Religion & Jewish Life

Shoah Foundation gathers stories of Rwandan genocide

LOS ANGELES (The Jewish Journal) — The USC Shoah Foundation Institute is home to more than 52,000 videotaped testimonies about the Holocaust, and people searching the archive’s index enter a single keyword into their queries more than any other: “Auschwitz.”

“Auschwitz seems to be the one that people go to most,” said Crispin Brooks, curator of the foundation’s visual history archive.

Likewise, people tend to focus on dark topics when accessing the archive of videotaped testimonies at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center (KGMC) in Rwanda’s capital, which is dedicated to preserving and disseminating memories of that country’s genocide. Among the center’s holdings is an archive of recordings of survivors, perpetrators, rescuers and others telling of their experiences during the 100-day period in 1994 when 800,000 members of Rwanda’s Tutsi population were massacred by Hutu militias.

“Mainly they want to know the way people were killed,” said Diogene Mwizerwa, 29, an indexer at KGMC.

About 80,000 people visit KGMC every year, most of them to pay respects to the more than 250,000 Rwandan genocide victims whose bodies are buried in 14 mass graves on the site. But those visitors also include students and scholars interested in consulting the Rwandan genocide testimonies that are currently housed there.

Thanks to a new partnership between the Shoah Foundation Institute and KGMC, some of the Rwandan testimonies soon will become much more widely accessible and searchable.

Since mid-October, Mwizerwa and three other KGMC staffers have been in residence at the Shoah Foundation Institute in Los Angeles. The four fellows, who are all survivors of the genocide, are part of a recently announced joint effort between the two centers that will also expand the Shoah Foundation’s archive to include 50 new testimonies about the Rwandan experience.

“We are not trying to compare human suffering,” Stephen D. Smith, the foundation’s executive director, said, adding that there are also plans to incorporate voices from the Cambodian and Armenian genocides into the archive in the near future. “What we’re trying to do is document each of these experiences with depth and dignity.”

The new Rwandan testimonies, all conducted in Kinyarwanda, will be translated and subtitled into English. As part of this $500,000 project, they will become part of the Shoah archive by the end of 2012, making them accessible in part via the Internet, and in full at 32 locations around the world.

Karen Jungblut, the foundation’s director of research and documentation, who is directly responsible for the Rwanda project, also has worked with groups of archivists from Cambodia in the past.

“The mission of Shoah has always been, ‘To overcome prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry — and the suffering they cause — through the educational use of the foundation’s visual history testimonies,’ ” said Jungblut, who started out as an indexer in 1996, just two years after the foundation was founded by Steven Spielberg, and 10 years before it moved its archive to the University of Southern California, in 2006, to become the USC Shoah Foundation Institute. “At that time, it was a conscious decision not to say ‘Holocaust testimony,’ with the view that it would open the door to including testimonies of survivors of genocides other than the Holocaust.”

To make the videos of Rwandan testimonies searchable for scholars in the way the Shoah archive’s testimonies of the Holocaust already are, they need to be indexed in the same way.

For the last few weeks, Mwizerwa and his colleagues have been working with Brooks and other Shoah staff to learn the process, starting with learning how to use the proprietary computer program that Shoah indexers used to attach keywords to specific segments of Holocaust testimonies.

On Nov. 10, Brooks led the Rwandan fellows through a segment of one Holocaust survivor’s testimony from the Shoah archive. In the upper-left-hand corner of Brooks’ computer screen, Peter Hersch, a Central European Jewish survivor who migrated to Australia after the Holocaust, could be seen describing a particularly vicious kapo, a prisoner who had authority over other prisoners, whom he encountered while imprisoned in Auschwitz.

The rest of the screen was full of drop-down menus and boxes. Using the mouse, Brooks could rapidly click and double-click on the menus and boxes to attach keyword tags to the Holocaust survivor’s story on a minute-by-minute basis.

“So we have the name of the kapo, and the ‘forced labor’ terms,” Brooks said, stopping the recording, “but I added in ‘forced labor conditions,’ because it definitely felt like, early on, he was describing what the conditions were like doing this forced labor.”

Distinctions between the more than 10,000 keywords in the Shoah’s database are very nuanced — “camp deaths” is not the same as “camp suicides,” “camp killings,” “camp executions” or “camp corpses” — and some keywords are specifically related to the Holocaust experience.

So, before the Rwandan fellows can index the testimonies about the 1994 genocide, they will first have to create a new set of keywords — a process that will require that they put themselves into the positions of the information’s end-users.

“How did you survive? That means how did you hide until the end,” said KGMC Archive Manager Yves Kamuronsi, 30, explaining why “hiding” would be one of the more commonly used keywords attached to the testimonies of Rwandan survivors.

The index will be crucial to the usefulness of the archive. Before joining KGMC, another fellow, Paul Rukesha, 33, spent one year working with the traditional Gacaca Courts that were set up after the Rwandan genocide to try perpetrators. Researchers, he said, shouldn’t have to go through three hours of testimony to get to the information they’re looking for.

“You want to be as perfect as possible, as accurate as possible, because indexing, for me, is all about time management for the researchers,” he said.

In addition to asking how people were killed, Kamuronsi said, visitors to KGMC also ask about other topics — like reconciliation or forgiveness — albeit less often.

That’s likely to change, Kamuronsi said.

“I’m imagining that, let’s say, 40 years after genocide, I think people will be asking different questions,” he said. “We will be asking ourselves different questions.”

By comparison to the Holocaust, Rwanda’s genocide is still recent history to many —  and especially so in the country itself, where people who once would have been identified as either Tutsi or Hutu now live side by side but are prohibited from using those group names in many contexts.

The very words “Tutsi” and “Hutu” started off as Rwandan cultural designations but took on far greater importance during the colonial and post-colonial periods, after the colonizers empowered the Tutsi minority to exercise authority over the country.

The mass killing of Tutsis by members of Rwanda’s majority Hutu population can be traced directly back to this distinction — and today, usage of the terms in Rwanda is banned in many situations. But, for the purposes of the index, the terms will be used.

“If you say, ‘Tutsis and Hutus,’ ” Kamuronsi said, “it’s fine. But if you say, ‘You are not allowed into here because you are Hutu or Tutsi,’ you will be punished, because you are discriminating against someone based on who you know he is.”

“Frankly speaking, people still have that kind of perception, of Tutsis and Hutus, in their minds,” said Rukesha, who trained in sociology at the National University of Rwanda. “And you can’t stop them from perceiving that issue like that.”

Some survivors, Rukesha said, consider all Hutus as enemies. But though he works at KGMC, he does not see it as part of his mission to change that perception.

“My mission is to index,” Rukesha said. “And to index is not to interpret the history; it’s just to facilitate you as a journalist, as a researcher, to focus on a certain issue you want to work on.”

This kind of compartmentalization was common to all indexers — no matter which group of testimonies they were working with.

“We have to forget the other things and focus on this,” Martin Niwenshuti, 34, said.

“You have to know how to deal with emotions,” Rukesha said. “You do some relaxation techniques.”

“You take a break,” Brooks said.

Rukesha nodded. “You drink some water.”