Campus & Community

Anthropology museum exhibit explores Rwandan genocide 20 years later

Twenty years ago this April, as today’s undergraduates were cutting their first teeth and pronouncing their first words, a private jet carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down near Rwanda’s capitol city of Kigali.

In combustible Rwanda, where tensions between the predominant ethnic groups — the Hutus and Tutsis — had been simmering for months, if not years, the event was enough to spark a 100-day rampage in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed. As the bodies piled up in the streets, the rest of the world stood by and watched.

The genocide may be history, but the story isn’t over. Survivors and witnesses live everyday with the consequences and ghosts, memories and terrors.

Their perspectives are explored in a new exhibit, “Living With the Memory: Rwanda Twenty Years On,” which runs Jan. 30-Feb. 21 at the University of Denver Museum of Anthropology, housed on the first floor of Sturm Hall. An opening reception is scheduled from 5­–7 p.m. Jan. 30.

Ermitte Saint Jacques, a lecturer and postdoctoral teaching fellow in the Department of Anthropology, served as faculty adviser and lead researcher for the exhibit. Anthropology graduate students Lindsey Miller, Toyin Quichocho and Jill Sawyer assisted with the research and designed the exhibit, which enlists photos and text to show the genocide’s long-lasting and far-reaching toll.

As Saint Jacques sees it, “Living With the Memory” alerts museumgoers to the stories that extend beyond the headlines.

“People don’t think about the aftermath of genocide — that people have to live with these things, that people have to live with [the fact of] their neighbor having tried to kill them,” Saint Jacques explains. “In the public’s mind, the genocide ends on a certain day. But that’s certainly not true for the people who experienced it.”

Nor does it mean that the genocide has necessarily stopped. Rwanda may be less violent today, says Quichocho, but many of its tensions were exported to nearby countries. “The Congo is a result of Rwanda,” she says, citing just one nation affected by the genocide. (After 1994, millions of Hutus, fearing reprisals from Tutsis, fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where tensions soon mounted between them and the republic’s Tutsi population.)

Because today’s undergraduate students were infants and toddlers when the Rwandan genocide occurred, the exhibit begins by providing context. According to Brooke Rohde, the museum’s curator of collections, “The exhibit will go through a little historical background of Rwanda, starting with colonialism and how it led to the buildup of the genocide. Then it will detail the actual events of the genocide.”

From there, the exhibit introduces two survivors, Alice and DU alumna Hadidja, and two witnesses, Francoise and Adolphe, both of whom lived in surrounding countries where refugees fled and where the atrocities next door became part of their day-to-day reality. Three of them live in Denver, having left Africa in the aftermath of the genocide, while Hadidja Nyiransekuye (MSW ’00, PhD social work ’07) now lives in the Northeast.  She detailed her experiences in “The Lances Were Looking Down: One Woman’s Path Through the Rwandan Genocide to Life in the States” (iUniverse Star, 2010).

Their stories and reflections — carefully captured by the student/faculty/staff team — illustrate how the terror affected individuals. Museumgoers learn, for example, that Alice and her family lived in fear even before the 1994 plane crash. “Her mom is Tutsi, her father was Hutu,” Saint Jacques recounts. “And her mom was her father’s second wife. The first wife was Hutu. [Alice] talked about how her half brother, who was Hutu, came looking to kill her.”

Alice’s family escaped slaughter by sheer luck. They were hidden by Hutu neighbors, but when they attempted to escape by van, they were stopped at a barricade manned by Hutus determined to kill Tutsis. But one of the Hutus recognized Alice’s sister as a high school classmate and waved them through.

Collecting these stories was no easy feat, Saint Jacques says, noting that survivors, even when they can be located, are often reluctant to talk.

“There are survivors in the Denver area,” she says. “They’re Hutus as well as Tutsis. What we found out by putting this exhibit together is there is a lot of suspicion in this community. Unlike in Rwanda, where people were able to reconcile, they had this whole reconciliation effort to move on, the survivors outside of Rwanda haven’t had that process.”

As a result, they have been fearful of organizing the way other immigrant communities have. “We thought maybe there would be a Rwanda community association or something. When you think about many immigrant groups, they have associations. This community does not. … Why is that?” Saint Jacques asks. “I think it’s because of the level of suspicion. Who did what in Rwanda?”

In conceptualizing the exhibit and in deciding what to display and how to display it, the student team opted to forego artifacts, such as a machete used in the killing, and to rely on photographs and text instead. As Miller notes, “We didn’t want to use anything graphic because we are going to have survivors there.”

And, Sawyer adds, they feared that inclusion of graphic photos might detract from the emphasis on how Rwandans live with the memories. “They’re living their lives, and it’s important to recognize that,” she says.

To create an appropriate mood, the student team opted to paint all the exhibit walls but one a dark gray. “We wanted it to be a somber, contemplative space,” Miller explains. They also wanted the show to end on a brighter note, and with that in mind, the final display is anchored against a bright white wall.

“At the end,” Miller says, “we have a little time about what is genocide and what is happening today. That space also has uplifting messages. Rwanda today is in much better shape than people anticipated it would be.”

Sawyer, Miller and Quichocho hope that museumgoers leave the exhibit understanding the survivors’ message: that forgiveness and reconciliation are essential. Despite the unease that might still color interactions between Hutus and Tutsis, both in Africa and in Denver, the four individuals featured in the exhibit agree that holding on to anger only disfigures daily life. “It is incredible that they were able to find forgiveness,” Quichocho says.

The exhibit also urges museumgoers to pay attention to the headlines and events around the globe, under the theory that awareness could result in preventive measures or intervention.

Too often, says Anne Amati, the museum registrar who assisted in the research, Americans don’t know about slaughter in other countries. During the events described in “Living With the Memory,” she was a case in point.

“I was a freshman in high school when Rwanda happened,” she says, “and I don’t remember anything, of being aware of it at all.”

But today, Sawyer adds, social media and a 24-hour news cycle make awareness feasible. “This is so easily prevented if you just pay attention,” she says.

“Living With the Memory” is part of a University of Denver initiative called Rwanda Twenty Years Ago, sponsored by the Sturm College of Law, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University Libraries and the Museum of Anthropology. Designed to “spark discussion about how genocide is fomented and how it can be prevented,” the initiative maintains a blog at www.rwanda20yearsago.com and a lively social media presence on Facebook.  

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