A few years ago, I found myself in the middle of the Mekong River headed for the remote village of Ban Pak Nguey in Northern Laos. For seven hours, I meandered on a long wooden boat decked with chairs from old minivans, slipping deeper into a rugged landscape softened by silky waters and the envelopment of a milky red smog—the byproduct of slashing and burning the fields that time of year. Meanwhile, fishermen in long canoes with hand-held motors propelled effortlessly past our slow-moving mass.
This April, Rwandans mourned the 25th anniversary of the country’s genocide. As part of the larger Rwandan civil war, the genocide itself lasted 100 days and resulted in the murders of almost 1,000,000 Rwandans, constituting 70% of the country’s Tutsi population. The genocide proved to be a highly organized and systematic process of ethnic extermination. For 100 days, the world stood by silently and the international community failed to establish peace.
25 years later, Rwanda is on a better path. After the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) seized the capital and effectively ended the genocide and civil war in 1994, a national government was installed under the leadership of the RPF. For 20 of the past 25 years, rebel leader-turned-president Paul Kagame has been leading Rwanda’s political reform. Despite being under the leadership of a multi-term president who has been known to be one of the most merciless in Africa, Rwanda seems to be prospering. The country is also healing from its past, as it is successfully achieving economic and social development.
As a result of the country’s trauma, art has emerged as a unique factor in the healing process. Rwanda’s Ubumuntu Arts Festival was established in 2015 with the mission of promoting civic dialogue through the arts. Essentially, the festival seeks to promote the nation’s healing by fostering participation from global artists and local citizens. A participant of Rwanda’s Ubumuntu Arts Festival affirmed, “‘When language fails us, art expresses what we feel.’” When there are few words to describe the horrors of genocide, the community turns to art as a means of conveying their deepest, unfiltered emotions.
Art is crucial to keeping the memory of the past alive. Through artistic expression, stories and experiences are told and retold so that the world does not forget the gravity of the events that occurred 25 years ago. In this way, art sheds a light on the darkness of tragedy and perpetuates those memories while also allowing healing. It is both a remembrance of the victims as well as a haunting reminder of the reality and persisting threat of horrendous war crimes.
In the years since the Rwandan genocide, the United Nations (U.N.) has created the Office on the Prevention of Genocide to protect citizens of a nation when their government fails to do so. This U.N. office attempts to raise awareness by providing the definitions of war crimes as well as prevention and response methods. In 2012, the United States created its own interagency board that emphasizes war crimes as its highest concern.
This April also marks the 27th anniversary of the Siege of Sarajevo, which signaled the beginning of the Bosnian War. Like Rwanda, the war itself is considered an international peace-keeping failure, as the conflict was marred by numerous war crimes and human rights abuses. Most notably, however, was the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. The massacre was one of the worst atrocities witnessed on European soil since World War Two, with more than 8,000 ethnic Bosniak Muslims killed in what was supposed to be a U.N. safe zone. But it all began in Sarajevo.
At the start of the Siege, Sarajevo was bombarded by mortar shells and other artillery fire. As a result, the mortars left behind countless craters. Today, 200 mortar scars on city roads have been maintained, filled with resin, and preserved. The Sarajevo Roses are Bosnia’s unique memorials in remembrance to the Siege and the subsequent war that engulfed the country. Scattered throughout the city streets and sidewalks, the Roses seem to mimic intrusive weeds that sprout out of the cracks in the pavement. They serve as a constant reminder—to pedestrians and on-lookers—that merely 27 years ago, the city was besieged by mortar fire and reduced to rubble.
One does not have to walk through a museum or a national monument to pay respect to the war—the Roses are ever-present beneath pedestrians’ feet. Because of the numerous craters throughout the city, it becomes difficult to forget what caused them. To international observers, the Roses should not only signify the start of the Bosnian War, but also the inhumanities that continued well after the shelling of the capital. Though Sarajevo has since transformed itself into the economic hub of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Roses highlight that the wounds of past transgressions are still visible. We can attempt to heal them, but for the sake of the future, we can never forget.
Interestingly enough, the Cambodian Genocide and Armenian Genocide also commemorate their 44th and 104th anniversaries, respectively, in April. Similarly to Rwanda and Sarajevo, both the Cambodian and Armenian communities have used art to remember their victims and preserve the memory of past atrocities. Art is a powerful means of engaging with wounds from the past. It allows us to process our emotions in a creative manner, as not all feelings can be easily verbalized. The art of healing is two-fold; it reconciles the souls of survivors and begs remembrance from witnesses. Despite the horrors witnessed during war, countries have healed from their dark pasts through artistic expression and have also taken the global initiative to ensure that such atrocities are not committed again.