A Visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial

This spring, my wife and I had the opportunity to travel to east Africa, where we visited Tanzania and Rwanda. During our stay in Rwanda, we visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, a place of remembrance and learning and the final resting place of more than 250,000 victims of the genocide against the Tutsi.

And that is only about a quarter of those who were victimized during the horrific three-month period in 1994. The memorial walks you, in a refreshingly clear and propaganda-free way, through the history that led to those fateful 100 days. What you learn is that many across the globe either promoted this genocide or spectated from the sidelines, ignoring cries for help. As is common, the problem was rooted in a colonial past. French authorities practiced systematic segregation, largely according to wealth and urban-rural experiences and issued ID cards that fairly arbitrarily defined Tutsis and Hutus (there are few to no racial distinctions). The authorities then began the practice of favoring one group over the other — with the favorites changing over time.

Organized religion also played a role, with members of my own Catholic faith, shamefully inciting violence in the midst of the events. Demagogic politicians pitted one group versus another, feeding on fears of disenfranchisement and economic disadvantage, all driven by falsehoods and rumors. Nationalism became the dogma. Finally, an airplane carrying the Rwandan president and the president of Burundi, both Hutus, was shot down, a political assassination that served as the final act to propel Rwanda into chaos and mass bloodshed. The slaughter of one million people is hard to believe, except that it happened. Friends, neighbors, and families killed each other in a frenzy fed by lies and propaganda.

After facing this history of brutality, it is tempting to dismiss it as something that could never happen in “our world.” We want to think that we are different (and better) and could never fall into the traps that lead to that level of hatred between people. But the Rwandans quickly warn us about being disingenuous. The exhibit ends with a review of some of the historical genocides through the years: the Nazi-driven Holocaust in Europe, the man-made famine in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in the 1930s, Cambodia, Armenia, Bosnia. These are only a sample. Some of these crimes against humanity are not recognized by our government or some of our allies.

In looking at all these genocides, it is possible to distill a few general lessons. Nationalistic demagogues claiming the exceptionalism of a few always play a role. They feed ignorance with lies. Religion can easily fall into the trap of intolerance. Power, economic and political, becomes the end-all. And the outside world is complicit, refusing to engage because of risk or short-term benefits.

Reflecting on this experience, I believe more strongly than ever that as educators we have an enormous responsibility. We must learn from history so that it will not repeat itself. We must ensure that we educate all our students in a way that provides perspective and experiences that allow them to be their own person without fear, recognizing that diversity of thought is an enriching ingredient in life and not a threat.

-Rafael L. Bras

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