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

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

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; 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

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