The Kigali Genocide Memorial preserves the horror of the Rwandan genocide in graphic detail, just as Yad Vashem captures the Holocaust.
By Mark Jacobs
It sits atop a hill overlooking the bustling city of Kigali, the capital of the country. As you drive up, the first thing you see is a large, dramatic archway entrance with the words “Kigali Genocide Memorial” and Rwandan soldiers standing on each side. There are Kleenex boxes in the lobby, and the ticket lady tells us to take some because we’re going to need it. We strap on the provided headphones and begin walking.
The somber tour takes us through winding, darkened hallways. On each side, we pass graphic photos, videos and artifacts that detail the massive tribal genocide that happened here in April 1994 when more than 1 million out of 7 million people were murdered over the course of 100 days. Another 200,000 Rwandans were displaced and hundreds of thousands of children were orphaned.
The displays hold nothing back and include such things as the actual machetes used by the murderers, shoes of the victims and, in one haunting room, we see hundreds of human bones and skulls, many bearing large, open fractures from those machetes.
There’s a separate children’s section, similar to Yad Vashem. The walls are filled with lots of photographs of once-happy children. The section is called “Tomorrow Lost.” As you enter, you see the words: “In memory of our beautiful and beloved children who should’ve been our future.”
In one of the film rooms we see a survivor explaining that the memorial is the place “where Rwandans can visit their relatives.” One film features a bride and groom who were both orphaned by the genocide. The groom tearfully says celebrations are especially tough because “there’s no adult family left.”
The memorial is not just a museum, but also a cemetery. Outside are mass graves, huge slabs of concrete that entomb about 250,000 of the dead. Flowers are strewn along the graves, left by loved ones. Next to the graves looms a huge wall, resembling the Viet Nam Memorial, filled with countless names of the dead. Everyone walking by is silent, shocked, numb, heartbroken. Some people need that Kleenex.
One display details how the Rwandan authorities from the Hutu tribe set about to dehumanize and ethnically cleanse members of the Tutsi tribe. We see the “Hutu 10 Commandments,” which included such things as “no Tutsi wives, business partners or secretaries permitted,” “no more education for Tutsis,” and “you cannot loan them money.” The final cruel inscription: “Do not take pity on them. They are cockroaches.”
Upon reading that, my mind went straight to the Nuremberg Laws in the 1930s, in which Germany proclaimed that Jews would not be permitted to do most anything, including going to German schools, marrying non-Jews, entering theaters, parks and skating rinks or even driving nearby.
As a Jew, it’s impossible to tour the memorial in Rwanda and not think of the Holocaust.
One section actually tells the story of the Holocaust in two rooms, along with the stories of the genocides in Cambodia, the Balkans, Namibia and Armenia. (I couldn’t turn my head away from watching a group of Africans in the museum closely studying the story and the photographs of the Holocaust.)
This place, aside from teaching about the horror of 1994 in Rwanda, is also a powerful reminder that full-scale genocides have happened and continue to happen. They are not isolated events and not necessarily past tense. No particular ethnic group, neither Jews nor others, has a monopoly on its suffering.
Its victims are vast, crossing over centuries of human history and spanning the entire plane.
This is one of those places you visit and then can never forget, just like Yad Vashem. Actually, it was inspired by two people who visited Yad Vashem and decided that Rwanda needed a tangible place where its people could go and collectively grieve. The people here say that facing the ugliest chapter of their past is the best way for them to heal and to teach future generations.
The nation is now run by a popular president who once led the Tutsi rebels. Paul Kagame has preached forgiveness and solidarity. It’s somewhat of a miracle that today Rwanda is bustling and widely accepted as one of the true jewels in Africa, earning it the moniker “the Switzerland of Africa.”
The country’s rebirth is a bright and positive sign of hope, yet it cannot erase the horror that unfolded here in 1994. The Kigali Genocide Memorial preserves that horror in graphic detail, just as Yad Vashem captures the Holocaust.
The Rwandan genocide is another monumental tragedy for humanity. It’s not bigger, smaller, worse or any less painful than any other genocide in history. Genocide is genocide. They can’t and shouldn’t be ranked. Each one is equally catastrophic, vile and incomprehensible. And each one, sadly, is an inescapable reminder that from time to time, despite all our progress, humans are capable of completely losing their humanity.
Mark Jacobs is the AIPAC Michigan chair for African American Outreach, a co-director of the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity, a board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council-AJC and the director of Jewish Family Service’s Legal Referral Committee.