Keepers of Memory, 2004

A Tutsi herdsman and genocide survivor sits atop a pastoral outpost on the side of a hill in Bisesero, reflects on the loss of his family and friends during the 100 day massacre, wistfully looks out into the horizon, and comments, “This place used to be beautiful. Now the only beauty is the skeletons on the mountains”. In a subsequent train of thought, he criticizes the continued re-appearance (and opportunism) of international journalists in the area since the end of the genocide to conduct interviews with survivors, only to go away and effect little change in their situation since 1994: “Can’t you see we’re dying?” It is a sentiment of profound desolation, resignation, unreconciled grief, and impotence that would echo through the testimonials of several survivors at each of six major sites of the 1994 Rwandan genocide who have, in their own individual ways, become keepers of the dead by memorializing the massacre sites and serving as first-hand witnesses to articulate the depth of tragedy. A middle-aged woman (and sole survivor of her family) who was shot by the Interahamwe (Hutu militia) in her own home recounts how she lay for days on the floor gravely wounded amidst the bodies of her family, unable to move and afraid to call out for fear that the gunmen would again return (as they had randomly done in the villages for several days to ensure that there were no survivors) and that, in her immobility and dire thirst, had resorted to drinking from a pool of blood that had collected near her in a (perceived) moment of weakness. Ten years later, she continues to regret her actions and feels forever destined to be haunted by her lost loved ones every time she takes a drink of water, eternally bound in the memory of their dying blood bond. Another woman who bears the physical scars from massive head wounds suffered during the massacre in her village expresses her strong objection to cover her with a head scarf as often suggested by well-intentioned people around her, arguing that her disfigurement serves as a constant, cautionary reminder to everyone on humankind’s innate capacity for evil. At another site, a humble, religious man respectfully tends to a mass grave site and offers another explanation to the tragedy: “How can Christians kill other Christians? Surely they were possessed by Satan.” At another site, a genial and reserved elderly woman on her way to church passes by a disused church that had been the site of another massacre and is being used to house the remains of genocide victims that still continue to be unearthed, and decides to pick some wild flowers to be placed among the skeletons, her countenance becoming increasingly impassioned and visibly distraught as she recounts her personal experience amidst the overwhelming quantity of skeletons neatly arranged before her, before apologizing to the off-screen interviewer (filmmaker Eric Kabera) for losing her composure. Keepers of Memory is a visceral, thoughtful, and deeply personal account of the human tragedy that continues to haunt its often forgotten, marginalized, and globally abandoned survivors. Contrasting the inarticulable, yet intimately heart-rending grief of the victims with the carefully wordsmithed, olive branch speeches from representatives of the international community eager to put its collective ignominious accountability behind (for callous and inhumanely reckless bureaucratic policies that exacerbated the tragedy) by acknowledging its failure to intervene, the film serves as a provocative and powerfully moving indictment of factionalism, moral complicity through abstention and inertia, and human indifference.

© Acquarello 2005. All rights reserved.