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Don't look away from genocide history

  • 29 March 2018


Don't look away. This is what I tell myself as I walk through the Kigali Genocide Memorial in the Rwandan capital city.

Visitors have crowded around images replete with dead bodies, screens unreeling silent, staccato footage of attacks, reams of text telling the story of that day in April 1994 when evil descended on this country.

But this is not a voyeuristic gore-fest. The memorial to the victims of Rwanda's genocide, in which more than one million Tutsis were slaughtered over a 100-day period by their Hutu countrymen — even as the UN was alerted to events — offers just enough of the horror to hold people's attention.

And it is the repository of such a superfluity of victims' smiling faces and their heartbreaking stories that leaves visitors questioning how it is possible for a country to turn on its own people like that — and a world to turn its face away from the unfolding horror.

This is the urgent question that atrocities (and memorials) such as this should provoke: why do humans turn into killing machines at the behest of their leaders, and when will we allow it to happen again?

Days earlier, the subject of the genocide had arisen during dinner with fellow guests at a lodge in north-western Rwanda. We had all been captivated by this country of gently rolling hills, spotlessly clean streets (plastic bags were banned here a decade ago; pavements are swept and verges weeded) and disarmingly friendly people. We were incredulous at their ability to heal themselves of unhealable wounds, to reunify just two decades after unspeakable atrocities were carried out on these same tidy streets.

None of us could imagine such wholesale slaughter occurring in our own countries. We were set apart from such warfare, mere observers of a conflict that had destroyed an entire people.


"There is no point in romanticising a country that has overcome hatred when the same old genocidal story is unfurling in some far-off location as we speak."


And yet each of us was born in a country that wouldn't have existed in its current form if not for similar brutality and repression: the US, South Africa, Australia, Britain. First peoples had been massacred, communities dispossessed of their land, empires expanded in the name of development.

Borders had been arbitrarily drawn and tribes torn asunder in the greedy quest for resources.

And let's not forget, I pointed out as our discussion continued, those people who are being