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Negative Heritage and Closing the Door on Comparison? A Case for the Historic Urban Landscape approach in post-genocide Rwanda

Figure 1: Entrance to the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Image courtesy of KGM,

By Georgie Sullivan

Pierre Nora has suggested that there are liéux de memoire (sites of memory) because there is no longer milieux de mémoire (real environments of memory)(Nora, 1984). Ideas about history, memory, commemoration and heritage have been discussed at length by many prominent scholars, particularly when it comes to ‘dark’ or ‘negative’ heritage, and yet it remains an incredibly important and relevant discussion.

In 2015, during a study visit to Rwanda, I was confronted with genocide commemoration and reconciliation efforts that exist to reinforce political tropes about the 1995 ‘genocide against the Tutsi’ narrative, to act as a preventative genocide model, and to demonstrate to the international community a degree of suffering worthy of recognition. This is a discourse that also seems to be playing out in World Heritage Committees surrounding the inscription of three genocide sites in Rwanda to the World Heritage Register that remain, and have for some time, on UNESCO’s tentative list.

In particular, I am taken by one of these sites in Rwanda contending for World Heritage Listing – the Kigali Genocide Memorial (KGM). The site acts as the epicentre for genocide memory; it is located in the heart of the capital and is the principal setting for national memory and reconciliation efforts. The role of the memorial is crucial as it acts as a museum, cemetery, memory palace and host for international delegates and diplomats (including UNESCO), whilst incorporating the dead and living in ways that aim to ‘shock.’

The establishment of KGM was thus the culmination of political and social pressures to remember and commemorate the past. Rwandan officials, including mayor Theoneste Mutsindashyaka, approached the UK-based NGO, ‘The Aegis Trust’ to establish and manage the KGM, the National Genocide Archive and subsequently the Rwanda Peace and Education Program. This invitation was the result of an official visit in 2002 by Rwandan delegates to the National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Nottinghamshire, England. Additionally, the Aegis Trust had already established roots in Africa by commissioning the first Holocaust Museum in Cape Town. As such, by the time the KGM was opened in 2004, the Aegis Trust had already established strong connections with Rwandan survivor organisations and government bodies with their UK-based Holocaust Centre and commemorative patterns. Consequently, a deliberate political decision was made to incorporate Holocaust tropes into Rwanda’s official national memory.

Figure 2: ‘Never Again’ memorial on mass graves in the gardens of the KGM, image courtesy of Kigali Genocide Memorial,

Ever since, discourses surrounding Nazi war crimes are strongly reiterated in memory practices and testimonies as well as in political arenas in Rwanda as a means of justifying suffering with a commemorative model already familiar to the international community. This is all the more complicated when read in conjunction with UNESCOs decision in 1979, based on recommendations by ICOMOS, that following the inscription of Auschwitz-Birkenau to the World Heritage Register it was to be the only site of its kind to be inscribed “and to restrict the inscription of other sites of a similar nature” (UNESCO World Heritage Centre). This exclusivity has, unintentionally, promoted a harsh and unjustifiable paradigm of human suffering by encouraging all genocides to be brought in line with the Holocaust – the consequences of which extend far beyond the scope of this blog post.

How does this play out in practice in the case of Rwanda? At the KGM and other regional genocide memorials across Rwanda, the sites are tended to and maintained by the local communities – most, if not all, of which have been affected by the genocide as first-generation survivors. In the wider historic landscape, survivors and perpetrators are forced to forgive and live as neighbours. The country is also scattered with a myriad of formal and informal commemorative sites commissioned and maintained by local communities dedicated to the preservation of memory and the notion of ‘Never Again.’

At the same time Holocaust tropes are actively promoted in both tangible and intangible heritage practices across the country. This is reinforced at the KGM, because its contributors, the Aegis Trust, hold strong roots in Holocaust memory. The Holocaust tropes seem to consume a large degree of (inter)national memory at the cost of local. Scholars such as Rebecca Jinks, Susan Cook, Phil Clark, Sara Guyer and Filip Reyntjens (to name but a few) have considered issues of genocide memory in Rwanda at length and offer nuanced perspectives as to how this dialect between the national and international conscience ought to be treated.

I would argue it is of interest to revisit the Rwandan case in light of the 2011 UNESCO Recommendations on the Historic Urban Landscape. Arguably, the living heritage of Rwanda, whereby survivors and perpetrators are encouraged to invited to forgive and live together harmoniously, make the historic urban landscape of the country one of the most complex and unique case studies of dark living heritage set amongst a convoluted political and social backdrop. Holocaust tropes enforced across the urban and social fabric further complicate the landscape. A Historic Urban Landscape Approach in Rwanda would do well in placing survivors and victims of the genocide at the centre of Rwanda’s living heritage by offering the possibility of recognition to the caretakers of memory, like those who tend to the maintenance of these sites, who have done so silently under onerous political and social conditions. This raises significant questions about the future of the memorial sites like the KGM.

For now, however, I wonder how an HUL approach would look when dissonant Heritage sites are compared with one another and when we complicate this conflict with international tourism. Does an HUL approach invite comparative analysis of genocide in multiple contexts? And if it does, how do we leave space for alterity and context? Whilst a landscape approach assumes a greater periphery of humanity, further research needs to be completed as to how to treat such a scope in relation to genocide heritage and an inevitable comparative model of suffering. Certainly, there is much to learn when comparing heritage contexts cross-continental, however, there must be limits to these comparisons and to the landscape periphery before the focus is lost on the people and community that informs the unique living heritage of a particular landscape. If it cannot, genocide memorials like the KGM are at significant risk of becoming shrines of the past, that pay homage to constructed political discourses at the expense of memory. In other words, these sites remain as liéux de memoire (Nora, 1984).

Whilst sites such as the KGM remain critical memory palaces in the local and international conscience, consideration must be paid to applying an HUL Approach that recognises and complies with the alterity of human experience. In sites of atrocity, whether it be the KGM or Auschwitz, human suffering ought not be compared. Commemorative Heritage in these sites represent precisely the tension Nora describes between history and memory that go on to produce and restate liéux de memoire – ‘moments of history torn away from the movement of history, then returned; no longer quite live, not yet death, like shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded.’(Nora, 1984, p. 12) The question is then, how we reconcile these sites between life and death  – between history and memory – if indeed such a feat exists.


About the author​

Georgie Sullivan is a student of Urban and Cultural Heritage at the University of Melbourne, Australia. This Blog post is inspired by a study visit to Rwanda in 2015 and based on her participation in the Heriland Blended Intensive Programme on “Cultural Heritage and the Planning of European Landscapes”, October 2022.

Contact Georgie Sullivan:

About the Heriland Blended Intensive Programme​

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