Investigating Africa’s Shoah
A Rwandan director is using a drama about Auschwitz to explore the parallels between the Holocaust and the genocide in his homeland. As the play opens in London, he talks to John Nathan
HISTORY HAS witnessed many genocides, though only one Holocaust. Apart from f a s c i s t s y mpathisers, and the occasional Iranian president, this has been the generally accepted view since the Second World War. But since 1994, when an estimated 800,000 people were murdered in Rwanda in just over three months, it has become increasingly possible to use the word Holocaust in connection with another atrocity.
Some reports put the total number of those murdered in Rwanda at over a million. The rate of killing is comparable to that of Auschwitz. And it is to Peter Weiss’s play The Investigation — which is based on the Auschwitz war crimes trials that took place in Frankfurt in 1964 — that Rwandan theatre director and actor Dorcy R u g a m b a has turned to better understand the atrocity suffered by his country, his people and his family.
“I wanted to see how, it is possible to have justice after genocide,” says the quietly-spoken Rugamba in French through an interpreter. He was 24 when, in April 1994, his parents and six of his siblings were killed in their family home. Rugamba survived because his father, a writer and composer, had sent him on an errand to his aunt’s house in another town.
Weiss’s verbatim play, first seen in this country in 1965 in a production directed by Peter Brook, was taken from the transcripts of the Frankfurt war crimes trial which was set up in 1964 specifically for the crimes committed in Auschwitz. The trial brought survivors face-to-face with their persecutors.
In Rwanda most of the killing was done by the Hutus; most of the dying, by Tutsis. And although the differences between German and Hutu atrocities are clear, so are the parallels, the main one being that, like the Jews, the Tutsis were singled out for annihilation.
These days the Rwandan legal system cannot cope with the number of crimes. So special trials called Gacaca (pronounced “Gachacha”) have been formed throughout the country. Survivors bring their testimony; defendants make their rebuttals or give their excuses.
“It’s always very animated,” explains Rugamba who took his production to the Rwandan capital Kigali prior to the current run at London’s Young Vic.
With his play Rwanda ’94, Rugamba had made an earlier attempt to deal with the genocide on stage, but the production was given a mixed reception by the Rwandan public.
“People would not come to the show for fear of being accused,” says the director. “When Rwandans watched The Investigation, they said: ‘Ah Gacaca!’ But this trial [in The Investigation] is not accusing anyone [in Rwanda]. It is one thing to get survivors to talk about their experience. It is another thing to get the killers to talk.”
One of similarities that struck Rugamba was the way in which the defendants in both atrocities reacted when faced by their accusers.
“In The Investigation, the arguments of the killers are exactly the same as the arguments of the Rwandan killers in today’s trials,” he says.
“A lot of people would say: ‘It was orders, our country was in danger, there had to be sacrifices’ and ‘we also suffered’.
“And as well as using a similar defence, there were a similar attitudes when they committed the crimes. Many were in euphoric state of mind as they killed. In Rwanda, they also laughed.”
Underlying Rugamba’s production, which has been cut down from Weiss’s five-hour original to a more manageable 90-minutes, is the question of how, after the Holocaust, another genocide was allowed to happen. Ignorance of other peoples’ stories plays a part, says Rugamba.
“The hardest thing for me to understand, apart from my parents dying, was that the young people who killed them were my friends. Childhood friends who I had known all my life. Peo- ple knew that there had been a Jewish genocide in the Second World War. But it was just a line in a history book. They knew nothing about what happened, and why it happened. We didn’t even understand the meaning of the word ‘genocide’ — that it meant something different from the word ‘war’.”
But staging The Investigation is not only a way of helping Rwandans understand their own genocide. Rugamba also wants to broaden the horizons of his countrymen and women.
“If we want our story to be a universally understood, we must also understand the universal stories of other people,” says the director.
And does he believe that with Jewish and Tutsi experience has taught the world how to avoid another genocide? Rugamba’s answer is sad and unhesitating. “No.” The Investigation is at the Young Vic until November 10. Tel: 020 7922 2922; www.youngvic.org. The Human Cost, an evening of reminiscence and song, with contributions from Holocaust survivors, takes place on November 4.
Rugamba ( second right) in a previous production of The Investigation
Theatre director and genocide survivor Dorcy Rugamba: lessons need to be learned from history if another Holocaust is to be avoided, he says