The Spectacle of Unreal Horrors

By Kelly Foster

In five weeks, I will be going to Rwanda. I will be joining six of my students and eight students from our sister school in Scotland as well as four other teachers, on a trip to learn about genocide and to offer what services we can to several of the aid organizations that have been established by Scottish ministries, ranging from a burgeoning vocational college in Kigali to several housing projects to orphanages and primary schools to a newly built neighborhood bakery.

We will be there a little over ten days. While there, we will visit genocide memorials and talk to survivors. We will see some of the sites where Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered. We will visit the Hotel des Mille Collines, the famous Hotel Rwanda.

We will witness a community Gacaca court, in which the victims of genocide agree to forgive their attackers, so long as they confess and display remorse. We will visit the memorial of mutilated, dried bones at the massacre site of Nyarubuye, where the skulls of the victims have been stacked onto tables.

I don’t know how to feel as I contemplate going.

I am coming from the West, and that’s complicated. I’m coming from one of the many Western countries that all but ignored the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, as well as the atrocities that followed in all the aid camps along the borders, electing to see them as proof of what happens when two primitive tribes let fly their ancient hatreds, not taking into account the devastating and destabilizing legacy of colonization.

I’m coming as a white citizen of a country in which I have never been threatened because of my background or race. I hail from the guilt-ridden noblesse oblige, forever assuming our mere Lacanian gaze and large pockets should prove medicine enough for poverty.

I hail from the colonizing peoples, not the colonized. And we’ve done some pretty bad things.

So it’s complicated.

If you know anything about Rwanda, chances are you’ve seen televised image after televised image of mutilated bodies, just as I have. But despite the fact that I have seen so many of these images, I’m not sure I’m any better equipped emotionally to approach this story or to absorb the information in any way that will prove helpful to anyone, even to myself. Over 800,000 people were killed by hand. In 100 days.

How can a frail mind absorb that? How?

In his excellent book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, Philip Gourevitch wrestles with the complexities of attempting to comprehend genocide through graphic visual images, even through well-intended memorials like Nyarubuye.

Of a night spent out to dinner with aid workers who had witnessed the atrocities at aid camps in Zaire and who were commenting on the role of vision and comprehension, Gourevitch writes:

“The talk about Kibeho had started when Alexandre asked me if I had been to the church at Nyarubuye, to see the memorial there of the unburied dead from the genocide. I hadn’t yet, and although when I did go I didn’t regret it, I gave Alexandre what I thought—and still think—was a good argument against such places. I said that I was resistant to the very idea of leaving bodies like that, forever in their state of violation—on display as monuments to the crime against them, and to the armies that had stopped the killing, as much as to the lives they had lost…. I doubted the necessity of seeing the victims in order to fully confront the crime. The aesthetic assault of the macabre creates excitement and emotion, but does the spectacle really serve our understanding of the wrong? Judging from my own response to cruel images and to what I had seen in the hospital ward of Kibeho wounded, I wondered whether people aren’t wired to resist accumulating too much horror. Even as we look at atrocity, we find ways to regard it as unreal. And the more we look, the more we become inured to—not informed by—what we are seeing.”

“Even as we look at atrocity, we find ways to regard it as unreal.” In an attempt to avoid this, I sometimes try to imagine what it would have felt like to be a Jew in a Warsaw ghetto, waiting for a truck to come and take me away. I wonder what it would have felt like to arrive by cattle car at the front gates of Auschwitz. I wonder what it would have felt like to be waiting at the church at Nyarubuye, with my family, having been told it was a safe haven, only to be ruthlessly attacked hours later by grenades and machetes.

And yet all the hours I’ve spent studying genocide in my life—all the documentaries I’ve watched, all the books I’ve read, all the hours I’ve spent locked in my room just trying to feel what that must have been like—may not have brought me any closer to being able to comprehend it. Pictures, even the most graphic ones, can only go so far, and for that matter even a visit halfway around the world can only go so far. Gourevitch is right. Try as we might, maybe all the accumulated images don’t do as much to enlighten us as we might like.

I wonder, but I don’t know. And I think maybe that’s the point of going. I do think it matters to try to understand. I do think it matters to attempt to address. I do think it matters to see Rwanda, just as I think it’s important here to acknowledge that merely seeing Rwanda—the leftover bones, the lingering wounds—will never mean I can fully comprehend the particularity of pain for each survivor or for each perpetrator.

Soon I will do just that. I will see Rwanda. I will handle the green leaves of her trees. I will know what Rwanda smells like—whether it smells of smoke and soil and mist, as I imagine. So I will go to see Rwanda.

And I hope that in seeing, I can begin to learn, with fear and trembling, how it is I am supposed to see.

Note: This post was orginally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.