Exhumation and Representation: Reflections on Records of Violence and the Genocide Archive of Rwanda

large gravesite in Rwanda

By: Martha Tenney

The launch of the Genocide Archive of Rwanda marks a significant milestone in the long collaboration between staff in Kigali, Rwanda and here in Austin at HRDI to document the 1994 Genocide. I come to this project decidedly late in the game; I’ve only worked as a Graduate Research Assistant at the HRDI for a little over three months. By the time I started here,  the majority of the work of collecting materials and documenting survivor testimonies in Rwanda was finished, and staff at HRDI had been collaborating with staff at Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre for over two years to digitize, describe, and transfer the videos, photos, publications, and documents that make up the archive. I am staggered by the magnitude of the efforts undertaken by the staff in Kigali: the breadth and depth of the materials they’ve compiled is remarkable, and more is being added all the time.

During my short time here, however, I’ve learned so much, not only about the Genocide itself, but also about the particular responsibilities and challenges of working with records of violence. Most of my involvement with the project focuses on structuring the online archive and figuring out how to best provide access to these resources. As a first-year master’s student at the School of Information at UT, I am studying digital archiving and preservation, cataloging, multimedia collection management, and website usability, all valuable skills for my work at HRDI. But when I first encountered the materials, I was flummoxed: How could I organize the archive in a way that would be meaningful to Rwandans and others hoping to utilize it, when my own understanding of the genocide was so circumscribed? Aside from representations in American media and entertainment—which depict the genocide as an ethnic conflict trope, as the result of the American government failing to intervene, or as the heroism of a few individuals in the face of senseless violence—my knowledge of the genocide was limited.

I was concerned by such limited representations of the genocide, in Rwanda and the rest of the world, and by the responsibility that I felt to represent it in the archive for diverse and divergent audiences. What are the ethics of preserving and providing access to these horrific stories and images? What is the image of Rwandans conveyed by these materials? Are they reduced to the neat categories of victims, survivors, and perpetrators, all inextricably bound to the violence of 1994? I recently re-read Susan Sontag’s last book, Regarding the Pain of Others, in which she discusses photographic representations of violence. Of photographs of “postcolonial Africa,” including photographs of the Rwandan genocide, she says that they typically communicate a “double message”:

They show a suffering that is outrageous, unjust, and should be repaired. They confirm that this is the sort of thing which happens in that place. The ubiquity of those photographs, and those horrors, cannot help but nourish belief in the inevitability of tragedy in the benighted or backward—that is, poor—parts of the world (p. 71).

While the materials in the archive are far more nuanced and complexly described than the photographs that Sontag mentions, I wanted to be conscious of the message that they sent and its possible interpretations.

As I started to listen to the testimonies and follow current events in Rwanda more closely, I also came to understand how providing access to these histories has complex political and practical implications for Rwandans. In their testimonies, survivors cite the threat of retributive violence, and Rwanda’s tenuous political situation has become all the more tense and repressive of dissent since the revelation of the current government’s involvement in the killing of Hutu refugees in the Congo. These very real, very current issues underscore the fact that these archives are far from inert. The stories and records in the archives address issues that continue to impact Rwandans, issues that remain painful and unresolved.

Overwhelmed by these larger concerns, I turned to the quickly multiplying practical matters of filling and organizing the archive: using the wiki structure of the website to categorize and create hierarchies in the archive, laying out pages to make them easier to navigate, editing descriptions, organizing all the material on UT’s servers, and copying the pages from Kigali’s local version of the site, accessible only at KGM to the online public site. These tasks occupied most of my time, and as soon as one challenge had been addressed another always popped up. The staff in Kigali worked at a breakneck pace, adding materials to the archive all the time. And despite technical hitches, an eight-hour time difference, and language barriers, the KGM archivists and staff always graciously answered my many questions.

As the launch date approached, the work intensified. In about two days, I copied all of the photo pages from the local site to the online site, which required that I look at each of the nearly 600 photos currently in the online archive. Seeing all those images in succession was intense. I hadn’t looked this closely at the materials since I’d begun working at HRDI. One photograph in particular almost made me break down. Although there are many grisly photos in the archives, there is something so jarringly violent about this one: the implied violence of the killing coupled with the inadvertent violence done to the bodies even in death. Would the archive perform an analogous second violence on the records of the genocide, digging up old pain and potentially creating new issues for Rwandans?

I continued to copy the pages, though, and the first photo took its place in the broader context of others depicting re-interment and memorial ceremonies, such as photos like the one above, the title of which is “Redonner leur dignité a vos morts est un imperatif pour tout être humain” (restoring dignity to your dead is essential for all human beings). The process of commemoration and dignified burial could not happen without the exhumation of those remains. Likewise, the process of reconciliation and healing could not occur without open access to these records of the genocide. The archives constitute an exhumation of the violence of 1994 that, while painful, ultimately honors the dead and affirms ongoing struggle of Rwandans to make peace with their past.

Martha Tenney is a first year master’s student at the UT School of Information. Prior to coming to UT, Martha completed archival internships at the progressive news program, Democracy Now!, and Franklin Furnace, an avant-garde art space in New York. She has also organized with the Prisoner Solidarity Project at Wesleyan University and studied environmental justice and green business practices in Senegal.

NPR, BBC, CNN, Guardian UK cover the Genocide Archive of Rwanda launch

Thanks to the coverage of several international news outlets, HRDI’s collaborative project with the Kigali Genocide Memorial, the Genocide Archive of Rwanda, received over 4,000 virtual visits over the weekend! I encourage you to check out the site if you haven’t already and to share it with friends, colleagues, students, and anyone with an interest in human rights. We hope that the Archive can be a resource in the classroom as well as in multiple communities.

If you are interested in seeing what others have to say about the project, here are some links to recent coverage.

HRDI team members, Christian Kelleher and Ladd Hanson, traveled to Rwanda for the launch. We will have pictures and an update from them soon. We will also soon post an entry from Martha Tenney, our diligent Graduate Research Assistant from the UT School of Information, who worked with Kigali Genocide Memorial staff to put all the materials online.

In the meantime, you can view photos from the HRDI’s past trips to Rwanda on our Flickr page.

The Genocide Archive of Rwanda launches with the help of the HRDI on Human Rights Day 2010

Skulls on UNHCR tarp in Kibuye
We know there’s been a long silence on our end, but it hasn’t been without good reason. Today, on Human Rights Day 2010, the HRDI is proud to announce the launch of the Genocide Archive of Rwanda, a collaborative project of the Kigali Genocide Memorial, Aegis Trust, and Rwanda’s National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide.

From April to July 1994, the Hutu government, with military and civilian participation and French military support, murdered approximately one million Tutsis, moderate Hutus, and Twa people in Rwanda.  Although the United Nations and western governments, such as that of the U.S., were aware of the Genocide, they did little to prevent it. In July 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Front defeated the Rwandan army and effectively ended the Genocide.

The interactive online digital archive contains a wealth of rich materials that document the development, lived experiences, and aftermath of the 1994 Genocide. The site features video testimonies from Genocide survivors and rescuers, perpetrator testimonies from the gacaca court proceedings, footage from annual remembrance ceremonies, archival photographs, colonial documents, maps, and propaganda publications, such as the infamous Kangura, that incited violence against Tutsis. All testimonies are given in the Kinyarwanda language; some videos have English subtitles as well as English and French transcripts.

This is the only project of its kind in Rwanda and allows previously inaccessible material to be consulted for education and research purposes. The physical materials have been contributed by the Kigali Genocide Memorial, Ibuka, Iwacu, and individuals.

The HRDI is very proud to be a part of this project! We hope you take the time to visit the site and learn from it.

Some press we’ve received so far:
University of Texas official press release
Guardian UK
Rwanda News Agency
Tex Libris blog

I interviewed with NPR’s Weekend Edition; the segment will air this Sunday (December 12). Check your local NPR affiliate schedule to see exact times. The Genocide Archive of Rwanda will also be featured on the NPR Picture Show blog. I’ll post direct links when I have them.

–T-Kay Sangwand, HRDI Archivist