Murambi Genocide Memorial

Phil Vernon, an exhibition design volunteer at Kigali Genocide Memorial who helped bring the exhibition at this new museum to completion, has sent me the following detailed description:

Arriving at Murambi hill, one is first struck by the breathtaking beauty of its location. The site of a partially completed technical school in Nyabagabe District in southern Rwanda, it is a tidy array of unfinished classrooms, dormitories and washrooms situated on the grassy crest of a red dirt ridge that falls away on both sides to lush green bottom lands, beyond which rise the steeply cultivated and densely populated hills that hold this place in a close, but in no way comfortable, embrace.


For all its beauty, Murambi is troubled, the site of a horrific massacre of men, women and children during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.


May 26th marks the day of the official opening of a new exhibition at Murambi by the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide (CNLG). Working under the auspices of CNLG, the exhibition was created by Aegis Trust, the UK-based organization responsible for the development and management of the Kigali Genocide Memorial and Genocide Archive of Rwanda.


“We would like to extend our warmest thanks to the Aegis Trust for their outstanding exhibition design and their close collaboration with us throughout this project,” says Jean de Dieu Mucyo, Executive Secretary of CNLG.


Murambi Genocide Memorial is now the second commemorative site in Rwanda to offer visitors a museum-quality experience, comparable to that of the Kigali Genocide Memorial which opened in 2004 in the capital.


Murambi, with its history as a killing site and its unique, compelling displays of preserved bodies, is arguably the most important site in Rwanda for confronting the truth of the genocide. The addition of an exhibition locating Murambi’s story within that of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi provides both a national and local context for understanding what happened here.


Murambi is where up to fifty thousand Tutsi from all over the region were sent in the early days of the genocide, ostensibly for their safety, only to have their water and the flow of food shut off by the authorities. Murambi is where local militias sent to kill Tutsi were met by fierce resistance and turned back. The subsequent attack in the early morning of April 21st by the combined forces of the army and militia using guns, grenades, clubs, hoes and machetes was virtually complete: only a dozen are known to have survived.


After the massacre, the authorities used bulldozers to dig mass graves; upon later exhumation hundreds of the buried bodies were found mummified by the heat of decomposition. These bodies, preserved with lime, can now be viewed on white-painted racks in the dormitory blocks. The humanity of individual corpses – their torment still visible in the frozen cry of a child, the chopped skull and severed leg tendons, the missing limbs – is the grim legacy of Murambi.


“There are those who feel that only reburial can offer dignity for the dead, but some survivors ask what dignity there is in being forgotten,” reports Freddy Mutanguha, Country Director of Aegis Trust. “They fear that unless the ultimate evidence is there to see, the genocide could be denied and perhaps one day happen again.”


The Murambi exhibition is comprised of 4000 square feet (350 sq m) of exhibit space, complete with floor-to-ceiling displays of archival photos and interpretive text in three languages – Kinyarwanda, English and French – as well as video installations and an interactive GPS display of killing sites. The testimonies of survivors, of others who risked their own lives to shelter those targeted, and of the perpetrators themselves provide a window into the stark emotions and inner struggles of Rwandans coming to terms with the genocide.


Incorporating recent scholarship and archival material, the Murambi exhibition traces the history of the genocide from colonial times – the cycles of anti-Tutsi violence and discrimination ushered in with independence, the escalation of propaganda and attacks against Tutsi by successive Hutu regimes – revealing how plans for extermination were prepared and carried out by the authorities at all levels, by the army and militia during the genocide, and what was done – and not done – to stop it.


Following the broad narrative of the genocide are exhibits that focus specifically on the events at Murambi. With chilling clarity, the story of what unfolded during the night of April 21, 1994 is told in the words of those few who survived. Visitors then pass through rooms of family photos mounted larger-than-life upon the walls – the smiling faces seeming to refuse the brutal fact of their slaughter – where glass-covered burial crypts, designed but not yet completed, will hold preserved bodies: adults in one chamber, and children in another.


A final room displays the important stories of people who risked death and suffered themselves to rescue Tutsi and to preserve human life.


The exhibition ends with a challenge to visitors: Now that you have heard the story of Murambi, what is in your heart, and what are you moved to do? Visitors are invited to write on slips of coloured paper and to post them on a bulletin board for others to read.


On opening day, after the official ceremony, crowds of local people enter the exhibition, looking this way and that, while hundreds outside press against the glass doors and windows, awaiting their turn. They have come to see what is here at Murambi. Some may come again.


Another door has opened, another step taken on a long journey that must of necessity be negotiated by Rwandans themselves. Today, passing through the doorway of the exhibition many of the young are learning their history for the first time. Rwanda today is building a positive and inclusive future, one which depends on understanding the past in order to say ‘Never again’ to genocide. In its already important role in remembering the past, Murambi Genocide Memorial has been enhanced significantly by the opening of its excellent new genocide exhibition.


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