Rwanda, remembrance and some thoughts on ‘dark tourism’

This month marks the 20-year anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide. I was honoured to be invited to a remembrance event at the House of Lords in March, after which I wrote a blog post for Wired about the impact of the genocide on the country’s economic and social recovery and my personal reaction to seeing how far the country has come.

What I’d like to add to that here is what it’s like to be a visitor to Rwanda.I went to Rwanda last October for a conference, but I managed to take a couple of hours out one afternoon to visit the Genocide Memorial Centre. Quite frankly, it would have been rude of me not to.

Everyone I met in Rwanda seemed immensely proud of their little country, and I could see why. Kigali is a neat, clean city that seems very different to other capitals I’ve visited in the region like Kampala and Nairobi. It feels safer, the roads are better, the traffic is less hectic and the public transport is remarkable.

But to observe of all of this without knowing what Rwanda has been through and how far it has come in 20 years is to see but not understand. Everywhere I went, Rwandan people implored me to visit the Genocide Memorial, and I’m so glad I did. It put into context everything I knew about the country, everything that was happening at the conference and the lives of those I met.

WP_20131031_16_30_30_Pro People can understandably feel uneasy about so-called “dark tourism”. For some, the thought of visiting sites where terrible things have happened is too macabre to bear; others dislike the whole concept of turning places where terrible things have happened into “attractions”. With a history teacher for a parent, it’s perhaps inevitable that I’ve visited various locations that fall under this banner, including the likes of the first world war battlefields and Auschwitz-Birkenau. My overwhelming feeling following all the museum trips and memorial events I’ve experienced is that if these locations do not remain open and people do not keep visiting them, we are at risk of doing the most dangerous thing of all: forgetting. I do not mean atrocities will disappear from our collective memories completely, but they could easily lose their impact if they are consigned to the pages of history books. Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, who serves as chairman of the International Auschwitz Council, pointed out in an article for the BBC in 2009 that the time would soon come when there would be no more survivors to testify to the horrors of the camp, and then all that would be left as evidence would be the camp itself. “Auschwitz-Birkenau must forever remain an unhealed, burning wound, which wakes people up from moral lethargy and forces them to take responsibility for the fate of our world,” he wrote. “If we let the memorial cease to exist, we will take a great burden on our conscience. We will trample upon the testament of the victims. “I hope to be a false prophet in saying that, but if we allow Auschwitz-Birkenau to disappear from the face of the Earth, we might just be opening a way for a similar evil to return.” Listen to the testimony of any of Rwanda’s genocide survivors today, and what they will tell you echoes this. They do not enjoy retelling their painful stories — for even time cannot heal wounds that run that deep — and yet they do. There is a desperation in their determination to instill in people how important it is that we do not forget. Like the holocaust survivors, like us all, they will all be gone some day too, and what then for Rwanda? It still has a long way to go and the best way to prevent complacency is to remember its starting point — the place it’s moving away from. It might not be comfortable, but distancing ourselves in any way from what humanity is capable of only increases the likeliness that something like this will happen again. Rwanda is proof of this. It’s my instinct to say that as we travel the world, it’s important to look at everything that has shaped it — the good and the bad — in order to help us continue to make it a better place. It might sound radical, but I believe acknowledging these sites and learning as best we can what has happened there is more than about being a responsible tourist; it’s about being a responsible human being. I acknowledge that there are vile sides to dark tourism — wedging Auschwitz between quad biking and bar crawls on stag do itineraries, for example. I also know that we cannot walk in the footsteps of victims and expect our experiences to in any way imitate theirs. But what we can do is stare evil in the face and promise ourselves that for our own part, we will never let what we see flourish again. For as Bartoszewski says: “It lies in the nature of man that when no tangible traces remain, events of the past fall into oblivion.”