David liked to play football. He liked rice and beans and apparently smiled a lot. David was five- years-old when it all happened. The bottom of the plaque spells it out as simply as a math equation.
Cause of Death: Killed by a Machete.
I stare into the eyes of the blown up black and white print smiling down at me and I get a weird shiver, like meeting a ghost only to have it offer to buy you a beer and chat about a recent generic sporting event.
But that’s how David died, and now I stand in a room full of pictures just like his, each with a different name and little smiling face. Paul. Francoise. Benoit. Alex. Little particulars about them are listed: what they liked, where they lived, what made them happy. The place looks like a still-life playground full of fading smiles posing like hams in front of flashes and the rhythmic clicking of rotating camera film. It’s almost a serene place until you remember that all of them were slaughtered in cold blood before they even knew the difference between a Hutu and a Tutsi.
Kigali’s Genocide Memorial Centre isn’t for the faint of heart. The memorial sits at the crest of one of the city’s rolling hills, a sightly stone building whose massive stature stands in stark contrast to the single-storey aluminum thatched residences that line nearby hills like polka dots on a curvy cocktail dress. It almost feels too pretty to be what it is, like Sauron’s looming black tower of evil would fit in a bit nicer with the general décor.
But the inside is a no nonsense snapshot that refuses to sugarcoat any of what happened in 1994. The facts unfold in front of you like a history book, presented like scenes from a dark chronology whether you already know the ending but decide to follow along anyway, hoping it might come out different. Maybe this time Roméo Dallaire and Don Cheadle fly in with a helicopter and hot cocoa at the last moment and save all those people.
But no, not here, not this time. Here, you get just what you didn’t pay for. They want you to know. They want you to see every nitty gritty detail for yourself, to see everything from their eyes. “This Happened,” the walls scream, shaking you violently by the shoulders. “Wake the fuck up.”
I’d been to the Holocaust memorial in Berlin a few months earlier, a stone’s throw from the glass dome adorned Reichstag which houses the country’s parliament and paisley-tied politicians. The monument is a somber pseudo-cemetery with just under 3000 stone slabs of varying sizes that combine to create a wailing wave of tangible sorrow that screams a certain kind of retrospective remorse. But the tone and feeling you get as you cross the makeshift gravestones is one of apology rather than empathy. “This is what ‘A’ did to ‘B’” it whispers to passersby clever enough to listen. “This is what we did to them.”
The Rwandans don’t have that luxury. The drawback of a civil genocide is that there’s nowhere to point fingers, no one to blame and no one to scapegoat. Rwanda’s memorial grabs you by the scruff and screams “Look what we did to each other.” Their barebones, no bullshit historical Polaroid is an ironically living testament to man’s cruel indifference to his neighbour and the power of hate and history over humanity.
The pictures were tough enough, the smiling, breathing little scenes of life before the sky crashed onto Kigali. But the real kickers were the bare rooms filled with machete mutilated skulls or glass cases filled with empty outfits mounted like rows of lonely scarecrows after the nuclear apocalypse. One of the hollow shirts reads “I Heart Ottawa!” and I pause for a moment, wondering whether I want to smile or frown. I do neither, it seems easier.
The difference was that Ottawa didn’t send the love back. No one did actually. The world watched it all unfold behind low-resolution mid-90s television screens before switching the channel to watch Seinfeld. Like me, no one smiled, no one frowned, no one did anything and for 100 days neighbours hacked each other to bits and called it cockroach extermination while the UN debated whether anyone there was worth saving. Hey, it’s not your problem as long as you call it a “tribal conflict,” right? Your mandate is to deal with genocide only, which is especially convenient when you’re the ones that define it.
But the memorial doesn’t blame, it doesn’t offshoot and it doesn’t pan away. They want you to see the damned spot on the carpet they refuse to cover up to appease new houseguests. Halfway through you wind up feeling like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, strapped to a chair, eyes wired open, screaming for it all to stop but knowing that this is exactly what you signed up for. You want to turn around and puke right there on the spot, spill your guts all over the rosy red carpet. It would be easy, only that you turn around and find yourself face to face with a looping video of a woman being savagely beaten by a group of men, or scenes from a grenaded church turned into a makeshift high-efficiency slaughterhouse. The whole place starts spinning around your head and you need to sit, go for a run, have a drink, do something, anything. But all you get to do is keep walking along the highlighted path, past the gift shop, following the little yellow-brick road that leads the way into hell’s funhouse. They offered a water fountain for me more faint of heart.
I leave the hall of children’s photos and cross into the courtyard where a sign informs me that over two hundred and fifty thousand people are buried in a mass grave covered with slabs of concrete, roses and wild Rwandan flowers, “Please respect the sanctity of their final resting place.” The bodies are mostly members of the Doe family, almost unrecognizable when they were scooped up from the streets once the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s military dust had settled. A local told me he couldn’t eat meat for years after ‘94.
Somewhere I hear David’s tiny voice, howling from under the concrete. “Hey! You there! Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here? What did you learn?”
David and I would have been about the same age today, and I wonder what I would say to him if we ever met. I stare at the enormous slabs of cement and wonder if he would hate me. If he’d look me up and down from my Converse to my coif and spit right in my face without a second thought. I’d probably let him and part of me wishes he would.
All I want to do is tell him what all dead men want to hear: that he changed something, that people all around the world heard him scream when the blade came down, that it was all worth something. I want to claw through the concrete, pull him out by the hand and show him a better world, a world that saw the writing on the wall and turned things around. I want to tell him we did all we could, that we made it better, that it wasn’t all for nothing.
But it’s hard to lie to the dead. Hell, it’s actually really hard to say anything at all, especially when you’re separated by three feet of concrete and the screaming of a thousand imaginary voices in your head.
Oh David, it all happened again, and again, and again, and again. The only difference is now we watch it in HD.
Originally published by Carleton University International Student Services Office and later by Speak Magazine.