Writing on Bones

Posted: January 29, 2011 in Genocide Denial
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By NICKI HITCHCOTT Research in African Literatures, 2009

Summary:

 

During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, an estimated 50,000 people were slaughtered at the Murambi technical school in Gikongoro province. The school buildings now house a memorial museum where the exhumed bodies of some of the victims are displayed in memory of the Rwandan genocide. Four years later, Boubacar Boris Diop visited Rwanda under the aegis of the “Ecrire par devoir de mémoire” project. Diop’s trip led to the publication of the novel Murambi: le livre des ossements (2000) (Murambi: The Book of Bones), a fictional commemoration of the Rwandan genocide, based on the massacre that took place at the Murambi technical school. Reading the memorial text alongside the memorial museum, this article discusses the ways in which Diop’s novel commemorates the extermination of around one million Rwandan people in one hundred days and, in so doing, implicates the reader in a process of remembering–and acknowledging–genocide.ABSTRACT FROM AUTHORCopyright of Research in African Literatures is the property of Indiana University Press and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder’s express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use. This abstract may be abridged. No warranty is given about the accuracy of the copy. Users should refer to the original published version of the material for the full abstract.

 

Excerpt from Article:

 

Writing on Bones: Commemorating Genocide in Boubacar Boris Diop’s Murambi NICKI HITCHCOTT University of Nottingham nicki.hitchcott@nottingham.ac.uk ABSTRACT During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, an estimated 50,000 people were slaughtered at the Murambi technical school in Gikongoro province. The school buildings now house a memorial museum where the exhumed bod- ies of some of the victims are displayed in memory of the Rwandan geno- cide. Four years later, Boubacar Boris Diop visited Rwanda under the aegis of the “Ecrire par devoir de mémoire” project. Diop’s trip led to the publi- cation of the novel Murambi: le livre des ossements (2000) {Murambi: The Book of Bones), a fictional commemoration of the Rwandan genocide, based on the massacre that took place at the Murambi technical school. Reading the memorial text alongside the memorial museum, this article discusses the ways in which Diop’s novel commemorates the extermination of around one million Rwandan people in one hundred days and, in so doing, implicates the reader in a process of remembering—and acknowledging—genocide. In April 1994, an estimated 50,000 people were massacred on the site of theMurambi technical school in southern Rwanda. Fearing for their lives, thepeople had taken refuge in the classrooms of the school, where they remained for two weeks without food or water before eventually being brutally murdered by Interahamwe militia.’ The bodies were thrown into mass graves where they were later discovered by United Nations investigators. The school buildings now house a memorial museum where the bodies of some of the victims, exhumed from mass graves, are displayed in memory of the Rwandan genocide. Visitors to Murambi are confronted with dozens of rooms filled with piles of skeletons and skulls of the victims of this massacre. Plans are currently underway to develop the site with the creation of a genocide prevention center designed in association « RESEARCH IN AFRICAN LITERATURES, Vol.40, No. 3 (Fall2009).©2009 *

 

NIGKI HITGHGOTT « 49 with UK holocaust education charity. Aegis Trust. In what will become a memorial of international significance at Murambi, the bones of the victims have already become central to remembering the genocide. Forever trapped in the horror of experiencing their own deaths, the skeletons of the victims appear to continuously re-enact the atrocities of April 1994. For this reason, one of the chief concerns for those involved with the construction of the genocide memorial is how to conserve or represent the piles of human skeletal remains. Writing in the UK newspaper The Guardian, Aegis Trust Director James Smith explains that “by stopping them turning to dust and by keeping their memory alive, we aim to prevent this scene from recurring in Rwanda or elsewhere in the world.” Smith’s emphasis on the importance of preserving the bones suggests that without the material evidence, the victims’ stories will be forgotten; they will literally turn to dust. Of course, the difficulty with the materialization of memory lies precisely in the way in which it attempts to objectify a quintessentially subjective process. As Susan Grane reminds us, “memory is not static, but it can be made to seem so through the creation of forms of representation that attempt to solidify memories’ meanings, and it is through this realm of preservation that memories interact with museums” (1-2). Memories can become fixed through preservation and display and so the decision about what and how to preserve and display can also determine what and how we remember. For this reason, it can be argued that commemoration always has a political agenda. This is certainly Kenneth Har- row’s view of the Rwandan government’s decision to build memorials on sites like Murambi. Such memorials, Harrow argues, serve to construct a reductive version of the complex history of the genocide: “with or without the guides the shrines function to canalize our reactions and understandings into a fixed narrative of the genocide—one that seems almost to write itself” (41). For Harrow, the genocide memorial fails to include the visitor or reader in its attempt to objectify and institu- tionalize memory. In his view, the only useful account of genocide is “the account that refuses to leave the reader out of it: the account where the past is not distanced from our lives, and where the consequences are not over for us or for them; the account that refuses the comfortable position of distance and mere observation” (40). Shrines and testimonials, he suggests, fail to generate such a painful proxim- ity; works of fiction, on the other hand, can—and sometimes do—achieve this aim. To accept such a view is to make an important distinction between memorial sites like that of the Murambi technical school and fictional commemorations such as Boubacar Boris Diop’s novel Murambi, le livre des ossements, written in response to the author’s visit to that same place in 1998.The novel, which presents an imagined version of the massacre at Murambi, has been translated into English as Murambi: The Book of Bones and was included in the “Africa’s 100 Best Books” list. Against the background of some of the mixed responses to the Murambi memorial museum, this article will analyze Diop’s fictional version of the Murambi massacre as a com- memorative work of fiction, and will consider to what extent Diop creates what Harrow calls an “account that refuses to leave the reader out of it” (40). While it is indisputable that books and museums perform different social functions, often in very different ways, reading the memorial text alongside the memorial museum highlights a number of interesting similarities, and generates important questions about commemorating genocide.

 

50 S RESEARCH IN AERICAN LITERATURES ©VOLUME 40 NUMBER 3 Diop’s Murambi was one of nine books produced as a result of the 1998 literary mission, “Rwanda: écrire par devoir de mémoire” ‘Rwanda: Writing as a Duty to Memory.’ Co-ordinated by Nocky Djedanoum, organizer of the annual Lille-based festival of African literature and culture, Fest’Africa, this project took the form of a two-month period of residence in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, where a group of ten African writers from eight different countries were invited to reflect on the recent events of the 1994 genocide and produce written texts based on their experi- ences there. Each of the nine texts produced by the project represents an individual act of commemoration. As a collection, it might be argued that they form a com- memorative site in their own right. Indeed, Harrow quotes a web statement from the “Ecrire par devoir de mémoire” project that appears to identify fhese texts as such: “[Ll’ensemble Ide textes] constitutera une manière de monument élevé à la mémoire des victims du génocide. comme un pendant au monumenf; bien maté- riel celui-ci, sur lequel un sculpteur sud-africain, Bruce Clark [sic], a commencé à travailler au Rwanda” ‘The collection will represent a kind of monument raised in memory of the victims of genocide. a kind of matching piece to the very material monument that Bruce Clark [sic], a South African sculptor, has started working on in Rwanda’ (44). What is interesting here is the suggestion that the collection of texts and Bruce Clarke’s on-going sculptural project, “Jardin de la mémoire” ‘Garden of Memory’ are both types of genocide monuments, a comparison that appears to blur the distinction between what would appear to be two rather different forms of commemoration. ‘ In fact, what connects the “Ecrire par devoir de mémoire” texts with the Gar- den of Memory is an emphasis on encouraging the continuing processes of mem- ory rather than recording and fixing memories in the past. In this respect, both memorials begin to resist what Pierre Nora describes as a fundamenfal opposition between history and memory (24) and so might lend themselves to interpretation as “lieux de mémoire.” However, despite alluding in its title to recent debates in France over “devoir de mémoire” ‘duty to memory,’ the Fest-Africa projecf demon- strates what the historians in Jean-Pierre Chrétien and Jean-Louis Triatid’s impor- tant collection identify as “les enjeux de mémoire” ‘the stakes of memory.’ In his introduction to the volume, Triaud emphasizes the complex networks of memories on the African continent. Through successive acts of power, memories in Africa have become institutionalized such that memory work is now required not only to record but also to revisit and reconstruct histories (10-11). While the “Ecrire par devoir de mémoire” initiative responded to what the participating authors saw as a duty to remember and record, the very varied collection of texts produced resists a single narrative version of the genocide. Sculptor Bruce Clarke also emphasizes the multiplicity of memories of genocide in his Garden of Memory. Inaugurated in 2000, Clarke’s garden will eventually contain one million individually marked stones in memory of the one million people who died in Rwanda between April and July 1994. Clarke has attempted to represent the genocide in a tangible way by inviting visitors to the garden to lay the stones themselves and so to actively participate in the act of remembering. On fhe welcome page of the website for the Garden of Memory, the project is described in the following terms:

 

NICICI HITCHCOTT « 51 There is thus a multiple challenge facing us. How is it possible that a memorial, a “work of art”, render justice to the enormity of the event—genocide of the Tutsi population and the extermination of Hutu democrats? Secondly, how can the form of the “memorial sculpture” be dignified and yet communicate the enor- mity of the event to as many people as possible? Lastly, how can we integrate into its very creation a commemorative ceremony, a cathartic and pedagogic process involving as many people as possible, perhaps even the killers too? Adjacent to this text is a photograph of one of the rooms at the Murambi memorial. Unlike the other rooms, there are no skeletons here; instead the room is filled with washing lines strung with the bloodstained clothes of the dead. When he visited this exhibit, BBC World Service journalist Jeb Sharpe reported, “[T]he guides sud- denly look proud, as if we are admiring artwork in a museum. It makes me realize how little the memorial at Murambi feels like a museum. It’s too raw, too real, too unadorned.” Here, Sharpe’s reaction seems to contradict Harrow’s view about the usefulness of sites like Murambi. Furthermore, the second page of the website for the Garden of Memory includes the familiar Murambi photograph of skeletons laid out on tables, suggesting that, in this case, the two types of memorial (artwork and museum) are not so distinct after all. What the differing reactions to the Murambi memorial project reveal is the difficulty of commemorating genocide, particularly who should commemorate and how. Like other recent memorial museums, the politicization of Murambi reflects what Paul Williams describes as “the uneasy conceptual coexistence of reverent remembrance and critical interpretation” (8). At first, some Rwandans felt that the victims deserved a decent burial and that it was unacceptable to put corpses on display in this way; others, including the RPF government, were com- mitted to exhibiting the bones in order to resist revisionism and prevent future violence (Cook 291-92). In the Kigali Memorial Centre, as Williams notes, a com- promise was reached by exhibiting the bones behind dark glass (42). At Murambi, however, plans to develop the site were, in Sandra Laville’s words, “mired in controversy.” According to Laville, the project was criticized by Rwandans for “failing] to provide a culturally sensitive memorial to the slaughter of one million people.” Similarly, the “Ecrire par devoir de mémoire” authors initially faced a degree of resistance from the people of Rwanda. They were told, “Vous n’étiez pas là lorsqu’on préparait le génocide. Vous n’avez pas été là pendant quatre ans. Et maintenant vous venez vous servir de notre génocide pour nourrir vos livres!” ‘You weren’t here when the genocide was being planned. You haven’t been here for four years. And now you want to feed off the genocide in your books!’ (in Moncel). To these people, it did not seem to be appropriate that visitors should be writing on the bones of the dead. What does begin to emerge in discussions of how to commemorate the 1994 Rwandan genocide is a strong desire to implicate the audience in the process of remembering. The laying of memorial stones marks the Garden of Memory as an ongoing process of memorialization rather than a static object. The act of participa- tion is of paramount importance here. Such an emphasis on the role of the visitor and his or her memory is not, of course, exclusive to the creation of memorials, but informs contemporary museum theory at all levels of conception and reception. Crane notes:

 

52 * RESEARCH IN AFRICAN LITERATURES ©VOLUME 40 NUMBER3 Remembering as a personal and cultural experience as well as a social process figures into the museum visit, museum design and theorizing about museums. Collections and individual objects, in their relation to each other and their rela- tions to anyone who encounters them, are used to create meaningful messages about us, them, and the museum. (5) Just as the curator creates meaning by suggesting ways of reading a display, so the visitor also generates new meaning by choosing to read the display in a particular way. Similarly, an author can only guide the reader to interpret a memorial text in a certain way. This makes the commemoration of genocide in fiction a particularly difficult task; those who experienced the events firsthand will experience the memorial process very differently from those who observed it from a safe distance through the (often distorted) eyes of the Western media. In an interview about Murambi, Diop explains his attempt to control his readers’ reactions to the text: \ Pour ne pas donner au lecteur l’occasion de refermer les yeux, j’ai soigneuse- ment sélectionné les scènes à décrire. Chaque fois que les événements m’ont paru trop cruels et incroyables, je me suis gardé d’en parler. Le lecteur aime croire que ce qui est dit dans tel roman sur un génocide est totalement inventé, ça l’aide à se sentir bien et à ne pas avoir l’impression que notre univers est si épouvantable. So as not to give the reader the opportunity to close his or her eyes again, I chose carefully the scenes I wanted to describe. Each time events seemed too cruel or unbelievable, I avoided talking about them. . . . The reader likes to believe that what is said in a particular novel about a genocide is totally invented. That helps him feel okay and to have the impression that our world is not so terrible, (in Di Genio) Here Diop clearly identifies his intended readership as located outside Rwanda. The reader’s gaze, like Diop’s own, is an external gaze on the events commemo- rated. As an outsider himself—a tourist in Rwanda—Diop is careful not to sen- sationalize the horrors of 1994. Although the novel does contain many graphic descriptions of violence, Diop’s claim that he deliberately chose to write a work of fiction that is less horrifying than the reality it represents adds another layer to the issue of the role of memory in commemorating genocide. Does ä\e fact that the stories of Rwanda are so far removed from the experience of most people in the world make it more difficult to implicate the reader in a text about the geno- cide? Will a genocide memorial only function if it makes a direct connection with each visitor’s memory? Paradoxically, for Diop, telling too much of the truth risks undermining the story’s believability. In other words, what Audrey Small rightly identifies as the “distress of the writer” in the “Ecrire par devoir de mémoire” texts seems to translate into an attempt to minimize the distress of the reader (202). Diop wants to make his text believable precisely because the truth is so difficult to believe. This emphasis on the importance of being believed is expressed openly in the novel when survivor Gérard Nayinzira tells Cornelius Uvimana his story of witnessing an Interahamwe militiaman raping a dead woman:

 

NICKI HITCHCOTT « 53 J’ai vu cela de mes propres yeux. Est-ce que tu me crois, Cornelius? Il est impor- tant que tu me croies. Je n’invente rien, ce n’est pas nécessaire, pour une fois. Si tu préfères penser que j’ai imaginé ces horreurs, tu te sentiras l’esprit en repos et ce ne sera pas bien. Ces souffrances se perdront dans des paroles opaques et tout sera oublié jusqu’aux prochains massacres. Ils ont réellement fait toutes ces choses incroyables. Cela s’est passé au Rwanda il y a juste quatre ans, quand le monde entier jouait au foot en Amérique. (211) I saw that with my own eyes. Do you believe me, Cornelius? It’s important that you believe me. I’m not making it up, for once that’s not necessary. If you prefer to think that I imagined these horrors your mind will be at peace and that’s not good. The pain will get lost in opaque words and everything will be forgotten until the next massacre. They really did incredible things. It happened in Rwanda only four years ago, when the entire world was playing soccer in America. (175-76) As the main protagonist, Cornelius represents the visitor upon whose individual memory the commemoration of the Murambi massacre depends. Cornelius must not only believe the story but he must be troubled by it and so remember it. In this way, the text affirms the need for the horror of the Rwandan genocide to be recounted and acknowledged. As visitor, the figure of Cornelius also mir- rors Diop’s own experience when he, along with the other “Ecrire par devoir de mémoire” writers, traveled to Rwanda in July 1998. Having spent twenty-five years in exile, Cornelius goes back to his birthplace, Murambi, also in July 1998, in order to find out what happened to his family in 1994. Before he arrives in Rwanda, Cornelius believes that almost his entire family has been slaughtered, leaving only his uncle, Simeon Habineza, still alive. However, Cornelius eventu- ally learns that his father. Dr. Joseph Karekezi, is not, in fact, dead but rather was the engineer of the massacre at Murambi. As the story of his father’s involvement begins to unfold, Cornelius becomes a participant rather than an observer in the history he discovers. Cornelius’s attempt to come to terms with what has happened and his per- sonal relationship with the massacre eventually leads the reader to examine his or her own relationship with the genocide. A history teacher, Cornelius has already read a lot about the genocide, but it is not until he returns to Rwanda that he really begins to understand. Here, Diop’s novel begins to point to the limitations—and the dangers—of history as well as to the importance of memory. As he travels from Kigali to Murambi, Cornelius remembers such events from his childhood as the 1973 massacres that led him to fiee Rwanda twenty-five years ago. The central question driving the narrative—what really happened at Murambi?—encourages the reader to follow Cornelius’s attempts to piece together these memories in order to build up a picture of the Rwandan genocide. Furthermore, Cornelius’s many questions prompt the reader to interrogate the memories as they are revealed. In this way, the reader accompanies Cornelius on his journey, piecing together differ- ent memories in order to try to understand the horror. This process of implicating the reader becomes particularly acute when Cornelius finally visits the site of the Murambi technical school. At this point, as Eileen Julien notes, “the novel opens a space of reckoning, calling on us readers, like Cornelius, to refiect and weigh the question of responsibility, to imagine a new future” (x).…

 

Source: http://www.britannica.com/bps/additionalcontent/18/43641619/Writing-on-Bones-Commemorating-Genocide-in-Boubacar-Boris-Diops-Murambi

 

 

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