Our memorial to 50,000 dead is no empty historic exercise

By James Smith, chief executive of the Aegis Trust (THE GUARDIAN, 21/11/06):

The Guardian published an article that centred on a five-month-old report on the Murambi genocide site in Rwanda (Two years late and mired in controversy: the British memorial to Rwanda’s past, November 13).

Two years late for what? It may have been desirable to open the memorial centre two years ago, but no opening date had been set. The Aegis Trust, a British charity, was asked by the Rwandan government to help convey the genocide story at Murambi, where 50,000 Tutsis were slaughtered in 1994. We do not drag our feet on such projects. We completed a much larger exhibition in Rwanda’s main genocide museum, the Kigali Memorial Centre, in just four months in 2004; but remote Murambi poses a different set of challenges.

Myriad questions surround this place, and our task is to bring dignity to the victims and facilitate consensus among divergent opinions in Rwanda. For example, what do you do with 800 corpses that lie in the former school when they are the only way desperate survivors can convey the tragedy?

Aegis encouraged Rwanda’s culture ministry to set up a commission as part of a normal consultation process. Some sweeping comments in its report do not amount to a “mire of controversy”. Representing genocide is complicated, and debate around the memorial at Murambi is expected and necessary.

The Guardian article carried no comment from the ministry and none from genocide survivors involved in the work of Aegis in Rwanda. Stating that the plans of Aegis are being criticised by “prominent Rwandans” misleads readers about the respect in which Aegis is held in Rwanda. And these “leading Rwandans” were not identified.

The sub-headline “UK charity’s plans for massacre site criticised” could be contextualised if the author referred to the Kigali memorial. On a site where a quarter of a million victims of the genocide are buried, this memorial will be visited by more than 150,000 people this year and receives praise daily from visitors, including world leaders. The Rwandan prime minister, Bernard Makuza, wrote in the visitors’ book: “You are the stone on which we will build a Rwanda without conflict.”

Last month Kigali’s mayor extended Aegis’s contract to manage the centre for the next five years. Activities at genocide memorials are not empty historic exercises: they contribute to reparation by acknowledging the immense loss of survivors; they empower young people to build a unified, safer nation through education programmes; and they are a warning to international visitors about the consequence of failing to protect people under threat of genocide, in places such as Darfur.

Now the culture ministry, with Aegis, is examining options for conserving or representing the piles of human victims in Murambi. These were shown graphically in the photograph accompanying the Guardian article. By stopping them turning to dust and by keeping their memory alive, we aim to prevent this scene from recurring in Rwanda, or elsewhere in the world.