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Should The Bones Of Rwanda Be Silenced?

by Jean Ruremesha

Rwanda Copes With Murderous Past on "Genocide Day"
The remains of genocide victims are scattered in some 300 sites in Rwanda. Skulls, even whole skeletons are laid out in buildings where killings occurred. Should the bones be buried to help the nation forget?

(IPS) -- A decade after the genocide in Rwanda, citizens of the country are divided over whether victims' remains should be preserved at the sites where they can still be viewed.

Some believe that the remains must be kept as they are, in an ongoing memorial to the 1994 tragedy.

The government and many victims' families also feel that burying the bones would wipe out some of the proof that genocide took place in the country. In addition, there are fears that such burials would help the cause of those who seek to minimize the impact of the massacres.

"To make these bones disappear would simply mean killing off the memory of the Tutsi genocide," says Butoto Muhozo, the director of culture at the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture. Muhozo is in charge of preserving the memorial sites.

Adds Jeanne Murekatete, a sociologist who survived the genocide, "The Nazi genocide of the Jews was immortalized by abundant works of literature, cinema and various other art forms. We, on the other hand, don't have much except the victims' remains."

These words are echoed by Charles Rusagara, a Rwandan who returned from exile in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1995.

"For those who did not experience the genocide, we have to say that these sites are the only thing which allows us to be somewhat less abstract about it, to have a more or less concrete idea of what it was," he says.

Under the auspices of Fest'Africa an annual arts festival held in the French city of Lille 20 African writers were invited to produce novels, plays and essays about the impact of the genocide. The two year project, 'Writing as the Duty of Memory', got underway in 1998.

However, the writers' work was not widely distributed. The same is true of other genocide-related material such as an account of the killings written by Yolande Mukagasana, a genocide survivor now living in Belgium.

Still, others claim that burying the bones would be a step towards helping the country overcome the genocide.

"These sites will always be there to remind us, our children and our grandchildren that 'You vile Hutus, this is what you did to the Tutsis,'" says Pierre Ugilishema, who was charged with genocide, and released on bail in April 2003. For the sake of national reconciliation, he thinks the bones should be buried in order to "put the genocide behind us."

Upwards of 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered by Hutu militants in 1994. The killing spree began after a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot down over the Rwandan capital, Kigali, by suspected Hutu extremists.

The remains of genocide victims are scattered in some 300 sites in Rwanda. Certain massacres occurred in churches, which continue to display the decomposed bodies. In other instances, skulls, tibias even whole skeletons are laid out in rows, in buildings where killings occurred.

Rwandan authorities have previously been accused of using the display of bones to maintain sympathy abroad, and deflect criticism of their repressive stance towards the independent press and certain non-governmental organizations.

Anne Mujawayezu, a consultant in Kigali whose husband has been imprisoned for genocide since 1998, sees the display of remains as a "permanent desecration of the victims' bodies."

"The FPR (the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front Front Patriotique Rwandais, FPR) is wrong to think that displaying these bones will continue to move the international community for long...Disapproval will soon follow the indignation people will at feel at seeing human remains exposed," she noted.

Yet, few would deny that genocide remains bear a powerful witness to the events of 1994.

In the Protestant church of Nyamata, some 20 kilometres east of Kigali, bodies are arranged between benches still clothed in the garments they wore at the time of the massacre.

A large hole dug in one of the walls of the building tells the story of how the killers were able to get in. Plates with traces of food suggest that the murders took place in the middle of a meal.

The Catholic church, situated about a dozen metres away, was also the scene of a massacre. One of the skeletons in its basement bears signs of sexual assault: three large pieces of wood stick out from the pelvis, between the two tucked-in thighbones.

"The girl tried to resist a group of rapists. After having overpowered her and probably raped her, they stuck these pieces of wood in her vagina for all eternity," explains Gervais Habumukiza, a guide at the site.

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Albion Monitor August 3, 2004 (

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