Today marks twenty years since the start of the brutal murders of about 800,000 people in Rwanda, carnage that unfolded in a matter of months. We’d like to believe it took us by surprise, but there is just too much evidence to the contrary. It was reported in real time, and we looked away.
Americans tend to view the Rwandan genocide through the lens of the Holocaust, our point of reference at least since Steven Spielberg’s 1993 "Schindler’s List" helped boost public awareness of the mass murder of European Jews during World War II. And while this is something Rwandans actively endorse, using the Holocaust in this way both helps and hinders. It helps us see the African suffering we might otherwise dismiss, but it also blinds us to ongoing dangers.
Not that long ago, the Holocaust was widely considered an utterly incomparable, unique event in world history. Many survivors were outraged that their genocide would so quickly be turned into a cautionary tale for others, or worse, seen as just one among many historical instances of ethnic cleansing. They had a point: Why exploit or instrumentalize a people’s destruction before it had even been properly understood in its own right?
Since then, however, the Holocaust has gained widespread acceptance as a teaching aid. Indeed, this is a major justification for teaching young people about it in the first place. Nowhere is this more clearly in evidence than in Rwanda.
Last year I visited the Rwandan commemoration center in Kigali, a museum that, with its hefty admission and audio guide fees, clearly targets a foreign clientele. The first exhibit quickly takes you from the colonial creation of the country to the present day, with the genocide taking center stage. Relics, including explicit photographs of mass fratricide, are front and center. It is emotionally overwhelming - second only to the mass graves right outside the building, laid out in terraced layers descending the hillside, like a macabre vineyard of death.
But walk upstairs to the next exhibit and the events of 1994 are placed in a larger chain of historical genocides. First - and out of chronological order, by the way - is the Holocaust.
The message is clear: Rwanda is part of this gruesome genealogy. Rwandans belong to the broader human family, even if our common humanity is evoked through a shared propensity for inhumanity. Rwandans are not to be dismissed as intrinsically barbaric Africans who value life less than “we” do. We share a common human nature, no matter how great the cultural differences may seem on the surface.
But there is another, unintended message surely not intended by the exhibit’s curators. The Holocaust is the story of the almost total destruction of European Jews. It is above all history: The victims are dead, and the survivors for the most part emigrated to other parts of the world.
But in Rwanda things are not nearly as settled. Murderers, survivors, and others all live cheek by jowl in a small, crowded country. It is the victims (the Tutsis) who are in power, and “commemoration,” especially as it will be practiced this week, will mean large-scale exercises in re-triggering mass trauma. This is no longer a process of ascertaining individual guilt; rather, it is an implicit accusation of whole groups of people.
While official Rwandan policy decrees that the Tutsis and Hutus no longer exist, the notion of ethnic unity is a myth.
Two decades have not healed the ethnic divisions, not when you can walk the streets of Kigali and see suspicious scars and missing limbs. Not as long as perpetrators have still not been brought to justice. Not when individual silence about the genocide - as opposed to the state sponsored spectacles - is still deafening. No mass play-acting or public ritual can cover these wounds.
The deeply humane message sent by the Holocaust exhibit at the Kigali Memorial Museum reminds us that we are all, at bottom, one. We share human history equally.
But this week’s celebrations risk sending just the opposite message. “Never forget” - a slogan taken from Holocaust pedagogy - is not so easily transferable. Because for Rwandans, not forgetting means remembering, in often unfair and painful ways, the very ethnic rivalries that led to the catastrophe in the first place.
William Collins Donahue is a professor of German & Jewish Studies at Duke University and author, most recently, of "Holocaust as Fiction."
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