Endings, and Beginnings
By Eresh Naidu, Program Director for Africa, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa
A few years ago on a visit to the Liberation War Museum in Bangladesh, I was told that my name in Bengali meant ‘Queen of the Universe.’ This sparked my interest, so I began Googling other meanings. I soon found that Eresh is also a derivative of the Mesopotamian goddess Ereshkigal, goddess of the underworld and symbol of the non-productive seasons of the year. I thought: how appropriate that my name should be rooted in the name of the goddess of the underworld, given that much of my work in the past eleven years has sent me roaming mass grave sites and burial grounds around the world.
We all know death is a part of the cycle of life. But over the years it has become increasingly more difficult for me to comprehend how inhumane acts of violence characterized by extreme hate, brutality and anger can be justified as a part of the cycle of life. Can mass graves, burial grounds, and memorial sites commemorating such mass atrocity have a positive impact on our view of the world? Are they merely the markers of all that is wrong in our world? Or can these sites of death, mourning, and ending actually give life, fostering new beginnings and rebirths?
I would like to think so. My recent trip to Rwanda reminded me that many sites of mass atrocity not only symbolize the futility and injustice of mass violence, but they also serve as spaces for healing, mourning, and as one Rwandan survivor mentioned, ‘a home’ for the dead. Most importantly, however, these spaces send an important message to the living: We must never allow this to happen again! As Professor Andreas Eshete, Chairman of the African Union Human Rights Memorial (AUHRM) Interim Board notes, “Memorialization has as much to do with the dead as it does with the future.”
From 17 to 19 July 2013, I joined Coalition members Justice Africa, Constitution Hill, and the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre at the AUHRM’s first in-country consultative session in Kigali, Rwanda. The meeting, organized by Justice Africa in partnership with the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center and IBUKA survivors’ association, provided an opportunity to hear from government officials, survivors, memorialization experts, and members of various civil society organizations, aiming to raise awareness of the AUHRM as well as to ascertain ways for the Rwandan genocide to be represented at the AUHRM in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Following visits to various sites of atrocity and discussion with survivors, it was clear that many Rwandans felt strongly that the AUHRM should tell the story of the Rwandan genocide to the international community through the voices of survivors. One survivor noted the difficulty in explaining to outsiders and young people “how someone can kill another with no good reason.” She believed that the memorial should serve as a lesson for current and future generations, reminding them of the futility of violence and reiterating the moral imperative of ‘never again.’
The lack of consensus on the narrative of the Rwandan genocide permeated our discussions. According to survivors and government officials, many claim it was not genocide but a civil war; others deny the genocide happened at all, while still others claim that there were genocides against both Hutus and Tutsis. As difficult as it may be to accept, it is important to recognize that there will always be contestation of the narratives of conflict, whether those of Apartheid in South Africa, the slave trade in West Africa, or the civil war in Liberia.
How then do we recognize the multiplicity of voices while still ensuring that we give survivors the recognition they deserve and also build a future of respect, peace, and human rights where new generations see their own humanity through the eyes of their fellow men and women? It is through the careful conception of programs at these sites of mass atrocity. While we use these sites as homes for the dead, they can also be safe spaces for the living. The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience helps such sites to actively engage the public in questions of inclusion and exclusion, discrimination, tolerance, peace, justice, and human rights. It is only in breaking the silences and critically questioning some of the myths of the past through dialogue and education programs that we can build an active citizenry and a future based on peace and justice.
As I continue to roam sites of mass atrocity, I go forward with both sadness and hope. I know that we cannot change the past, but we can honor those innocent victims by ensuring that their legacies will be used to shape new beginnings and brighter futures.