Now Return My Story, and Wipe My Mouth with Bread | Renée Akitelek Mboya | Tuesday, 05.09.2023

iii. Drunken Mobs, Pile of Dead

The stories we hear of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi often leave the impression of crazed masses – killers – descending from the hills, clubs and machetes in hand: a surge, a roar. I live on the bottom of one of these hills, next to quiet marshland filled with reeds and alive with toads in the rainy season. Often I imagine a stray cat might drop a lost tooth on my doorstep.
The afternoons here are unbearably hot; clear glass windows provide no filter for the gruelling hours of equatorial light that precede the sun’s sudden disappearance. I chat casually to my landlord on one of these hot afternoons. She tells me that this is the house her parents built in 1987, the same year in which, across the border in Uganda, the Rwanda Alliance for National Unity held its seventh congress in Kampala and renamed itself the Rwanda Patriotic Front, a telling sign of the war soon to come. She later tells me that they – her parents – were killed in the early days of the genocide against the Tutsi and, for several weeks after, I wander around the whitewashed halls of my house looking for evidence that something cataclysmic happened here, provoking a haunting that even 29 years later in Rwanda, is inevitable. I imagine the noise, the rush; I wonder if my ceiling might be a good place to hide if ever the moment came.
The photographs we see from the time immediately after the genocide against the Tutsi, however, tell a different story – the story of what Assumpta Mugiraneza, director of the IRIBA Centre for Multimedia Heritage here in Kigali, calls a ‘genocide of proximity’. Skulls crushed by the intimate force of weapons held close by dark figures breathing heavily and glistening with sweat. Impossible to swing your elbow without the splatter of blood, wet scream surging forward as a body crumples into you – an intimate embrace, an intensely sensory experience. Mamdani writes that ‘the technology of the holocaust allowed a few to kill many, but the machete had to be wielded by a single pair of hands. It required not one but many hacks of a machete to kill even one person’. 1Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).
I think what Mamdani’s quote emphasises here is that the genocide against the Tutsi relied on repetition. It is difficult in imagining modern warfare to avoid comparisons with manual and mechanised labour (we are efficient on battlefields in the same ways we are efficient in factories) and in the case of Rwanda, in the early whispers of genocidal campaign, easy parallels were drawn to agrarian labour; later when drought and sharp economic decline in the 1980s drove farmers from their lands in millions, machetes in hand, the analogy landed. In these hands the machete lost its rustic innocence and became a weapon with the capacity to kill thousands, hundreds of thousands in a matter of days.
In the same vein, in 1974 former president Major General Juvenal Habyarimana said of manual labour:
‘In order to attract the attention of the Rwandan population for this reality, we have named the year 1974 the national year for agriculture and manual labour. We take this opportunity to thank and to encourage everyone who understood our attitude and who supported our action by practicing one day of manual labour themselves every week.
‘Remember that this is the way we want to fight this form of intellectual bourgeoisie and give all kinds of physical labour its value back. And we think that in all programs, the brightest, must be the example for their countrymen. Action is thus called for.’
Finally I start to understand that the photos I’m looking for – the action photos, photos that depict the excitement of a moment in time, that emphasise bodies in motion – would have been impossible to take and, moreover, impossible to look at. These photos would need to represent populations who had not previously been well photographed or represented in Rwandan society – farm labourers and the peasant underclasses – which in itself emphasises the idea that the Rwandan political elite chose genocide as a political strategy to remain in power.
In this I am reminded of a headline from 10 April 1994: DRUNKEN MOBS, PILE OF DEAD SHARE KIGALI STREETS (REUTERS, Peter Smerdon):
‘Drunken soldiers and gangs of machete-wielding youths share the streets of the hilly Rwandan capital Kigali with piles of mutilated, rotting corpses. Crowds of youths armed with sticks, kitchen knives, anything capable of slashing open a human body, stand solemnly in the roads. Corpses are piled in the centres of streets. Corpses are laid out in lines on the sides of roads. Bodies are everywhere. In the compounds of luxurious villas. On the doorsteps in shantytowns.’
My question remains: Does an atrocity need a photo? How effective is it to speak about a photo without seeing it?