Assumpta Mugiraneza co-fondatrice et directrice du Centre IRIBA pour le Patrimoine Multimédia
The month of record

Interview Assumpta Mugiraneza “Telling, Thinking… Writing the history of the genocide… The unspeakable that cannot be silenced”

April 7 marked  the beginning of the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, perpetrated by the extremist Hutu government in 1994. In the 100 days that followed, more than one million members of the Tutsi minority were systematically murdered. Since 2003, this day, which was declared International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi  by the United Nations General Assembly, has been an opportunity to pay tribute to the deceased, but also to remember and “deconstruct” a process that led to the worst. So that the Rwandan genocide, the last of the twentieth century, be the last in the history of humanity. Assumpta Mugiraneza co-founder and director of the IRIBA Center for Multimedia Heritage explains more. 

Interview by Dounia Ben Mohamed 

As a Rwandan, but also considering your background and your commitment to the issue of the memory of the genocide perpetrated against the tutsi and its sharing, how do you live this month of official commemoration?

I am Rwandan, having lived in France for a long time, I am a  cultural product of both Rwanda and France.  It is not always easy to claim this heritage but it allows me to always negotiate a balance and never a comfort. When they tried to open our horizons, my parents,  used French, they read French. When I went to live in France,  Rwanda had refused me access to university, and I left with a great thirst, I was actually trained in France. And when the genocide happened, I had this specificity of living in France in a country that I loved and that I continue to love, but that had taken the side that it took. However, if I regret this choice, I do not complain about it because I consider that these trials force you to always think a little further, to be more demanding with yourself, but also sometimes more indulgent because things are never white or black, but they are always shades of grey. 

But this explains my training as a social psychologist and political scientist. 

Sociology, anthropology and even a little bit of law are disciplines in which I tried to find thoughts to help me not to sink. Because when you have a genocide in front of you, the greatest risk is to topple over. I was lucky enough to see this risk and to go and find support so that I would not succumb. 

In addition, although I was born in Rwanda, it is at the age of 21 that I left for France, I went back and forth, and since the end of 2007, I felt strong enough, at least equipped to continue my work from Rwanda, I felt legitimate but also obliged to continue this academic duty, here in Rwanda, while people were fighting to develop the country, and I continue to do so. As a mother too, because having children after a genocide is not an automatic act. When I came back, I realized that there was a space, that of the intellectuals who tended to disappear in our society, and that is where I chose to position myself. Therefore, I built a space, the Iriba Center, in the heart of the city, which supports many young people who have not lived this history, outrageous and outraged, but who will have to carry this abyss. They will be probably better armed to forge preventive mechanisms that will allow them to live better than us their parents. 

When one is in Rwanda, One has the strange feeling that the genocide is everywhere, but also that there is a lot of “unsaid”.  27 years is more than a quarter of a century, but at the same time it still feels like yesterday… How do Rwandans live this month of official commemoration? 

The thought of ‘April’ alone makes you step away from your space of expert, of someone who seeks objectivity, you become subjective. The only fact of reading it, awakens in you the worry because of what could have happened. As you know, at the moment, everyone is in the same boat, we are very limited in our activities because of the pandemic, but at the IRIBA Center, we have worked, on International Women’s Day, on the African woman, and Rwandan woman in particular. As our first event fell on March 7, each time I was wrong, instead of March 7, I said April 7, the April 7, 1994 cause misperceptions, so it is. Thinking about this month of March, of happiness, where we had planned to think about the Rwandan woman and to celebrate her in her resilience, when we are in Rwanda, this cannot happen without thinking about the woman during the genocide, the woman after the genocide , the woman who lives a year of lockdown in this pandemic context … As soon as we approach this period, we are already in this month of April. 

You know, the month of April in Kinyarwanda, “Mata”, means “a month which is filled, which flows with milk” and milk in our tradition is plenitude. It is surprising to see that it is this month of milk that was designated to become the month of blood. It was yesterday but at the same time such a long time ago. When I am in a room with young people, I realize that more than 80% of the audience did not exist yet. That means it was  a long time ago, but at the same time, the memories are vivid, close, active, a month where we are anything but stable. Fortunately, for me, when that instability creeps in, I call on knowledge. My cultural resources, the work on the genocide of the Jews in Europe, which is like a paradigm for me, allowed me to understand that a genocide destroys the relationship to otherness, that after a genocide, one must always negotiate, that things that are common elsewhere take on a different meaning here. Therefore, 27 years is a long time, life  resumed, children were born, but, at the same time, it feels as if it was yesterday. As an adult you realize that you have lived longer than your parents, your elders. You realize that you are older than them. And each time, it creates a strange feeling in you… 

And as you say, on the one hand, it is true, genocide is everywhere. I, who have been writing for years, call it “a genocide of proximity”, because it gets into all the interstices of society, of the lives of individuals. The sociological dimension, the relationships between families, the anthropological dimension, the relationships between the living and the dead, it is a genocide that gets into the intimacy of Rwandans in a way that is unprecedented in history. This proximity affects all Rwandans because when we talk about a genocide, there are on the one hand the victims but also the executioners, I would say that it is beyond that… Because the victims were very close to the executioners; if there had not been this rupture, the majority of people today in prison would be visited by the victims. This forces us to question ourselves seriously, radically, but with humility. It is difficult to explain. It is better to keep certain things inside in order to continue living. This does not mean that it is settled. What I explain regularly. When you look at the Rwandans, even before all these beautiful houses, these beautiful gardens were developed, in 1997, two years later, I was doing a research trip here, I remember that it was difficult to know who is who, those who were there seemed to be in their place… already at that time. 

Many reasons to to explain this,  it is necessary to mark a minimum pause on Rwandan, a being of modesty. Especially when there are deep feelings such as love,  Rwandand do not shout  love on top of  hills,  the same applies to sorrow, even if today things change. It is a way of life that has always constituted modesty, discretion in the expression of feelings. The body language is serious, but Rwandans are not people who scream their pain, there is another way of expressing things. You have to pay attention to the faces, to the gestures, in April, models forged by society that are not legible for someone who is not Rwandan. There is a proverb that says that when someone comes to bite into your basket you can shout and complain, but when they take the whole basket, you keep quiet because it is beyond you. There is something of that too, in the Rwandan and, if we add that the same Rwandan wisdom prescribes to keep dignity,  even when one suffers, we begin to imagine why it is necessary to take the time to hear and listen. 

More, this fraternity which was shattered, is not entirely lost,,  despite the genocide, this shared life  which continues to question us. People have started to live again, I won’t say together, but side by side, almost as they lived before. And we still speak the same language that we have in common, we have the same names. This, combined of course with the resolute policy of the RPF to say “we are not going to give up our project of a united, reunified country, we are going to maintain the unity of Rwandans in spite of everything, despite the genocide. The fact that at the same time there is a clear military victory, despite the massacres of the infiltrators, the fact that we have defeated this war, and that since 2000 the Congo is no longer a problem, this clear military policy, which will say there is a political path and we will follow it. We may not always agree on everything, but let us recognize that there is a shared global vision.  There are certain concepts that are confused, a collective memory, a common memory, which sometimes seems to turn into a collectivization of memorial practices. We must be very careful. We cannot decree a common memory, each family has its own memory, within families each person has his or her own memory, these memories are not fixed, they complement each other and become calmer with time. We must not confuse history, the discipline, that we must write it, by historians, academic approaches, rigorous, this work must be done without much procrastination.

In our society, sometimes we don’t know yet on which foot to dance and when the April period arrives there is only what people live, and what the group would like us to live, and the zone of interaction is often minimal. It is probably my role as an adult, as an academic, as a mother, to dare to say this and to insist on the need to allow a certain freedom to each person, a space where he or she engages in an exercise of memory that is not dictated by an institution. What is visible collectively and what people experience do not necessarily overlap. Each one has its own date, which cannot be reduced to the official calendar. We have this history to pass on to the younger generations. A survivor said to me, “This way we will pass on to our children the heavy burden that we were unable to carry. In Kinyarwanda we say “an unworthy parent leaves his children the heavy burden that he could not carry”. I say no, of course it is a heavy burden, but our children inherited it when they were born, and so it is with an event like the genocide, it is up to us to explain to them that they have a responsibility, but no guilt because they were not there, the innocence of our children is to be underlined and recalled. 

A way of thinking about the genocide without reducing it to a framework set by the State or institutions is necessary and allows for spaces for the elaboration and sharing of the memory, of memories. Each person, each family has its date, its dates, its site, etc. When it approaches, it is impossible to go to bed without saying to oneself that it was the last day my family lived, the last day they woke up together, we say things to each other, we ask ourselves questions, we feel that we are almost failing… something dreadful but fortunately we don’t think about it every day. 

When I talk about memory, and I make the same analysis with reconciliation, there are several levels to consider, the micro level, (individuals, family), the meso level (professional organizations or trades) and the macro level, of the State and institutions. The challenge is to create inter-connections between different levels and to finally say that reparation cannot come without recognizing this and to try to create spaces of narrativities, of possible reparation and to always keep spaces of attempts, simply because there is not a formula to repair, to restore.

In my work, when I describe a genocide, I speak of the unspeakable that cannot be silenced. It is unspeakable, but at the same time it cannot be silenced. When I returned to Rwanda, I had a project called “Telling, Thinking… Writing the history of the genocide”, the first thing I did was to tell it. Then when we created the IRIBA Center, the first pillar was to create spaces for the liberation of speech. Where people can try to find ways to say the unspeakable. 

During the commemorations, we should create more spaces where, at the micro, meso and macro levels, people will not explode or lose their footing, but will try to say what they keep deep inside them, in safe spaces. Moments when we can say to ourselves, even if all year long we live like ordinary people, we carry something in us that is not ordinary, we can take the time to sit down and say it. Today this is even more complicated, with this virus. At the Center, since October, we have been working with the younger generations, a way to prepare people to respect the silence of April. We are not obliged to speak but we can also be silent to recognize the seriousness of this month of April which was the month of milk and became the month of blood.

In fact, in this work you carry out to transmit this story to the younger generations, you call upon the digital tool, which facilitates this transmission 

The center is called IRIBA (which means the source in Kinyarwanda) for multimedia heritage because, precisely, before creating it we already knew that digital technology offered an extraordinary potential to solve certain things. As well as the free access, the accessibility, to be always available. A way of saying to my society, where indeed we have become very “business”, but  repairing a society is not always business, it is also a way of rehabilitating certain values, including the ‘free’ UBUNTU, which is the essence of UMUNTU, the human being. The second pillar is to support the process of re-appropriation of the past. Because genocide is a process that distorts the past before denying it. If men could not deny the common past, a genocide project could not happen. How can we manage to talk about the past again without falling into the abyss that threatens us and, above all, how can we dare to talk about the common past when genocide has become the new reality by which we perceive life? This was not easy. 

Hence the need to say that we will go into the more distant past, not the immediate past, and this is because we go into the archives, the traces of the past, from common reference points, the cow, the weddings, the sport, many things that existed to be able to revive them in the present and give access to that by letting the young people speak about it. “Therefore, you used to do them together?” When those questions are asked, I’m the happiest. Allowing them to ask the questions. That’s when they ask you “but then how did the separation happen”. That’s when you can talk about the unspeakable and work on the construction of hate speech, conspiracy theories, etc. 

I was 27 years old in 1994, the majority of my friends committed murders, the other part was killed. I cannot hide behind the idea that everyone hated each other. No, I was living in Rwanda and I was not hated as such. In 1993, when I saw the newspaper with the cartoons, I said to myself that a Rwandan could not do it, it must be the work of foreigners. At the same time, you could see the Interahamwe militia. However, we did not have the intellectual distance to perceive what this could mean in terms of imminent catastrophe. It was less than a year before the genocide, many things had already happened, we did not see. It is necessary to have the courage to say it and to educate people so as to stay alert, of the manipulation, of what brings us to pointing the finger at the other. 

For the young generations in my contact, it is systematic , the refusal to judge the other, because it is, here a woman, there a Muslim … Beware, it is this reasoning that allows the logic of genocide to take place, the determinism, the thing against which we must educate. Social media, which I call “asocial,” this extraordinary opening to the world, to the cyberworld, I do not condemn it but I condemn my generation because we have abandoned it to the mercantile marchers and we do not educate enough to this cyberworld, to its stakes.

The digital world is an extraordinary space that we could invest in order to change things more quickly, but I recognize today that we have abandoned it, today everyone has embarked in a revolution that has not said its name. The digital revolution will affect our lives more than the industrial revolution. It affects the question of the memory of the genocide but not only, we must seize it to give the young generations the tools to approach these new media, without being flooded, without drowning. Commemorating also requires us to do this work on the new media and on hate speech. 

How do Rwandans perceive the initiatives taken in France to shed light on French responsibilities during the genocide? (opening of archives, Duclert report…)

Emmanuel Macron is announced in Kigali next May-DR

I would have been very sad if you had not asked me the question. Because I am deeply Rwandan, but I am also a good French citizen, a culture of choice. It is also my way of inhabiting the planet through this double belonging. I followed closely, as early as October 1990, France’s first engagement in Rwanda. I listened to the radio without moderation, I was a rather informed young person. At 22, I was already someone who was concerned about North-South relations. When the war started in Rwanda, I was afraid and I had good reason to be afraid and I was upset by the intervention of France. I did not wait until it was fashionable to see the lie of the political-military apparatus. At that time, it was the first Gulf War, nobody cared about this tiny African country, Rwanda. But because I was Rwandan, I had to care and because my family was beginning to pay a heavy price, but also because this country that I had joined, this country of so much desired freedoms, and, all that was undermined. The stupidity that was spread everywhere was only equaled by the pain I felt in front of what was happening at home. 

Afterwards, we had to negotiate an impossible balance. When I arrived in Rwanda with a French passport, I said to myself: “You have no shame! “And when I went elsewhere, I heard “ah, you are Rwandan where it happened…”. I had to learn to say “yes, I am Rwandan and I must not be confused with the crime nor the criminals, I carry a French passport and I must not be confused with this history of French politics in Rwanda. “

About what was played out between Paris and Kigali, I quickly understood that it was not just a question of country or political decision but an old-fashioned mentality that was maintained and endured, that when Paris decided to intervene in Africa there was not even a need to manipulate opinion at length, it was just done. I began to meet intellectuals, to exchange with people who had worked on the question of the genocide of European Jews, on Algeria, Cambodia, etc. And if there was a place on earth where I could find a community to help me think about what happened and put my finger on the guilt, I would not have found a better one than with these people, this community that bends the rules to think the unthinkable, with such rigor and freedom. 

For the 14th and 15th commemorations, with European and African researchers, we were already talking about the need to let historians do the work. With a book in particular, “Rwanda 15 years later, thinking, writing the history of the Tutsi genocide” and other events. Then came the visit of President Sarkozy, I hoped that things would change. However, this was not the case. However, I noted this small step, oh so important. I admit that the arrival in power of Hollande has nourished hopes, finally he was taken by Franco-French priorities and Rwanda was passed by. Even though, well before, Michel Rocard, I must pay tribute to him, had asked that France should investigate what had happened. Behind this there has always been this work of different actors, a determined work to bring knowledge, in the media in particular, and we began to see cracks in this wall of refusal. Because the logic that allows disasters like Rwanda, Algeria, have the same ideological root, things to fight. There were many publications, intellectuals, conferences, which came to shake this very guilty ivory tower.’

Therefore, I was very happy when President Macron set up this commission. I would even say that I felt a certain peace of mind when I realized that he had not put the “officials of the Rwandan situation”, even if many friends could have been included in it and they were left out. It was a way to start on a healthy basis. In my work, in my way of considering that I am at the service of the cause of history, it is not so much me that is important, I had the chance to see the commission work, with a lot of hope. I like the way they worked and reported. They are not there to bring answers to everything, not all of what has rotten the relations between France and Rwanda, it is up to us today to transform the report. They have done their job, an important step, but it will not do all the work and all the missed appointments. If we decide to work intelligently, this work can be an important step towards deconstructing the guilty colonial racist ideology that allows this kind of crime to take place and locks us in so we can’t say no. This is what we must try to change. 

Apologies are not very important to me, or else we should apologize to the dead, the real victims of the guilty actions. What is important is an institutional recognition, a work of historians, not to say France or Rwanda, but to name the culpabilities, not to throw people in prison, what will that repair? but much more to educate young people, Rwandan, African, French, to think differently. A crime is a crime. A guilt and a guilt. Let us know not to transmit hatred ! 

In conclusion, why is it important to continue “to remember”, to do this work of memory not only for Rwanda, but for Africa, and also for the world. The genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 was the last genocide of the twentieth century, but perhaps not in the history of humanity, if we observe what is happening throughout the world (Uyghurs, Rohingyas…). How to deconstruct so that “Never Again”, as the survivors of the Shoah had expressed it…

‘Deconstruct’ is a term I like very much. To deconstruct the systems of these ideologies that lead to the worst despite the warning signals. As far as the genocide of the Tutsis is concerned, which I have always called that (not a question of fashion), because indeed, it is a question of identifying the target, the evil that the ideology designated for extermination at the time was Tutsi, the discourse of extermination has its target, and the genocide was aimed at the Tutsi. It is necessary to remember and beyond, it is necessary to educate, to allow us to share but also to resist against the instrumentalization or the reproduction, not to reproduce the same discourse in reverse, the instrumentalization is the disease of our time. 

Rwanda carries the experience, the experience of what man can do to his fellow man, that the world can look, capitulate, and come and see after what has happened. I believe that this refusal to capitulate, which has constituted the 27 years after the genocide in Rwanda, is important. It is a legacy. Let us beware of the risk of instrumentalizing it or of raising it as a kind of arrogance. The model of refusing to die and trying to get back to life at all costs, yes, these are things we can share with others. If a brother was able to do what he did to another Rwandan, it forces us to remain alert, because we know that man is capable of the worst. Let’s try the opposite: to be capable of the best. Today we have resources of access to knowledge if we give ourselves the means, of openness to the world as never before, this kind of thing cannot happen again. 

In 1994, most people did not have a telephone. Every time I work with young people, they ask me if at that time there was the telephone, the new media, would it have been easier to inform, to kill? I don’t know. What I do know is that we must identify the mechanisms that led to it, and it is up to us to educate, starting in our families, to educate in citizenship, to think about the world, because we live in a village called the world, and if we ignore it, we are in trouble…Our village-world requires pedagogy, citizenship, commemorating alone is not enough.

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