The Kiyovu sites are located in the Town of Kigali. Click on the image for a slideshow of photographs. All photographs © 2002-2008 Jens Meierhenrich.

When Monique, who is 62 years old, steps through a former roadblock these days in her neighborhood of Kiyovu Cya Abacyene, in Rwanda‘s capital city, Kigali, she does so almost blindly. That is because where a barrier was hastily erected in April 1994— to stop refugees fleeing to perceived safety up the hill at Sainte Famille Church—is now just another footpath etched by seasons of rain, and made of tamped-down gravel and dirt the color of rust. Where once roadblocks were ubiquitous, now there is nothing special to see, nothing to hold back Monique (not her real name) or anyone else. But as she says, “I avoid the former places of roadblocks when I can. Before the genocide I had seven children. Now I have three; where are the rest? Since I have no one to take care of me, sometimes I need to walk around rather than sit at home doing nothing.”

This spring it will be sixteen years since genocide cut across the country like a machete—the principal “traditional” weapon and symbol by which the disbelieving world came to recognize Rwanda. And there were roadblocks staggered throughout tiny Rwanda, several thousand of them east to west, north to south. Some dozen of these makeshift structures were positioned treacherously around Kiyovu Cya Abacyene in an area smaller than half a square mile

Whatever their purported “security” purpose they were commandeered oftentimes by thugs who either brutally killed on the spot ethnic Tutsi (or those who looked that way) or disingenuously steered them to their fate at a church such as Sainte Famille. Of course, these roadblocks—as both gateways and as theaters of life and its opposite—are now long gone, the locations reverted to normal functions as street corners, quiet lanes, and roads leading to Kigali‘s prosperous downtown, its distant whine of vehicular traffic as constant as a mosquito in Kiyovu Cya Abacyene (the name means Kiyovu of the Poor). As Monique and other survivors of genocide try to explain, however, the absence of these heinous structures does not come as a relief but as a feral reminder: Traversing the invisible thresholds every day makes them remember what they do not have.

Paul (not his real name), a man who heads the local branch of IBUKA, a survivors‘ association, says, “My home is Kiyovu Cya Abacyene. There were roadblocks everywhere around here. I still pass by where the roadblocks used to be most of the time. What goes through my mind is: genocide, that is how it is! I used to live with eight people and now I‘m alone. Let me tell you this, for me as the years pass, I think even more of the genocide and all that happened.”

What exactly was a roadblock? The late André Sibomana, a Roman Catholic priest and journalist who survived the atrocities, reflected that such a barrier was “a small pile of stones in the middle of the road and a big pile of bodies on the side of the road. At the roadblocks a handful of militiamen, drunk or on drugs, watched as pedestrians and drivers approached, cheered on by onlookers, women and children who had come to encourage them. Each person had to show their identity card—a sentence of death for those whose documents contained the word ‘Tutsi.’ It was also a sentence of death for those who pretended they didn‘t have one or who had genuinely lost it. And a sentence of death for those whose documents bore the precious inscription ‘Hutu’ (or ‘Twa’), but whose skin was a bit too light, who were a bit too tall or whose necks were a bit too long. Soon it became a sentence of death for anyone who looked suspiciously at the militiamen, for those who didn‘t pay up, for children who were wandering around aimlessly and whose existence was useless in the eyes of militiamen. As you can see, the word ‘roadblock’ became synonymous with hell.”

Roadblocks first served as way stations for the killing of Tutsi two years prior to the genocidal carnage, according to African Rights, a non-governmental organization with long experience in Rwanda. Testimony in multiple cases presented before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, also lays bare their inevitability. Angeline, a lady who tends the flowers in one of Rwanda‘s hundreds of memorials to genocide victims, told us the key to her survival was to avoid roadblocks by moving about only at night, under the absolute cover of darkness.

To what extent were roadblocks part of an interlocking, coordinated system? According to Human Rights Watch‘s definitive account of the atrocities, Leave None to Tell the Story—its principal author was Alison Des Forges, who perished in the Buffalo, NY airplane crash on February 12, 2009—the recruitment, scheduling, and placement of barriers was not capricious but the result of deliberate planning by local Rwandan authorities, who extended civil defense programs that began when war first broke out on October 1, 1990. Such bureaucratic machinery—Rwanda‘s banality of evil—is difficult to reconcile with the carnivalesque atmosphere of laughing, jeering, and even dancing that witnesses say prevailed at the barriers.

In Kiyovu Cya Abacyene the roadblocks were similarly various and nefarious. The defining line between life and death at what is today a major juncture was just a thin red rope. A few hundred yards away, a gang loitering in front of a blue gate used their own bodies as means of obstruction. On an ordinary stretch of road next to what is now a kiosk selling beverages and sundries, a witness recalls, Interahamwe militia intercepted three young Tutsi men; before killing them, the militia first humiliated them by parading them through the capital city in the back of a vehicle, forcing them to sing, “We are inyenzi” (“We are cockroaches”). Each was then shot dead in front of his own house. Afterward, it is said, the killers used the decomposing body of one victim as the roadblock, dragging the corpse by its limbs into and out of the street, as needed, over a four-day period.

Further away at the top of a long slope, the open veranda of a small house—its concrete floor nowadays a tranquil setting on a sunny afternoon—was revealed after the genocide to contain the graves of several women slaughtered after escaping from the nearby quarter of Kacyiru heading for what they believed was refuge at Sainte Famille Church. Despite the memorials to the atrocities of 1994 that have arisen in Rwanda at churches, schools, and government buildings such as police stations, and in fields, there are none in Kiyovu Cya Abacyene or elsewhere to mark the perhaps most predominant and unnerving sites of memory, this spoiled ground where roadblocks used to be.

Whether the anguish of Monique and Paul—she entering the thickets of old age, he poised at the peak of adulthood—will change is doubtful. In the overarching plans for the Kigali known as Vision 2020, their neighborhood is slated for demolition—that is to say, development—along with the rest of Muhima quarter where it resides. The Vision, according to Rwanda‘s Ministry of Finance, seeks to fundamentally transform Rwanda into a middle-income country by the year 2020. Where in Kiyovu Cya Abacyene there are now hovels, canteens, little courtyards, and the silent specter of former barriers there will be built, at an uncertain time that is nonetheless approaching, apartment houses “like in foreign countries,” says Paul. The current residents must relocate, only no one seems to know yet where they are going, or when. “I was told that they want to build flats, that is all,” says Monique, visibly distressed. “How do I know when they will start?”

Already a swath of hillside in Kiyovu Cya Abacyene has been turned into rubble. Last year, the bones of several people killed during the genocide, who lay twistedly underground for fifteen years, were brought to light not by confessions of the guilty but by the dull, roaring work of Caterpillars. But what happens to memory when ground is disturbed? When the landscape is altered—dug up, kneaded, buffed, and polished—what stays behind? Where does memory go?

Copyright © 2010 Jens Meierhenrich. All rights reserved.