S. Audouin-Rouzeau, funeral rites in Rwanda after the genocide in 1994

On Tuesday 9 May, I attended a session at the seminar organized by Guillaume Cuchet and Philippe Boutry. They had invited Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau to speak about the funeral rites which developed following the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. I had made a note of this session because this question has particularly interested me over the last two years, both on a personal level and in my teaching, since I work on the 1994 events with my first-year “Licence” students. I would like to provide a report on this seminar session, as agreed with the speaker. Please note that the facts discussed are sometimes very troubling indeed. I have a twofold objective: firstly to report on the content of Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau’s talk, and secondly to make observations about what happened “around” his presentation, namely the audience’s reactions or questions and the way in which the researcher chose to speak about his topic.

As his starting point, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau chose to take an opposite stance to that of the overall seminar itself, which placed emphasis on the process of making death a private matter and the generalization of discreet, reserved and individual inhumations. In Rwanda, on the contrary, putting bodies on show became the most common practice after the 1994 genocide.

Here is a short explanation of this subject for those who may not be familiar with the history of this genocide. Between 7 April 1994, the “official” start date of the massacres, and July 1994, Rwanda’s Tutsi population was subjected to a mass massacre, with between 800,000 and a million victims in just three months and the majority of the deaths concentrated in the first six weeks. This was therefore an unprecedented theatre of murder. The situation was the product of the Belgian colonists’ sowing of a racial theory that gave legitimacy to the idea that the Tutsis were superior to the Hutus. This dividing line ended up replacing other forms of social organization that existed in the country before colonization, namely the monarchy and the clan system. It is therefore pointless to define this conflict as being due to an “interethnic conflict existing since time immemorial” because this “ethnic opposition” was largely created by Belgian colonists, who literally invented Tutsi/Hutu identity cards to help govern the country. Jean-Pierre Chrétien and Marcel Kabanda’s book provides more in-depth analysis of this question. The genocide which began in 1994 followed on from several decades of massacres inflicted on the Tutsis. These acts of violence multiplied following Rwanda’s independence in 1959 and forced part of the Tutsi population into exile in neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania. In the 1990s, the conflict worsened between the extremist “Hutu power” and the Rwandan Patriotic Front made up of the sons of Tutsi exiles who attempted to use arms to return to Rwanda. This long view of the context is needed to understand the events of 1994.


Map of Rwanda

Original upload by Sanao on French Wikipedia. Later versions were uploaded by Tvpm, Nécropotame at fr.wikipedia. — Transferred from fr.wikipedia to Commons. Public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1591579

Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau stresses the need to see the specific nature of this genocide by moving beyond our desire to always put facts into a logical sequence. For him, the 1994 events constitute a hapax legomenon for the humanities and social sciences. He first highlights the massive scale of the murderous dynamics involved, with a million deaths in three months. The efficiency of this genocide can be explained by another original factor – the participation of a sizeable part of the population in the massacres, with 20% of the population estimated to have themselves committed murder. To truly understand the magnitude of this participation, we also need to factor in those who indirectly took part through diverse denunciations or forms of complicity. Another specific feature was that the genocide crossed the closest social circles, literally dividing families and neighbours. Mothers killed their own husbands and children while neighbours killed lifelong friends. No pre-existing interpersonal relation protected the Tutsis in any way. Finally, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau stresses the “creativity” of the murderers, the radical nature of their methods and the drive to inflict ever-increasing levels of cruelty on the victims. For all these reasons, he considers it pointless to begin thinking about the 1994 genocide by comparison with other situations. We first need to face up to the irreducible nature of these events.

Thus we came to our subject for the seminar session: the context of funeral rites after the genocide. The historian invited us to read Rémi Korman’s work, which he has largely drawn upon in his thinking on this topic. He first reminded us that the “funeral landscape” is radically different when thousands of bodies have to be buried and invited us to imagine Rwanda’s towns and villages strewn with dead bodies, with several thousand corpses in the streets of Kigali. The country was in fact a mass open grave.

The context: Why show the bodies?

In July 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (Tutsis) took Kigali, thus signalling the defeat of the Rwandan interim government which had been one of the instigators of the genocide. This taking of power put a stop to the massacres. It is therefore important to underline the fact that the political force and legitimacy of the new Tutsi power structure had their roots in the memory of this genocide. In the first few months, then, the aim was to make corpses visible so as to act as proof and thereby counter negationist discourses. Showing bodily traces or leaving open graves intact meant onlookers could not deny the existence of the massacres.

The rapid drive to create a memorial to the massacre existed despite the country’s complete collapse. When the Rwandan Patriotic Front entered Rwanda in July, the government in power fled, thus finishing off the full-blown disintegration of the country’s institutions and administrative frameworks. The country no longer had police or any state structures apart from the new government and the Catholic Church. This illustrates the determination that was needed to organize the commemorative services, which took place very rapidly, from 1 October 1994 onwards, only a few months after the end of the massacres.

The start of the commemorative process

The first concern for survivors was to give “a decent burial” to victims whose bodies had mainly been thrown into mass graves, lakes or latrines. The months following the genocide saw the start of individual attempts to find and bury bodies, which had to be extracted from the mass open graves. This emergency programme was made possible by UNICEF’s support. The survivors began to search for the remains of their families and friends, despite the identification difficulties. The bones and bodies were washed and dried by women and these remains were then buried on the spot in the locations where the events had actually taken place. These sites thus became small personal cemeteries, because some people had to bury their whole family. All those concerned deliberately avoided public cemeteries.

The state quickly began to intervene in these burial practices and forbade individual burials. Bodies were exhumed and then re-buried in collective cemeteries, following commemorative ceremonies, the first of which took place on 13 November 1994. This underlines the importance of the action of the government, which has literally appropriated the bodies of victims: since 2008, these bodies have been the official property of the Rwandan state. We can see here the violence involved in the successive exhumation/reburial of the corpses. To sum up, the funeral rites can be described as follows:

a. The organized disappearance of bodies by the killers themselves

b. The first burials by the survivors

c. Exhumation and “decent reburial”

d. Reburial in collective cemeteries

Today, this process has still not been completed and bodies continue to be found all over the country. Conversely, the format of collective commemorations has become relatively stabilized and involves singing, speeches and harrowing accounts from survivors – all of which can last several hours. For those who would like to find out more, I suggest this series of programmes on France Culture (in French) in which we hear of the traumatic crises triggered by these commemorations. The major national commemorations began in 1995. The first was on 7 April, the anniversary of the start of the genocide. These commemorations involved massive collective burials: in Gizogi, 300,000 corpses were buried. The trucks of human remains shown during the seminar session give an idea of the logistical challenges posed by such a mass of bodies.

The originality of funeral practices after the genocide: Showing the bodies

Burying the bodies meant that the traces of the genocide disappeared. The refusal to erase the traces led the survivors and the government to look for new forms of funeral practices, which enabled the bodies to be displayed despite the process of putrefaction. This concern came into conflict with other issues, such as sanitary issues or the occupation of certain places. For example, murders often took place in churches and thus the question arose as to whether bodies should be removed from them to allow worship to begin again. The question of memorialization became the subject of heated discussion. From the first year onwards, there was much discussion about methods of commemoration. For example, the government took its lead from memorials to the Shoah. 1996 was a pivotal year in that bodies began to be exhibited. In Murambi, 20,000 bodies were left out in the open air at the technical school, in the state in which they were found, with lime applied to them. Ossuaries were created all over the country. This conservation and exhibition policy was then systematically rolled out using technical processes enabling remains to be mummified. Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau underlines the stupefaction of visitors faced with the sight of these bodies and the harrowing olfactory and visual experience they produce. The brutality of the experience derived from the Rwandans themselves. Initially, the attendants at the memorials were actual survivors, who were deeply anxious that they would not be believed. For them, exhibiting the bodies had to serve a purpose: visitors were actually encouraged to take photographs of what they saw. Putting the bodies on show in this manner was the subject of debate even among the survivors. Should the bodies of naked women be on show for example? Traces of the violence inflicted were also visible on the exhibited bodies, including machete cuts and the full range of violence used by the killers on men, women and children. Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau told us, for example, that the attendants used to insist that babies’ bodies be exhibited. The bodies were put on show to remind everyone of the radical cruelty of the killers.

This system for exhibiting corpses is currently the cause of much tension and the tendency has moved more towards normalizing burial processes. Nowadays, only certain corpses are selected for treatment by a scientific laboratory. In the future these bodies will be placed in Plexiglas sarcophagi. Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau explained that he is disturbed by this process of “museumifying” corpses.

Another practice is also developing, namely exhibiting the clothes of victims. This is an example of the circulation of commemorative practices, as the idea was inspired by commemorations of the Shoah. There are piles of clothes in official cemeteries to convey the scale and nature of the mass violence involved. This also corresponds to a desire to make these places “presentable” as part of their UNESCO classification and to provide a more asepticized form of commemoration. This is linked to the views of sections of the public who visit the commemoration and do not wish to see everything. On this point, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau related his discussions with his publisher, who refused to print the first image which was proposed – a photo of a pile of clothes. He did not consider this as being “presentable” to the general public.

Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau finished his talk by linking the violence of the genocide to the violence of the commemorative universe. He underlined the extreme current relevance of the genocide. Twenty-three years later, these events are still vividly present in people’s memories even though Kagamé’s Rwandan government is now moving towards a reduction in the number of commemorative events. The current tendency is a form of normalization of commemoration and a kind of euphemizing that is more akin to the funeral practices we are used to ourselves.

Questions and thoughts

I would also like to discuss what occurred “around” this seminar session, namely the attitude of those present around the table and the way in which Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau gave his speech. The participants were not familiar with these issues of mass violence. The seminar itself was actually about the religious history of the nineteenth century. Giving a talk about the genocide against the Tutsis – as I myself have done – means knowing it will be a violent experience for the audience. This is rarely the case with less recent events because they tend to have “cooled down” with time and analysis. Although I have become used to working on these questions over the last two years, I too felt sick looking at some of the photos shown. Around the table, there were different strategies to “blank things out” such as frantically writing, not looking up, smiling, browsing on phones and above all not looking at each other. There was a palpable form of tension in the room. The speaker’s extreme level of commitment to the subject was the response to this tension and he did not hesitate to go into details which I sometimes worry about discussing in class.

In fact, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau did not use the usual tone of scientific presentations. At the end, several members of the audience went to tell him that he should “take care of himself”. His personal experience and how it has affected him were perceivable in every word. As he did in his last book Une initiation (which, incidentally, is magnificent), he stressed the importance of the lived experience of the researcher, telling us, for example, about the tension caused by a visit to an ossuary among the scientific team who had gone to Rwanda. This affective involvement was also apparent in the way he insisted on telling us and showing us, in the way he reformulated certain important points and in his account of his exchanges with survivors. During his talk and the subsequent questions, we never forgot the trauma experienced by the person telling the story. With this kind of subject, is another outcome even possible?

The questions asked were revealing as to the session’s originality. The problem of the link between emotion and research came up very early. How may we analyse a subject which has such an emotional effect upon us? Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau then pointed out that “people who work on these questions are highly affected by the violence of the subject” and that emotion can be used as an instrument for knowledge despite our training teaching us “axiological neutrality”. For him, reporting on this type of research means you need to “stop composing an academic report and really start writing a little”.

Featured image: IMG 3271 by Robert Guerra, licence CC-BY-NC-SA.

This is a translation from French by Richard Dickinson, INIST-CNRS translator, revised by Helen Tomlinson.

Cite this article: "S. Audouin-Rouzeau, funeral rites in Rwanda after the genocide in 1994", by Caroline Muller in Anthology. https://anthology.hypotheses.org/332

Caroline Muller

Maîtresse de conférences Université Rennes 2

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