Talking to Julia Viebach, Rwandan memorial researcher

Julia Viebach received her PhD from Philipps-University of Marburg, where she held a position as research fellow. Her doctoral research explored how societies remember their past after massive violence, and how they transform a traumatic rupture evoked by this violent experience. Focused on the case of Rwanda, her thesis is both an empirical enquiry into memorialisation and transitional justice in Rwanda, as well as the development of a broader theoretical concept of how societies deal with an uncanny past.julia.viebach

In 2013, she was appointed a postdoctoral fellow in an Economic and Social Research Council-funded project on “Ways of Knowing Atrocity.” In May 2014, she began a Career Development Lectureship Position in Oxford followed by a new postdoctoral position starting beginning of 2015. Her new postdoctoral project, funded by the UK Leverhulme Trust Fund, will enable her to continue her work on Rwanda for the upcoming three years. Her project “Atrocity’s Archives: The Remnants of Transitional Justice” will compare the archival documents of the Gacaca courts and those of the ICTR (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda). She has been conducting research in Rwanda since 2008.


GAR: Tell me about your work.

JV: I started my research on Rwanda in 2008, first exploring issues pertaining to development aid. After my first fieldwork trip, I started to wonder how people are able to live together after such a violent rupture as the genocide was. In turn, my interest shifted to Rwandan memorials and the annual commemoration. While the Gacaca courts and the work of the ICTR have been in the spotlight ever since they took up their work, the memorials and commemoration have been widely neglected in the practice and theory of transitional justice.

So, I decided to write a PhD on that topic. Between 2011 and 2014, I explored the Rwandan memorials and the commemoration, particularly from a survivor perspective. I was and still am interested in what ways survivors come to terms with the genocide through memorials and commemoration and the meaning-making of memory for the future.

I will hopefully publish my book on the memorials next year.


GAR: How did you first become interested in Rwanda?

JV: I first became interested in Rwanda at University; I had and still have a strong peace and conflict studies background, and Rwanda was a case often referred to in my courses. I started reading loads of books on it and then decided that I want to write my PhD on Rwanda. I’m hoping to contribute to a better understanding of the legacies of the genocide and its impact on Rwanda today.


GAR: What is the role of the researcher in peace building? Do you see your work as documenting peace building and conflict resolution efforts or contributing to them?

JV: This is a difficult question. As a researcher you do not make peace, but you help to understand – through engaging with the people on the ground – its pitfalls, challenges and best practices. It’s more than just documenting, but also delivering empirical foundations for a better and deeper understanding of the processes on the ground. This in turn may lead to direct actions based on research – though this always depends on the political circumstances and the willingness of actors and institutions to act upon it.


GAR: What role do archives – particularly the GAR – play in your work?

JV: They play a big role – not only for my work, but for a post-conflict society as such. Archives preserve the memory of a violent past for future generations and may help a better understanding of past crimes and how they have been addressed. They are related to the United Nations principles of the right to know and the duty to remember.

The GAR plays a particularly important role for my work since it combines

survivor and perpetrator testimonies, in written form and as audio; it documents the geographical sites of the memorials and will host the Gacaca archives. This is a massive contribution to preserving the memory of the genocide, but also the ways it has been dealt with.


GAR: What new roles might archives play in the future that they are not playing right now?

JV: I think the archives we know right now are less related to mass violence and genocide, and particularly to the ways these have been addressed in post-conflict societies. Since transitional justice is a fairly new concept that has gained dominance over the last 20 years or so, we now witness increasingly the end of transitional justice processes such as for example the Gacaca courts, the ICTR, the ICTY etc. Thus, the archives will not only shed light on the violent deeds of the past but also on the mechanisms that have tried to fight impunity and re-install accountability. With that in mind, the role they will play in the future is particularly related to assessing the transitional justice mechanisms put in place and in what ways they narrate different stories about mass atrocities opposed to those we already know through other means. This is what I will work on during my Leverhulme Trust fellowship.


GAR: What do you think the world should understand about the Rwandan genocide and its memorialization that it doesn’t understand now?

JV: The world has a very superficial view on Rwandan memorials that is particularly characterised by making cultural references to how memorialisation should or should not be. The world has mainly decided the Rwandan memorials are not good. What they should know is there are many layers to be unpacked when talking about and understanding Rwandan memorials. For the survivors I talked to and the care-takers at memorials, these sites are places to find peace, to come to terms with their traumatic experiences, places to re-make what has been lost, to undo what has been smashed; they are sites of meaning-making, to find dignity and respect for the dead. It is time for the world to acknowledge this.


GAR: For those who don’t know much about Rwandan memorials, can you explain why they have been criticized?

JV: Contestations arise with regard to the exposure of human remains such as bones, skulls and even entirely preserved dead bodies. It is also criticised that the memorials are re-traumatising and are not embedded in Rwandan burial culture. Before the genocide, people were mostly buried on their relatives’ ground – in the banana plantation etc; the dead were never exposed or displayed — solely in some cases for vigils and death-watch. As to the latter, my interviewees pointed out that genocide wasn’t part of Rwandan culture either and given its scale new ways had to be found to bury people and to commemorate the dead. The genocide was experienced as such a drastic rupture in culture that cultural frames had to be changed.


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