Remembering Rwanda: MSU commemorates genocide, plans events for change

April 16, 2019

Early April through mid-July 1994 marked a tragic event in history: The beginning of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, which saw losses of more than a million lives, mostly minority Tutsi killed by the majority Hutu populations.

The city of Kigali, Rwanda, as seen from a hillside.
Kigali, Rwanda (Photo: Laura Apol)

Today, 25 years later, although the recovery of Rwanda has been impressive, the scars are prevalent across the country. Genocide memorial sites—sites where atrocious acts of genocide took place—remain as places to honor and remember the lives lost.

Michigan State University is part of the U.S. efforts to help remember these events and provide a place for healing. Among them is a new 360° immersive film, “Sites of Memory,” which debuted on April 9 in the MSU Libraries. College of Education Associate Professor Laura Apol serves as the writer and narrator for the visualization exhibit, which recognizes seven genocide memorial sites and is used not only to reflect, but also to look ahead to where visitors may see parallels in our contemporary world. Apol, who has been engaged with work in Rwanda for more than a decade, hopes that the film also acts as a source of change.

Laura Apol speaks during the opening of the “Sites of Memory” film. (Photo: MSU Libraries)

“This film is important for acknowledgement … for recognizing the costs of not understanding we are part of a larger world. What we do, and all of our lives, are interconnected. I hope people recognize global happenings in the past and in the present that require not only empathy, but activism and change,” Apol said.

“Because for as many times as we say ‘never again,’ to genocide … it has happened again, and it continues to happen.”

Apol’s work in Rwanda has included poetry, research publications and working directly in and with schools. In particular, she worked with Rwandans to utilize writing for healing. Through workshops, Apol and survivors worked together to explore trauma, but look ahead to the future with hope and purpose.

Kigali Genocide Memorial (a courtyard with plants), and Kigali, Rwanda in the background.
Kigali Genocide Memorial, the final resting place of more than 250,000 victims of the genocide against the Tutsi. (Photo: Laura Apol)

In addition to narrating the 360° film, she is part of a film screening and panel discussion with MSU leaders on April 16. The film, “Keepers of Memory,” includes personal accounts of those who help protect sites of memory, and looks at Rwanda 25 years ago, and now.

For Apol and others, these events serve as a reflection on humanity, on life, on loss. Rwanda—the country, the people, its history and its resilience—has made a significant impact on Apol’s life. It has “changed all the ways I have done things [since beginning my work there],” she says. And, it gives participants at MSU a connective thread as we consider ways to enact change in our world.

The Nyange Memorial site is outdoors. Several grave sites can be seen in the shot through a chain-link fence. Flowers and trees surround, with bricks and other building structure elements lying nearby.
Nyange Memorial Site, where a church was bulldozed at the instructions of a priest while congregants were still inside. In the photo, bricks and the outline of the building can be seen. The church has never been rebuilt. (Photo: Laura Apol)

“This is about our own humanity,” Apol says. “It’s about our collective responsibility for one another in a global society, and it’s about recognizing what is at risk when we ignore the steps that lead to genocide. If we think it’s not important, that it’s not our responsibility, that it cannot happen again or can never happen to us—it is at our own peril.”

Events regarding remembering the Rwandan genocide will be held throughout the month of April at MSU.

More from Apol

Apol’s work with Rwanda continues. She recently received a Humanities and Arts Research Program (HARP) grant for a new book: “Whose Poem is it Anyway? The Challenge and Responsibility of Poet as Scholar and Witness.”

The book will be a collaborative work with colleagues in Rwanda to address what happens when art meets research. Apol will work with participants to address how relationships, scholarship and even art is transformed as they interconnect.

The work is related to, and the “final stage” of previous HARP-funded work, from which Apol published “Requiem, Rwanda,” (Michigan State University Press, 2015). The book was later, with additional HARP funding, translated into Kinyarwanda for Rwandan readers.

MSU scholar Kenneth Waltzer wrote in the forward to the “Requiem, Rwanda” collection: “[It is a] meditation in poetry form on the Rwandan genocide and its legacy, together with [Apol’s] notes and commentary on her witness during and after the years she taught testimony writing in Rwanda.”