The quest to conserve Genocide remains

As Rwandans continue to commemorate the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Rwandans, especially survivors continue to raise concerns over the long-term conservation of the remains of the victims, especially those that were not buried but kept at different memorial centres, as a way of keeping the memory alive.
Students pay their respects by a mass grave at Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, Gisozi. (File)
Students pay their respects by a mass grave at Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, Gisozi. (File)

As Rwandans continue to commemorate the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Rwandans, especially survivors continue to raise concerns over the long-term conservation of the remains of the victims, especially those that were not buried but kept at different memorial centres, as a way of keeping the memory alive.

Twenty-one years down the road, remains that have not been buried for memorial reasons are now deteriorating so fast that, if nothing is done in their current state, they might not last another 20 years.

“And that would mean losing the very basis for memory of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi,” said Martin Muhoza, the official in charge of the conservation of Genocide remains at the National Commission for the Fight against Genocide (CNLG).

CNLG has since 2010 been working with UK-based Cranfield University on mechanisms of preserving genocide remains to last at least 150 years, although the commission says the cost is beyond its budgetary capabilities.

Need for funding

The long-term conservation project was piloted at the Murambi Memorial Site in Nyamagabe District that could see the remains conserved for at least the next 150 years.

However, the project has since stalled, according to Muhoza, because the commission needs at least Rwf350 million to implement it.

But Winnie Rubayiza, a 31-year-old Genocide survivor from Rusororo Sector, Gasabo District, thinks even the 150 years for which the conservation project targets are not enough.

“We would be much happier if the remains of our people could last forever,” she said.

Aegis Trust, a UK-based international charity organisation that runs Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre took some necessary measures to preserve the remains in their museum since the memorial was established.

Based at Gisozi, a Kigali suburb, the memorial is a resting home to at least 250,000 victims of the Genocide.

“The remains here are under favourable conditions I would say. We have monitoring mechanism for temperature, humidity and pressure but on a long-term basis, we are operating jointly with CNLG to come up with a more sustainable way of preserving these bodies,” said Honoré Gatera, the manager of Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, Gisozi.

Evidences for safe-keeping

At various memorial centres, besides the bodies of the victims, there are weapons that were used in the Genocide – both traditional and contemporary – and belongings of the victims, including their clothes and other paraphernalia.

These, conservationists and survivors believe, are important evidences that should be kept in a way that they last longer.

According to Muhoza, even the Genocide site itself must remain untouched, without any physical transformation, to keep the historical memory.

“With our limited resources, the commission acquired a mobile laboratory that came with acrylic coffins,” added Muhoza.

Acrylic coffins are special caskets made out of glass that serve to keep the body away from atmospheric contaminants (bacteria and fungi), once treated.

The coffin is also made in such a way that it responds to any dangerous internal temperature variations, to allow adjustments.

“With the laboratory, essential details will be revealed, such as the sex of the victim, age, height, how the victim was killed, as well as the weapons the killer used,” says Muhoza.

This is a very strong addition to the historical memory for the anti-genocide ideology. The laboratory is an important initiative but unfortunately just a drop in the ocean, he adds.

Although the Genocide against the Tutsi was preceded by those of the Armenians and the Jews, there has been no model for Rwandans in the field of conservation of body remains, experts say.

The Jews were killed in gas chambers, concentration and extermination camps and burnt in Crematoria and no human traces could be found.

“I visited a holocaust memorial in Northern UK but all I saw were suitcases and clothes, no body remains,” said Muhoza.

For the non-decomposed bodies at Murambi, few have undergone a quasi-mummification treatment using lime.

On why the ancient Egyptian mummification model was not adopted, Muhoza said, “The classic mummification process is only possible on a person who has just died, before the body is invaded by bacteria responsible for body decay.”

“This tangible proof of the Genocide against our people must be protected by all means possible. Our Government needs to put it among its other priorities,” says 24-year-old Aimé Bahizi, a student from Rurenge Sector in Ngoma District.

Genocide memorial sites directly under management of CNLG are Murambi in Nyamagabe District, Bisesero in Karongi District, Nyarubuye, Kirehe District, Nyamata, Bugesera District and Ntarama also in Bugesera.

editorial@newtimes.co.rw

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