the missing pieces.
Witness to Tragedy
Photographing the remains is discouraged because this is a sacred site. But there is a need to show and document the murder, so it is allowed after all, but only with the proper permits from the appropriate ministries. I felt guilty for even asking. Yet commemoration is always torn between these two poles of respectful distance and concealment, on the one hand, and the need to chronicle, to “witness” to the unfathomable disaster, on the other. That is why the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, after much debate, decided to display a picture rather than the actual hair of Holocaust victims.
Glancing through the visitors’ book, we notice that there has been a steady stream of genocide tourists to distant Bisesero. The entries list people from France, Belgium, the United States—many of us from the countries that in some way collaborated (France, especially), shut their collective eyes or merely stood by in full knowledge of the atrocities being committed at an amazing pace. We are here, in part, to repent for our sins of omission.
It is well known that many of the Catholic churches that during the genocide held out the promise of refuge and deliverance became killing centers themselves. The infamous Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka of St. Famille in Kigali openly collaborated with the Hutu genocidaires, as did Father Athanase Seromba in Nyange. Yet these and other betrayals by some leaders have somehow not managed to discredit the church utterly. In fact, there is simultaneously the sense that the church itself was deeply betrayed, misused. Holy ground was desecrated. And some priests, like the Rev. Celestin Hakizimana, who saved thousands at St. Paul’s Church in Kigali, were indeed heroes.
It is impossible for an outsider—and perhaps even for a Rwandan—to sort it all out. And it is perhaps still too soon to do so. What we know for certain, however, is that Catholic churches frequently serve as the most arresting memorial sites, with their ominous, insistent displays of skulls, bones and graves resulting from the murders perpetrated in most cases on their own premises.
Perched on the shores of Lake Kivu, the picturesque Church of St. Pierre greets the visitor with its rows of skulls staring directly out at you. No avoidance here. This open display of human remains was never part of the German experience, except for some very few sites at the beginning, when the camps were liberated.
In the first exhibit at the Kigali Memorial Centre, visitors read about the colonial period prior to the founding of Rwanda in 1960: we learn that the Germans and Belgians exacerbated tribal tensions, a familiar colonial tactic in Africa. But this account is immediately tempered by the pointed reminder that colonial rule was, in the end, not all bad, for Europeans had brought Christianity to Rwanda. This is not a message an academic immersed in postcolonial theory can easily grasp. But there it is.
Without understanding this gratitude, one cannot comprehend the religious function of so many memorials. For many Rwandans, the image of the tortured, broken and mangled Jesus triggers visceral recognition of their own suffering—with an immediacy we can only imagine—and holds out the hope that, as for Christ, death is not the end. It is a compassionate form of remembrance that can easily elude the secular Westerner: at the end of this “Lenten suffering,” the promise of resurrection.
This was no less the case at Bisesero: those bits of laundry I saw wafting in the wind, straining to free themselves from the manicured hedge, were in fact freshly washed funeral shrouds. It was laundry day, after all, just as I had suspected; and these holy cloths, embroidered with the purple cross, would soon be returned to the steel shed to cover the dirty, rough-plank caskets that contained even more skeletal remains of the murdered.
Bisesero is known not only as a graveyard, but also as a place of courageous resistance. It was here that the Tutsi mounted their strongest opposition. That, too, is one of the things that is both concealed and revealed at this remote site. Official doctrine needs the tribal distinction to tell the story but simultaneously wants desperately—and understandably—to wash Rwandan society clean of any trace of ethnic distinction. There is to be no further tribal identification; Rwandans are to be (or become) indistinguishable from one another, one people, as ethnically anonymous as—one is tempted to say—the skulls of Bisesero.
If my heart still races whenever I recall my visit, and I break out in sweat, it is because I know that Rwanda is not there yet. The trauma is, by definition, of the moment; it is a past that will not recede and may yet provoke revenge killings in the future. Is the 1994 genocide to be remembered as an end point, or is it a tragic link in a chain of ethnic cleansing and vengeance? That, I think, is the deep disquiet that underlies Rwanda’s public liturgies of commemoration.
This year the work of remembrance began on April 7, which in the West is also known as Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.