Lessons from Post-Genocide Rwanda

The Location, Identification and Respectful Burial of the Anonymous Victims of Mass Atrocities

Erin Jessee

In the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which an estimated 800,000 civilians – most of whom were members of the nation’s minority Tutsi population – were killed, a number of initiatives have been pursued in an effort to locate and rebury with respect the anonymous victims of the violence. In the months following the genocide, survivors frequently attempted to learn the locations where their missing family members had been killed, and then conducted nonscientific exhumations aimed at locating and reburying with respect any human remains that might be found.

Then, in 1995 and 1996, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) commissioned a series of scientific forensic investigations aimed at determining the criminal nature of massacres in Kigali and Kibuye. Finally, since 1996 the government of Rwanda is engaged in a program of exhuming the anonymous victims of the 1994 genocide and preserving their remains in local state-funded genocide memorials. Each of these initiatives has been driven by the realisation that the respectful reburial of the victims of the 1994 genocide is necessary to promote social reconstruction, and relieve the linger spiritual violence experienced by many Rwandans as a result of having been unable to bury and mourn their missing loved ones according to tradition.

Despite these good intentions, each of these initiatives has met with controversy. The forensic investigations commissioned by the ICTR involved minimal collaboration with the communities that hosted them, and as a result incorporated methods and mandates that proved distressing to survivors. In particular, survivors were distraught by the investigation’s legal mandate that treated the bodies of the victims as forensic evidence and failed to recognise and address the survivors’ needs for definitive identifications and respectful reburial of the victims. To make matters worse, the team’s findings were later contested on the grounds that the methods used by the investigators were not scientifically rigorous enough to support the conclusions. The resulting evidence was dismissed, resulting in a potential miscarriage of justice.

Meanwhile, survivors’ independent efforts to locate and rebury their missing has been restricted by the government of Rwanda – the concern being those gravesites on family land might not be maintained in a manner that reflects their status as victims of the 1994 genocide. The Rwandan government is adamant that the 1994 genocide be properly commemorated, and has implemented a law that requires that all victims be reburied at a local state-funded genocide memorial where they can be honored indefinitely. However, these memorials are graphic – frequently containing displays of human remains that prove distressing to survivors – and typically fail to acknowledge the specific individuals who were murdered.

As a result, the memorials are not widely supported by the communities that host them. Conversely, there is substantial evidence that these memorials are contributing to the maintenance of ethnic and political tensions among Rwandans, many of whom argue that memorials have been created – not to honor the victims of the 1994 genocide – but to help legitimise the RPF’s claim to power in Rwanda. Likewise, the memorials contribute to the ongoing emotional distress of the survivors, many of whom believe that they are haunted by the angry spirits of those loved ones who died and were buried anonymously, or whose remains have been placed on display at the memorials. For these reasons, the idea of humanitarian exhumations aimed at identifying and reburying the victims of the 1994 genocide is widely supported among survivors.

While the historical, political, and cultural circumstances surrounding the 1994 Rwandan genocide are vastly different from the mass atrocities endured by the people of Northern Uganda, there are nonetheless a number of lessons that might be learned from examining post-genocide Rwanda. First, in the aftermath of mass atrocities, the identification of the anonymous dead is often as important as their respectful reburial according to the wishes of individuals. Without positive identification, many survivors continue to fear that their missing loved ones have yet to be located, and may experience lingering physical and mental illnesses. Under the circumstances, it becomes impossible for survivors to recover from the harm they have experienced surrounding the disappearance of their loved ones.

Second, any efforts aimed positively identifying the victims of mass atrocities must be organised and implemented in collaboration with survivors to ensure that the mandates and methods used are culturally and politically appropriate. Ideally, such efforts should be treated as a capacity-building exercise in which willing members of the community are trained to assist and perhaps even eventually take control of the identification efforts, whether based on DNA evidence or associated personal effects to ensure the survivors’ needs are not overwhelmed by legal or political agendas.

Third, nationalised mourning and commemoration must be approached with the understanding that people have differing interpretations of mass atrocities, and therefore may not unanimously support the mandatory incorporation of the bodies of the missing into state-funded memorials, particularly if those memorials are not sensitive to local spiritual, political, and historical concerns. In the event of positive identifications, surviving family members should have the right to determine how their deceased loved ones are buried and where. While nationalised commemoration is often perceived to be an essential and beneficial part of the transitional justice toolkit, the positive outcomes can only take shape if the surrounding communities are fully supportive of the form and function of the memorials. If some degree of consensus is not achieved, nationalised commemorative efforts risk having a negative impact on the communities in which they are initiated, contributing to the maintenance of powerful reservoirs of ethnic, political or social tensions.

 Finally in order for humanitarian exhumations aimed at locating, positively identifying, and reburying the anonymous victims of mass atrocities to take place, there must be genuine political support at the international and domestic levels. In post-genocide Rwanda, the government is the primary obstacle to humanitarian exhumations aimed at identifying and reburying with anonymous victims of the 1994 genocide. The government officials responsible for overseeing the creation and maintenance of the state-funded genocide memorials are committed to sensitising the Rwandan people, including survivors, to the need for nationalised commemoration of the 1994 genocide, and believe that in the long-term, they will be successful in this endeavor. Several international organisations and university-based forensic institutes are interested in assisting humanitarian exhumations, and many Rwandan survivors are supportive of such initiatives. However, without the support of the Rwandan government, the victims of the 1994 genocide will remain anonymous, and will continue to be incorporated into state-funded genocide memorials that do not have the support of the wider public. ▪

 Erin Jessee is a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow affiliated with the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. She is an oral historian and cultural anthropologist who works primarily on post-genocide Rwanda. Her research interests include mass atrocities, nationalised commemoration, spiritual violence, transitional justice, mass grave exhumations, and the ethical and methodological challenges surrounding fieldwork amid highly politicised research settings. 

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