Portraying a Painful Past: Memorializing Mass Slaughter of the American Civil War and the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda

By Lauren Letizia ’23

“War at the best, is terrible, and this war of ours, in its magnitude and in its duration, is one of the most terrible.”

Abraham Lincoln (1864)

“Rwanda can be a paradise again, but it will take the love of the entire world to heal my homeland. And that’s as it should be, for what happened in Rwanda happened to us all – humanity was wounded by the genocide.”

Immaculee Ilibagiza

From 1861 to 1865, the American Civil War destroyed nearly 2% of the population of the United States. Approximately 750,000 young men were killed in combat or were withered by disease. In 1994, in an east African country no larger than Maryland, 1 million men, women, and children were systematically murdered by a nationalist extremist movement in just 100 days. It was the most efficient genocide in human history: The Rwandan Hutu government had slaughtered roughly 25% of Rwanda’s population.

Though one cannot compare genocide to a civil war, both the United States and Rwanda were forced to cope with mass devastation and death. America had to construct national cemeteries to handle the abundance of corpses. The federal government began to hammer out policies to secure the freedom of the formerly enslaved and outlined the bones of Reconstruction for the South. Rwanda, however, did not have the luxury of a government after the killings ceased. Fighting their own civil war, the genocidal Rwandan government had been usurped. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), composed of Rwandan refugees from prior persecutions, had returned to liberate their people. To secure freedom for all Rwandans, the soldiers had to try to bury 1 million corpses and exact justice on the perpetrators. Rwanda, unlike the United States, had no government to accomplish these tasks.

In the fall of 2021, I had the privilege to spend one semester in Kigali, Rwanda to study the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi and the peacebuilding processes that were generated from the aftermath. My fellow students and I met with genocide survivors, perpetrators, and academic experts who helped bring the sorrow, suffering, and healing of the genocide to the forefront of our minds. We also visited five genocide memorials, which included mass grave sites, victims’ skulls and other bones, clothes, and, in the case of the Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre, 900 preserved corpses.

Preserved Bodies of Victims of the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi, Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre, Murambi, Rwanda

For Westerners, it may seem sacrilegious, disrespectful, or exceedingly grotesque to display such things in a public memorial. Rwanda has been criticized by (Western) museum officials and others for these exhibits. However, other countries damaged by genocide, such as Cambodia, instituted similarly graphic memorial displays. For Rwanda, their memorials, while sites of honor for victims are warnings to Rwandans and visitors. As genocide survivor and author Immaculee Ilibagiza wrote, “what happened in Rwanda happened to all of humanity.” Rwandan memorialization does not merely emphasize individuals but rather the whole communal loss of 1 million innocent citizens. There are no statues of RPF generals or other prominent people of that time. Memorialization centers on egregious atrocities to provide a warning to the world. A wall of a church classroom stained with children’s blood is a more effective memorial tool of genocide than a marble stone or statue.

The United States took a vastly different approach to memorialize the bleak memories of those killed during the American Civil War. Monumentation began almost immediately after Lee’s surrender to General Grant in Appomattox, Virginia in April 1865. Some of the first battlefield monuments were erected in Manassas, Virginia to commemorate the first land battle of the war and the Second Battle of Manassas in August 1862. Union soldiers dedicated the monuments “to the patriots” who gave their lives for their country. The ceremony included songs, poems, and various speeches. Northern organizations such as the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) began to buy sections of battlefields to erect regimental markers, monuments, and other statues. These ceremonies usually included immense patriotic fanfare, veteran reunions, and large crowds.

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Patriots Monuments, Manassas National Battlefield Park

Civil War memorialization and memory continued in a steady stream in the proceeding years and decades. While many of these efforts stemmed from legitimate concerns about how to properly honor the dead (and aging veterans) and turn collective mourning into remembrance, they became a tool for political and social influence. Organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) sought to portray their own versions of why the South fought and were ultimately forced to surrender and to preserve the Lost Cause narrative. Many Confederate monuments were erected during the Jim Crow Era and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. They were seen as solid reminders of the key underpinnings of the slaveholding Confederate nation and who should be included as a citizen in that nation. Therefore, memorialization of the Civil War, particularly for the South, was to foment an almost nostalgic longing for the “simpler” times of the 19th century while also glorifying the martial masculinity and sacrifices of their soldiers.

American Civil War: The Battle of Gettysburg and Its Significance

Mississippi State Monument, Gettysburg National Military Park

When comparing the memorialization intents and practices of the United States and Rwanda, significant differences emerge. Rwanda’s memorials are not patriotic, vainglorious reminders of the country and its leaders. Instead, they are rooted in despair and shame. They serve to prevent the past through shocking evidence. American Civil War memorials and monuments, however, are often created to preserve the greatness of a particular regiment, general, or military action. Battlefields, though advertised as places of history and bloodshed, are also marketed as scenic places for hiking, birdwatching, or sunsets. The Gettysburg National Military Park’s website, for example, includes a three-and-a-half-minute video of the landscape and various available tourist activities set to a light, lilting soundtrack. It is not until almost halfway through the video that it shows the numerous unknown graves of dead soldiers. This does not mean that the park does not care about the 7,000 soldiers killed during the engagement. However, it provides evidence that many Americans view Civil War battlefields as seductively beautiful and peaceful. They do not always think about the horrific human carnage since it is not always starkly represented. Though there may be photographs of the dead or wounded, museums or other sites do not usually present the most horrifying aspects.

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Genocide Victims’ Clothing in Nyamata Church, Massacre Site Memorial, Nyamata, Rwanda

Rwanda does not shy away from the carnage. Visitors are strongly encouraged to confront the realities of the 1994 Genocide and its aftermath. At the Gysozi Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, a giant sign saying “kwibuka” stands on the main grounds. It means “remember.” Just as national Holocaust museums and memorials bear signs proclaiming, “Never Again,” Rwandans want visitors to remember the death and destruction. By contrast, the Civil War commemorations often draw living historians, reenactments, or other commercial tourist activities. Though sometimes beneficial to the amateur, youth, and more sensory-oriented consumer experience, one must ask if a visitor is genuinely grasping the full scope of damage and loss incurred by the war, as it is sometimes presented in a more sanitized and light-hearted way.

Again, a civil war differs markedly from genocide in innumerable ways, from the reasons for killings to how it was executed to the general “rules and standards” that shaped its scope and whom it could kill in certain situations to the hard reality that, unlike the Rwandan Genocide, the American Civil War produced a clear and positive victor that ultimately shepherded the nation further down the path of progress. However, both the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi and the American Civil War tore down nations and lives. The people left behind had to clear the ashes and rebuild. The countries decided to cope with the detrimental losses in contrasting ways that were affected by differences in the period, political currents, and other factors. Although the Civil War and the 1994 Genocide were vastly different catastrophes, how the post-conflict governments and communities chose to remember (or forget) and preserve their painful pasts is illuminating. Memorialization can both help and hinder the healing of a fractured nation and can shape a nation’s future reckoning with both new and lingering conflicts for better or for worse. In the words of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, “For in the end, it is all about memory, its sources and its magnitude, and, of course, its consequences.”

Tutsi Victims’ Skulls, Gisozi Genocide Memorial, Kigali, Rwanda

Experience Antietam National Battlefield | VisitMaryland.org

Maryland State Monument, Antietam National Battlefield

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