Remembering genocides and mass atrocities matters for survivors, for victims and it concerns us all.

By Dr Julia Viebach

On an overcast day outside Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, Rosalinde and I were sitting in front of her house overlooking the stretch of mountains in front of us. Soaking in the beauty around me, Rosalinde’s story of how she survived the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda seemed unreal, as if from a distant country in a distant time. But it is only 27 years ago, at this very place, that Rosalinde and so many other Genocide survivors lost their loved ones: daughters, sons, husbands, brothers, sisters, parents, uncles, aunties, cousins, grandparents, friends and neighbours. 

Around one million lives were lost in only 100 days. 

Rosalinde and one cousin were the only survivors in her family. She holds the memory of her dead family dear, admitting that, “the grief remains because genocide and death is in our hearts.”  

For many survivors of the 1994 Genocide it is therefore tremendously important to remember those who perished in 1994. Rosalinde continues, explaining that “we remember after the 100 days because we represent whom we lost; it is a way of building ourselves. It is about restructuring a normal relationship to those who died.”  

Every year, starting 7 April, Rwanda commemorates the victims of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. The national mourning period lasts one week whereas many survivors commemorate the massacres on the calendric day they took place between 7 April and 4 July 1994. The commemorative services often include survivor testimonies, burials and at night, vigils are held. 

During earlier sparks of ethnic violence in the 70s and early 90s, and during the 1994 Genocide, survivors did not have the chance to bury or mourn those who were killed. This is one reason why the annual commemoration is essential for many survivors although, as Rosalinde expressed, “remembering is an everyday activity; it never leaves us.”  

But the commemoration period is particularly relevant for the social memory-making process, because, as many survivors expressed in interviews, the commemoration makes their pain and grief real as it is publicly acknowledged and the victims of the Genocide are socially recognised. 

Rosalinde reaffirmed, “commemoration shows us that we are not alone.” 

Given the loss of belief in social norms and values this is an important aspect of commemoration for many survivors. Remembering is important for the victims of genocides and mass atrocities because as Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once wrote, “to forget a Holocaust is to kill twice”. Remembering connects what is lost to what is there. Remembering gives faces and names to those who died cruel and unjust deaths. 

Many survivors of the Genocide Against the Tutsi talk about the importance of commemorating the dead so as to re-member them into the world of the living, to transform a present absence into a symbolic presence. 

Honore is a survivor of a church massacre in Rwanda’s Eastern province. He lost all members of his family. He explained that, “remembering makes them unforgotten. During commemoration or when I go to the Genocide memorial where they are buried, I pause to reflect on what they meant to me, on all the good time we had together, but I also remember then how badly they were killed. 

Remembering can give solace but it is very painful, too.” 

Adelite, who had lost her children during the 1994 Genocide, added that, “the family that doesn’t remember will fade away”. Remembering lost loved ones is therefore a moral obligation. Importantly, remembering gives victims back their dignity that they lost in life and in death.

Remembering the violent history of our own country and of those in far distance concerns us all in the present, and for the future. Why? So we learn not to repeat the mistakes and crimes from the past and so that genocide and mass atrocity can never happen again. 

“Empathy is weakness” was one motto of the German SS. Remembering the victims of such atrocity reconnects us to our humanness and at the same time teaches us about the failure of humanity because of indifference and apathy. 

The International Community was indifferent to the crimes happening before their eyes in Rwanda in 1994. It was too small a country, too far away, too unimportant and bluntly put, too black.

Remembering genocide is relevant today, because globally we see a steady rise in hate crime motivated by racism, religion or homophobia. We see a trend of xenophobia and fear of “otherness” at a time where thousands of people are fleeing war and injustices in their home countries turning to the West for help. 

Sadly, we also see the rise of far-right parties in Central, Eastern Europe and right-wing movements in the US that want to re-evoke ideas of a hierarchy of humans that we hoped were a matter of the past.

But this is precisely, why we need to wake up now; why we need to hear and listen to the endless cry that is not of one country and not of one time but is here right before us. To do so, we need to bring back empathy for the suffering of “others” near and far – through remembering.

Dr Julia Viebach is a Departmental Lecturer in the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford.

The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of Woke Owl Pty Ltd.

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