Dealing with past atrocities: Do Rwandan memorials contribute to enhancing the reconciliation process?

Politics and Society

Do Rwandan genocide memorials help?

Twenty years after the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi and those Hutu considered as traitors, Rwandans are still trying to cope with their past and to prevent similar atrocities from occurring in the future. Do memorials contribute to the reconciliation process?



In February 2014, during a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial, I was horrified by the level of violence that the victims endured. It is was extremely emotional to imagine the hardships victims of this genocide experienced during the three months of brutal killings, rape, mutilations and other forms of inhumane torture. The violence was directed towards those people identified as potential ‘enemies’ and surprisingly, this included children. My sentiments were that you would not even wish such a terrifying experience upon your worst enemy.

Pictures of killed people donated by survivors are installed on a wall inside the Gisozi memorial in Kigali, which depicts the Rwanda’s genocide.

The role of the UN
Another depressing aspect of the story was the role played by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), who was sent to monitor the implementation of the provisions of the peace accord signed by the then Rwandan government, led by Juvénal Habariyimana, and the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RFP), in 1993, in Arusha, Tanzania. UNAMIR which was mandated only to undertake monitoring by Chapter VI of the UN Charter, was not empowered to use of force to impose peace or to protect victims.   This was prior to the introduction of the UN doctrine of the responsibility to protect. Ultimately, UNAMIR failed to prevent genocide, which is an indictment on the entire international community. This was largely due to how inadequately the situation was presented in international media, reducing pressure on the UN. Member States  to acknowledge that the 1948 Genocide Convention was applicable in Rwanda.

Clothes belonging to victims of the genocide at the Murambi Genocide Memorial Center in Rwanda. Photo: Shawna Nelles.

Subsequently, the UN Security Council has not been held accountable for its flawed decision-making over Rwanda, which led to the withdrawal of UN Forces (commonly known as blue helmets) and the ultimate collapse of the UNAMIR. The UN withdrawal enabled the murderous Hutu Power movement to proceed with genocide. While some 470 volunteer peacekeepers stayed on in Rwanda trying to save as many people as possible, the UN failed to even provide them with supplies and logistical support.

A controversial process
The use of memorials is one of the strategies used by Rwandans to prevent future atrocities. The main memorial site is located at Gisozi, in Kigali, but there are other important memorial sites in and outside the capital.

The memorials force us to reflect on what malicious leadership and the people they coerce can do. Memorials serve to remind people of what happened and convey the message: never again! The memorial also plays a quasi-judicial role, in giving victims the sense that their truth has been recorded and their violations have been recognised.  However, the establishment of memorial sites can also be a controversial process, particularly in the way that some aspects of the historical record are emphasised, distorting the whole picture. While memorials have a useful function, if they are not inclusive they do not necessarily promote reconciliation.

Plaque at the Kigali Memorial Centre with a quote from a survivor.

In the case of Rwandan Genocide Memorial, the extermination of Tutsi is displayed in such a way that those Hutu who were victims as well do not seem to be remembered in a significant way.

All Hutus?
Another issue is related to how the new concept and project of “Ndi Umunyarwanda” (I am a Rwandan) is being interpreted and implemented. This is wide national campaign whose objective is to foster the reconciliation process and redefine the value of being a Rwandan citizen.


According to those against this policy, mainly from the Hutu diaspora, this project is aimed at recognising that the 1994 genocide was carried out in the name of all Hutu and for this reason all Hutu must ask forgiveness from the Tutsi. This opinion seems to match that of the government’s, published in its Imvaho Journal. The government version is that the concept is focused on eliminating the past ideology that ultimately led Rwanda to genocide. The recognition of committed atrocities and seeking of forgiveness is emphasised as a central aspect of this “Rwandasition” project. However, the recurring theme is the need for all Hutu to seek forgiveness from the Tutsi. This is now happening twenty years after the genocide.  The inevitable question is whether the new generation of Hutus should be considered as responsible for what their parents did.

The controversies over this new policy also call us to reflect on its possible consequences.  Is this new ‘reconciliation policy’ likely to promote cohesion between Rwandans, particularly if it focuses on penance being paid by one ethnic group, the Hutu? Will such a project promote “Rwandaness” or generate resentment among the Hutu, which may have implications for the future peace of the country.

A sign at the Nyamata Memorial Church.

In erecting memorials and in implementing the new policy of “Ndi Umunyarwanda” there is an idea of consolidating unity among Rwandans thus fostering reconciliation. However, as the NGO Impunity Watch observed, “In Rwanda, while the use of ethnic denominations is now banished, Hutu killed by their kinsmen for trying to protect their Tutsi neighbours have no place in genocide memorials, for fear of undermining the specificity of that crime”.

There is an impression that these Hutu victims, who expressed their humanity in trying to save Tutsis, have not been memorialised. It is as if this deliberate omission has hijacked the substance of a true reconciliation in Rwanda. As you travel through the country you still have a sense that genuine reconciliation, based on the truth of the positive role of moderate Hutus, is not taking place.

Wall of Names at Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. Photo credit: Richard Wainwright

Paradoxically, it appears as though the Kigali Memorial stands as a lasting accusation of one ethnic group against another. There is a feeling of exclusion when you read on the Memorial which makes reference to the “Genocide against Tutsi”.

Memorials are not inherently about reconciliation
According to Dacia Viejo-Rose, memorials involve a constellation of meanings, symbols, emotion, memories and narratives. They are not inherently about reconciliation but they can be used to communicate a reconciliatory message or something else like anger and sorrow. (The memorials have the ability to revive the wounds of the past and through emotions, the wounded memories can translate into specific attitudes that may undermine reconciliation). Depending on the conveyed message, there are consequences, good or bad. So, it is up to the society to determine the purpose of the memorial. Therefore, it is self-evident that Rwandans should adopt a new and inclusive approach to memorialisation, based on the recognition of all those who suffered from the genocide. Without an inclusive truth of the past, the new process of defining what “Rwandaness’ means will become distorted and corrupted, which will have consequences for peace in the long-run.

One of several testimonies of children outside the Kigali memorial.

Pillars at the Kigali Genocide Memorial representing the ten Belgium UN Peacekeepers who lost their lives.

Kigali Genocide Memorial with shrapnel holes in the wall.

Eternal Flame at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre.

This article is published with gratitude to Patrick Hajayandi and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town.


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