Spectres of Death: Exhuming the Human Remains of the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda

This post is part of a series on politics in the face of death. For an introduction and links to the other posts, please see here.

In the mid-1990s an extremist political faction within the Hutu-dominated Rwandan government successfully mobilised a large militia and many ordinary citizens in the organised extermination of Rwandans identified as ethnic Tutsi, as well as Hutu who resisted the regime’s genocidal intention. Few escaped, with Rwandans of both determined and ambiguous ethnic identity and political affiliation drawn into the conflict. From April to July of 1994 between 800,000 and a million Rwandans were killed during the violence. The campaign of genocide was initiated in the midst of a larger war between the government and an invasion of soldiers loyal to the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The RPF considers itself a liberation movement, an army formed in Uganda by second-generation Rwandan Tutsi exiles aiming to remove a perceived hostile government in Rwanda. In July of 1994, after successfully moving into and across Rwanda, the RPF declared its occupation of the central government in Kigali. Decades later, the political wing of this military organisation remains in power.

The scale of the devastation was slow to reveal itself to outsiders with the sites of massacres of large groups of Rwandans who had sought shelter in civic or religious buildings the source of the first and most affecting reports circulated internationally. The bodies of these people and up to a million others now serve as enduring legacies of the conflict. There are hundreds of memorials to genocide in Rwanda, many containing the bones and other human remains of victims, often stacked on shelves or stored in collective coffins. Photographs of memorial bones have so frequently been used to illustrate literature circulated outside of Rwanda that the accompanying text is barely needed as an indicator of the event. Within Rwanda the memorials sit at the centre of annual memorial events, with commemorative services, vigils, remembrance marches, and other community gatherings associated with these locations.

There is limited published scholarship on Rwandan memorials and the bones that lie within them. This is surprising given the burgeoning field of memory studies and its attention to post-conflict sites of memory. Scholarly concern that has been paid to the remains has tended to follow two themes, focusing on the strange nature of these bones within the memorials as effective and affecting signs of violence and yet unsatisfactory in their ability to communicate the specificities of genocide events, and alongside this a concern with the troubled history of these bones as commemorative tools.[1] The memorials are controversial and their involvement in national memorialisation and reconciliation efforts is fed into criticism of the RPF’s strategies of governance.

In his theorisation of ‘necropolitics’ Achille Mbembe links the bones found within Rwandan memorials to the workings of contemporary necropower – that defining feature of modern sovereignty in which power is exercised through and over death. For Mbembe: “what is striking is the tension between the petrification of the bones and their strange coolness on one hand, and on the other, their stubborn will to mean, to signify something.”[2] The association with power exercised through death is undeniable, their presence is the result of a genocidal regime that was devastatingly successful in mobilising the will and the means to execute a large proportion of the population resident inside Rwanda in the 1990s. As spectres of death in the aftermath of the massacres they have also been swept up into the workings of governance, part of a deep association between politics and death in Rwanda.

The memorials containing human remains are important to the government. Those designated as national memorials, are popular sites of interest for internationals. Rhetoric that accompanies displays of the dead is a reminder of the absence of international opposition during the days of the genocide and, more subtly, of an investment in changing the structure of “bad governance” from which the 1994 genocidal regime emerged. Within this project as Mbembe notes, the bones have an ambiguous meaning. They may evoke the horror of death and give the impression of absence, but they do not alone impress upon this general and often distant audience the specificity of the violence enacted during the conflict or convey the particularities of lives lost.

The purpose and meaning of the bones can be articulated with greater specificity. Bones are stored inside memorials in their thousands. Most often stacked neatly by rough anatomical type. Almost all are anonymous. The presentation of human remains in Rwanda in this way has no precedent inside the country. There is no tradition of second burial of bones and despite a long history of association with the Catholic Church no direct link has been made by those managing the memorials with the ossuary practices of Catholicism. The practice makes more sense if it is understood as a response by post-genocide Rwandan authorities to the previous regime’s methods for genocide. This strategy identified a perceived hegemony of Tutsi power for destruction. It did so by marking the bodies of those identified as Tutsi as abject. This was both a symbolic and literal act. The bodies of genocide victims were destroyed and discarded with little care, often visibly abandoned, a clear sign that they were not to be considered subject to commonplace practice surrounding the treatment of familiar human bodies. In a literal rendering of that symbolic practice, the bodies where subject to extreme violence, far beyond that necessary to cause death. The result was corpses which were inhuman in appearance – dismembered, disembowelled, burned. The reordering of these bodies as neatly stacked bones, contained within state managed sites, demonstrates both the power of the current government over the dead and its will to shift away from the political strategies of the past. As Stepputat points out in relation to other contexts, contemporary practices of sovereignty often demonstrate a clear overlap between power exercised through and over the furthering of the life of a population (bio-power) and power over and in the production of death (necro-power).[3] The articulation and presentation of these bodies of the dead are evidence of these overlapping paradigms of sovereign power, patterns present both before and after the genocide, complicating any claim of an absolute shift or rupture in methods of governance.

Stepputat also draws attention to the tension between these somewhat mechanical and secularised modes of power and emergent forms of nationalism, particularly in the post-colonial state. Nationalism often demonstrates its reliance on an ‘enchantment’ of politics, not infrequently through the presentation of those who have sacrificed their lives for its formation.[4] The memorialised remains play their part here as the memory of the genocide and the conservation of the bodies of its, now sacred, murder victims are drawn into the expression of a new Rwandan national identity that has emerged in and through state rhetoric over the decades since the genocide.

It is at the point at which this projection of centralised authority is enmeshed in everyday life however, that the multiple significances of these human remains are apparent. The memorials are not solely an initiative of government. In the years that followed 1994 groups of Rwandans who had survived persecution were often the first to make decisions about how and where human remains and associated memorials should or could be managed. Over the decades that followed there has been a shift in the control of these sites, towards management by the government and away from relatively informal groups of caretakers. An element of this shift has been pragmatic, even directed by these people, as hastily constructed memorials fell into disrepair and the presence of shallow graves became pressing. Communities of Rwandans continue to attend to the bodies, an involvement that is critical and complex.

My research in Rwanda, more than twenty years after the genocide, focused on the exhumation of mass graves and of hastily constructed crypts believed to contain the bodies of victims of the genocide. The governmental project is part of a national program which aims to inter all of the bodies of Tutsi killed during the genocide within official memorial sites. Alongside these exhumations a national consolidation of memorial sites has taken place, with earlier memorials dismantled and removed or reconstructed. Disinterring the graves involves close contact with the dead. Bodies may have been buried in soil or placed into brick lined crypts, some had been wrapped in shrouds or sealed in coffins, but most had been disposed of with little decorum. Uncovering the remains was often a distressing revisiting of the past, with human remains accompanied by the disarming presence of everyday personal possessions and clothing. The exhumation of these graves takes place under the auspices of the state, who provide the tools to structure what is a formulaic pattern of work. Bodies are removed from the graves, bones and soft tissues disentangled from personal possessions and placed in collective. The remains are washed with soap and water and organised into the collectives of rough anatomical type that sit at the centre of memorials. Although government officials oversee the project, the handling of the dead is carried out by groups of genocide survivors, a number of whom will live near the site of exhumation although others travel many miles to take part.

It was evident in the conversations and actions that took place in the emotive spaces containing the dead, as well as at many public and private events afterwards that the work was hugely significant to this group of people. These bodies mobilise memories of conflict and open up otherwise concealed acts of individual and collective mourning. The exhumations were also crucial to the work of negotiating relatedness in the aftermath of the conflict. The exhumers were part of groups of people who had not necessarily known each other before the genocide but afterwards found themselves amidst a new community in which ethnic identity, previously relatively fluid in significance, had become both urgent and often synonymous with claims to victimhood. In the continued crisis of separation and loss, many exhumers were heavily invested in the ritual transformation of these bodies from comingled and violated remains to a relatively ordered collective of genocide dead.

This salve of ritual activity however cannot contain the risk involved in employing these bodies in the furthering of post-genocide politics. This is a project that the exhumers are part of, signalling in their involvement a support for the government but also using these activities to indicate their potential to resist state imposition. This possibility for disruption extends far beyond the exhumers themselves, a large portion of the Rwandan population is excluded from these events. This includes those who are uncomfortable with the manner in which this largely deindividuated collective of human remains has become part of national memorialisation. It also includes people who are unable to employ support in the recovery of bodies that they do not wish to include in this commemorative work, or which cannot be included. This is a problem that the government is acutely aware of but unable to address. As bones these remains are appropriate subjects of the new regime, as individuals with lived histories they may be subversive. This is a paradox which exudes from their very materiality. The bones are affecting, in part because in substance they are in between, between subject and object, and unstable in their physical constitution even when reduced to the illusory solidity of bone. It is this instability from which a necropolitical power may be harnessed but it is just this same power which also threatens the order of the state project that surrounds them.

When viewed in this way the ossification of the bones can be seen as an ongoing project. These remains have been on the move for some time, with the most recent exhumations part of a series of transformative events. Many of the bodies have been moved more than once in the years since the genocide. Similarly, their movement in corporeality has been complex, the transformation from fleshy individuated remains to collective dry bones not straightforward or necessarily determinate. The parallels with Verdery’s work are clear,[5] although in this context, activity seems driven both by the enchantment of politics that bones engender and by a need to limit the frequently unruly power of the dead.


[1] For example: Susan Cook, “The Politics of Preservation in Rwanda,” Genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda: New Perspectives, Volume 1 (Yale Centre for International and Area Studies, 2004). Accessed online 2012; Boubacar Boris Diop, Murambi: The Book of Bones, trans. Fiona McLaughlin (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006); Nigel Eltringham,  “Display, Concealment and ‘Culture’: The Disposal of Bodies in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide,” in Human Remains and Mass Violence: Methodological Approaches, ed. Elisabeth Anstett and Jean-Marc Dreyfus (Manchester University Press, 2014), 161-180; Sara Guyer, “Rwanda’s Bones,” Boundary 36, no. 2. (2009): 155-175; Rachel Ibreck, “The Politics of Mourning: Survivor Contributions to Memorials in Post-Genocide Rwanda” Memory Studies 3, no. 4. (2010): 330-343.

[2] Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” trans. Libby Meintjes, Public Culture 15, no. 1: 35.

[3] Finn Stepputat, “Governing the Dead? Theoretical Approaches,” in Governing the Dead: Sovereignty and the Politics of Dead Bodies, ed. Finn Stepputat (Manchester University Press, 2014), 10-32.

[4] Ibid, 20.

[5] Verdery, Katherine. The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Postsocialist Change. New York: Columbia Press. 1999.

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About Laura Major

Laura Major is a Career Development Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. She is currently writing publications based on her doctorate, which was completed at the University of Edinburgh with funding from the Economic Social and Research Council (UK Research and Innovation). Her research and teaching are located in both political and medical anthropology, as well as studies of material culture.

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